Prison Theater & the Transformative Power of the Performing Arts
Theater has the power to change lives. This is particularly evident when producing theater in a prison environment. The nature of the venue encourages what many thrifty theater companies must always do—accomplish the impossible—with a tiny budget and devoted individuals. At the Northeast Correctional Center (NECC) in Bowling Green, Missouri, one of the three prisons I work in as Interim Artistic Director for St. Louis’ Prison Performing Arts (PPA), we gathered 30 interested inmates for a production of Quick Brewed Macbeth, a one-act adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy written by myself and co-writer Andrew Michael Neiman. A third of our workshop fellows were returning participants with experience doing plays, some had scattered experience back in school, and the rest were interested partakers, many of whom had never acted. This is the kind of group I love directing, for building an ensemble from a wide range of experience is in my teaching-artist wheelhouse.
When it works, performing a play with a group you hardly know initially, is a life-changing process. Within prison, the greatest accomplishment of play-making is developing the skills and communication necessary to create an Ensemble. For inmates rehabilitating their lives, it can be profoundly transformative. Sharing a meaningful time of discovery, and realizing you have colleagues and a support system, can be a revelation to incarcerated men doing a play, often, for the very first time.
For many prisoners, being able to give voice to your soul is liberating. Therefore, a theater process, where artistic risk is permissible and then, effectively, clearly communicated, is healing; and a building block for self-esteem and collaboration. Passion in prison has to be saved, indeed—monitored and quarantined by structure—into the humble process of rehabilitation. In a prosperous play, the embodiment and the generated energy of action and emotion is welcomed—placed consciously inside an environment where relational fireworks are essential and expected. Actors and audiences must agree to enter an imaginative world where permission is granted to be dangerous, brutal, treasonous and criminal; because actions are placed within the context of a crafted story which is safely staged to then ask the most important questions about our humanity. We are not hurt beyond the emotional moments of reaction to the well-constructed drama. Together, we are given encouragement to examine our potential for danger and vulnerability, and this often brings us as close as we ever feel to being connected to the world’s human family.
Lit by florescent light and with a very simple design, this all-male cadre of artists in Bowling Green, Missouri lifted the production away to their vision of Scotland. Audiences were compelled to journey deeply into a classic story so fresh and alive, one audience member commented: “There was nothing Quick-Brewed about that—I know this play well and everything was there and in 60 minutes. For the life of me I couldn’t tell what was cut.”
Quick-Brewed treats the witches as the transitional voices who unfold the plot. They also knit the play together, busy throughout; popping in to prophesize, then eavesdropping, identifying time, place, and action, all the while delighting us with a taunting point of view in trochaic tetrameter. In the original production, Comédia half-masks identified the three weird sisters and were exchanged freely between five actors throughout the play.
In this new prison staging, a quartet of unmasked hags was played by bearded men of various ages and sizes. Banquo’s description took on new dimension:
“…you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.”
In one of those “Ah, Ha!” rehearsal moments we all realized: Shakespeare’s line, written around 1604, was intended to make his all-male, bearded actors, credible—and to wink at the audience. We figured the Globe’s young and clean-shaven apprentices were probably busy playing Malcolm, Donaldbain and Ladies Macbeth and Macduff, so a few of the older men were assigned the Weird Sisters.
The NECC witches took delighted charge of motoring the story—asking to be blocked in whenever possible, hence, they were onstage most of the play; narrating, watching and augmenting the action—for example, by puppeteering the hovering knife Macbeth “hallucinates” in his imagination as he proclaims:
“Is this a dagger I see before me”.
The emotional vulnerability brought on by Macbeth’s temptation, ambition, loss and regret were felt strongly by the cast. The first sessions of table work were filled with interrogations—about Lady Macbeth pushing her husband to murder the beloved King Duncan; Macbeth’s weakness and unquenched ambition; his dreams and greed; and, his addiction to the prophetic encouragement of those around him; all these circumstances were empathized with. The central question in the play resounded in every scene: “Do we decide to murder, commit treason or face an enemy we know might cause our own demise, or does the Universe?” Are lives determined only by human choices, or, are we fated—driven by mystical and divine forces beyond our control? Fate, fear, choice and regret permeated the air of our rehearsal space.
Shawn, (the actor I knew would play Macbeth,) and David chimed in wanting to know, “Is it Macbeth’s ultimate decision to kill Duncan? Or, is he driven by the witch’s prophesy—oh, and his wife?” I replied, “That is the question we will answer together as a cast, and when each of us decides, we are to keep it a secret. We must all be certain, but no one else may know what we believe, only that we believe it completely—because, this is ultimately the question the audience must also decide—for themselves. As we read on, Yero, a twenty-something originally from Senegal asked with accent: “Macbeth is battling in his mind what he should do all the time. Can we put his mind onstage?”
With that we soon discovered a trio of Macbeths visually, theatrically, supported the inner life of our tragic protagonist—his questions and conflicts often stated in soliloquy and dialogue. This also gave us two more casting opportunities. Yero played the Questioning Macbeth, David, the Dark Macbeth and Shawn played the central, inner-tormented King, whose cacophonous turmoil of inside-the-mind questioning was placed literally on either side of him.
This embodiment of struggle exemplified the psychological transitions in the language and offered many fascinating stage pictures. In the final scenes as all the witches’ prophesies materialize, acceptance of Macbeth’s confusion and regret prompts him to cast away his questions and emphatic dark urges. As our Macbeth chases the other two Macbeth's offstage he commands:
“…fly, false thanes,
And mingle with the English epicures:
The mind I sway by and the heart I bear
Shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear.”
Macbeth then walked into the final battle alone and almost peaceful—ready to accept either his fate or the human consequences of his action.
In a prison, questions of choice and consequence have a profound resonance. In this setting, life’s most important ideas are pondered with an acute awareness of significance. This incarcerated cast with the silence of understanding, and the words of Shakespeare, realized their performances with a myriad of intricate and personal associations.
Quick Brewed Macbeth offered a road for adding voice to discovery, and validation to the rigor and accomplishment of becoming an Ensemble. In a prison, a place where it is easy to feel alone, these attributes add this important residual to the triumph of making art.
In this guest post, playwright and interim Artistic Director of Prison Performing Arts in St. Louis, Missouri Christopher Limber shares his experience producing Quick Brewed Macbeth at the Northeast Correctional Center, and the transformative power theater can have in a prison environment. Photos by blueShadow Photography. (Originally appearing on Playscripts.com/Blog)