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Shakespeare in San Quentin
"All the world’s a stage," Shakespeare wrote, "and all the men and women merely players." This summer, Assistant Professor of Theatre Aldo Billingslea’s course in "Performing Shakespeare" showed SCU students just how wide and strange that stage truly is, as they took the Bard behind bars for a performance alongside prisoners in San Quentin State Prison.
The performance on July 24 offered some profound lessons in Shakespeare’s themes of freedom and redemption, and SCU senior Ariana Khan has written about the experience in an After Words for the Winter 2006 issue of SCM. Along with Khan, students Katie Fier, Mallory Harper, and Calvin Johnson took the stage with five inmates in San Quentin—for renditions of some of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets and monologues, and scenes from "The Tempest." Here are comments from the students and snapshots of the performances.
Prospero and Caliban
Michael Willis is a 44-year old inmate serving a sentence for burglary. His performance of Jacques’ "Seven Ages of Man" speech from "As You Like It" wowed the audience—and amazed fellow performer Mallory Harper. "His performance was so clear and precise I was awestruck," Harper says. A senior from Omaha, Nebr., Harper took on the role of the sorcerer Prospero for a scene from "The Tempest," with inmate Ronin Holmes playing Caliban. "When Ronin and I were facing off," Harper says, "I really felt the emotion of the scene for the first time." She recounts the way he lunged at her—nearly making her stumble over backwards. "I was almost ready to fight for my daughter's honor," she says.
Heir to the Kingdom of Naples
"Inside it is all about status," says Calvin Johnson. The SCU sophomore from Morton, Texas, is a guard for the Broncos on the basketball court. And in performing scenes from Shakespeare’s magical tale in "The Tempest," he learned a few lessons about perception and reality. "I was expecting these big, rude, disrepectful men who had nothing else better to do than to watch our play," he says. "They were the complete opposite."
Johnson played Ferdinand, the son of Prospero’s enemy, Alonso, who falls in love with Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, played by SCU student Katie Fier. "When I went into the prison, I was nervous," Johnson admits. "Because, if you think about it, they are in there for a reason…. But they got up onstage like it was nothing and were just glowing."
The sorcerer’s daughter
"People in my family criticized me and joked with me about being ignorant," says Katie Fier about performing Shakespeare in San Quentin. The Colorado native played Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, a gentle and compassionate heroine. And while recognizing that the inmates might indeed be guilty of "terrible acts," Fier also gives credence to the perspective shared by Jonathan Gonzales, the education director for the Marin Shakespeare Company, who worked with the inmates in San Quentin. "‘Do people define you by the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?’" Fier recalls Gonzales asking.
"What I was most inspired by," Fier says, "was the courage that these men possessed. Being a person who has made poor decisions in my life as a result of peer pressure and self doubt, I was in awe at how these men could completely overcome all the stifling status issues that exist within the San Quentin environment. The men gave a remarkable performance, letting go of their inhibitions, taking chances, and embracing their characters." For Fier, the most important lesson comes down to keeping education and art programs in prisons. "While these men are in prison for a reason, they are not completely defined by their crime when they are given the opportunity to be a person," she says. "This opportunity is what I believe in. Through these programs, the men are educated, inspired, challenged, and rewarded; they are given the opportunity to be a person (to share, connect, do good, help their peers, and develop healthy relationships). Shakespeare at San Quentin drew out the potential for good that existed within each of these men."
Photos courtesy of Aldo Billingslea.