Inmates rehearse a scene with their adviser.

Inmates work with adviser Lynn Baker to play spirits who foreshadow events to come in “Macbeth.”

Arts-in-Corrections program expands to CSP-Solano

Story and photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer

Actors and audiences have found relevance in William Shakespeare’s words for hundreds of years, and his themes of courage and redemption are being brought to a very unlikely stage – inside the walls of California State Prison-Solano (SOL).

Through the Arts-in-Corrections program, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has brought structured arts programs into state prisons. Facilitated through a partnership with the California Arts Council, Arts-in-Corrections programs include painting, drawing, writing, music, acting and more. Marin Shakespeare Company, which has operated Shakespeare at San Quentin since 2003 and is an Arts-in-Corrections funding recipient, decided to expand the program to the Vacaville prison.

An inmate lets his silly side show during a warm-up. “It relaxes me,” he said of being part of the Shakespeare program. “I’m looking forward to continuing this experience, because I love it. It shows change.”

An inmate lets his silly side show during a warm-up. “It relaxes me,” he said of being part of the Shakespeare program. “I’m looking forward to continuing this experience, because I love it. It shows change.”

Each week, instructors Lesley Currier and Lynn Baker work with two groups of inmates on all aspects of Shakespeare, from interpreting and understanding the text to learning acting techniques. In May, the inmates’ eight months of hard work will pay off when they present “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth” in front of an audience.

“We believe in the power of Arts-in-Corrections,” Currier said. “It gives men an opportunity to express themselves, to work together cooperatively, and to study through Shakespeare some of the deepest human motivations, which then helps us study our own human motivations.”

Most of the men involved in the program have no theater experience, many have never read Shakespeare and for some, English isn’t their first language. Yet they all volunteered to be a part of it, and along the way have discovered themselves to be capable of something great – even if it meant stepping outside their comfort zones.

“This is not something recreational for me,” said inmate Louis Branch. “It’s more therapeutic for myself and I’ve found that coming here is a blessing in disguise. I want to thank you guys for accepting me.”

Men of different ages, races and backgrounds participate in the program, which calls on them to explore different emotions, which many said has been the hardest part for them.

“A lot of times, these characters have to actually be weak,” observed inmate Steve Drown. “But through that weakness, they develop strength.”

Along with traditional acting exercises, such as vocal warm-ups and stage movement, Currier and Baker lead the men in various exercises in trust and expression. During the first class, they broke the ice right away by leading a “trust fall” exercise in which the men had to fall backward and trust the others to catch him – the first of many big steps for the inmates in the program.

Inmates rehearse for the production.

Inmates rehearse for the production.

“Every single time when we come in here, you have slowly not only introduced the book to me, but you’re making us understand what it’s about, and I really appreciate that,” inmate William Dorsey told the instructors. “You really have no idea what you have contributed to us when you come in here. There are some of us who really will — and have — changed our lives in a positive manner.”

In addition to providing an atmosphere of positive creativity, Arts-in-Corrections classes also contribute to safer prisons, as inmates are learning to collaborate in a diverse environment. Plus, the communication and public speaking skills developed in the theater program will translate into valuable job skills for inmates who parole.

“Before, I used to love the weekdays because I’d get away from everything and go to work, kind of lose myself in the work,” said Joey Pagaduan. “Now, I can’t wait for Friday to end so I can come here on Saturday and be with these people. This is the highlight of my week – this is something I’m going to take with me.”

Inmates at CSP-Solano rehearse a scene.

Lesley Currier, Managing Director of the Marin Shakespeare Company, directs inmates in CSP-Solano’s production of “Julius Caesar.”

The program is still going strong at San Quentin, where this year inmates will present the two Shakespeare plays and an original production written by inmate veterans. The play explores why so many military veterans commit suicide, and what can be done about it. The audience will include outside guests who are also veterans and a post-show discussion will be moderated by leaders of the inmate group Veterans Healing Veterans.

Currier shared that she has heard about several inmates from the San Quentin program who have paroled since she founded it 12 years ago, and many have continued to make theater a part of their lives. She said one man who paroled after 30 years in prison is now nearing 70 and takes Shakespeare classes.

“I believe everybody, whether you’re in prison or not, needs artistic expression to live their life to the fullest,” she said. “Especially men who are someday going to be out in the world. And I would so much rather they had this opportunity to get in touch with their feelings, work together on practicing teamwork and problem-solving as a group, when they come out of prison.”

“The themes in Shakespeare, the stories, the characters, the human thoughts that he was able to articulate in such detail, the poetry of language – it touches on every facet of humanity.”

Inmates gather with their advisers following a rehearsal.

Inmates gather with their advisers following a rehearsal.