Story and photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
For a couple of hours on an autumn afternoon, a gymnasium at Centinela State Prison (CEN) was transformed into a world-class theater, where professional actors shared William Shakespeare’s art with a group of enthusiastic inmates.
It was the final stop on the “Globe for All” tour in which actors from San Diego’s The Old Globe bring Shakespeare to underserved communities. Before the CEN show, performances were held at senior and veterans centers, a homeless shelter and schools. The idea is to bring Shakespeare to those who might otherwise not experience his work, said Susan Chicoine of The Old Globe.
“Shakespeare wrote for the Groundlings, for the people standing in front of the stage,” she explained. “The whole idea was that it was universal and that art belongs to everybody.”
The actors performed “All’s Well That Ends Well,” a play that’s hard to categorize, as it incorporates strong elements of both tragedy and comedy. The production was bare-bones, with quick costume changes, minimal props and actors portraying multiple parts.
The show was presented in the round, with the actors surrounded on all sides by the audience. And while some might shy away from Shakespeare’s complex language, the actors were able to flawlessly tell the story.
“I sensed a really deep love for theater in these people,” said inmate Scott McEachern. “I’ve heard the name Shakespeare all my life, but I didn’t really know anything about it because I didn’t know who it was or what it was really about.”
The play centers on Helena’s love for Bertram despite their class differences. When the King becomes ill, the poor Helena cures him with her father’s medicine, and in exchange requests that he grant her permission to marry whomever she chooses. He commands Bertram to marry her, but he refuses and it takes a complex scheme to unite the pair.
“I think it was amazing,” a prison official said. “(The inmates) absolutely were engaged. Despite the old English language, despite everything else, they were interested and they listened intently.”
The official said there are numerous benefits to bringing something like this into the prison, and she was happy to welcome The Old Globe for the performance.
“There are so many different reasons to bring arts and theater into prisons,” the official said. “For starters, it does give the inmates something completely different to think about. It gives them an experience they maybe have never had, and definitely an experience that can open their eyes to different things.”
The actors spent time before and after the play, and at intermission, mingling with the audience and answering questions about their profession and the performance. Kushtrim Hoxha, who played the King, said he was excited for the opportunity to perform for the inmates.
“I was very happy to do this for people who don’t have a chance to see something like this,” he said. “These people should, I think, be given a chance to see Shakespeare.”
For many men, this was the first time they saw a Shakespeare play. For several, it was their first time seeing a play, ever. Several shared that experiencing a professional product may inspire inmates to get involved in rehabilitative programs that allow them to create their own art.
“It will probably awaken something in them that they’ve probably never realized was in them, that was dormant,” said inmate Vincent Richardson. “Maybe they might have a desire to go into acting themselves, seeing this. You never know.”