In the Wings: Director Curt Tofteland (left) and actor Sammie prepare for a performace of 'The Tempest' in San Quentin.
Director Behind Bars
Curt Tofteland speaks about how he gained the trust of some of the most stigmatized people in the nation
By Laura Mattingly
So, how does a middle-aged white guy voluntarily walk in to an all-male prison talking about Shakespeare and not get the crap kicked out of him?
Some say it takes a specialman.
The program Shakespeare Behind Bars falls into the larger scheme of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival (KSF), for which Curt Tofteland is the producing artistic director.
There doesn't seem to be anyone Tofteland can't talk to, as he works with the inmates of Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, troubled teens and professional actors through the various "tentacles" of the KSF.
The Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary intentionally forefronts the inmate actors, the camera bearing silent witness to the struggles and joys of rehearsals, as well as capturing the inmates' own "soliloquies" as they speak with searing honesty in personal interviews, unraveling their introspective experience of the program and also their troubled pasts.
Curt Tofteland remains a peripheral character in the documentary, but during his interview with Metro Santa Cruz, he shared his own take on why SBB is a success, and what he himself has taken from it.
"I've learned far more from them than they've learned from me," Tofteland says. "They're the miracles."
METRO SANTA CRUZ: What did you most want to capture by having the documentary made?
TOFTELAND: Shakespeare Behind Bars is a tiny little program. I work with 20 to 25 inmates and it's an 11-year program. I've had 150 through the program. Only 75 of them, I consider, have completed the program, meaning that they went through the process of one full production. And I've got 30 guys off the street over 11 years, but I have no recidivism rate. So it's a tiny program that's got 30 guys out on the street contributing to society, making the world a better place, and that's a good thing. And I've got guys on the inside that have very very long sentences, that every day they make a difference in prison because they are role models to many of the young bucks that are coming in that are looking to belong to a community. The program has many tentacles reaching out, and part of that I hoped would come through in the documentary. It's not a documentary about theater, and yet it is. It's not a documentary about Shakespeare, and yet it is. It's not a documentary about prison reform, and yet it is. It's inclusive of so many different populations.
Watching the documentary, I was really impressed by how close you seemed to the inmates. How long did it take to develop that trust and comfort?
You build trust individual-by-individual, person-by-person, it isn't a blanket that you walk in and start working with people and they all come on board in trusting you right away.
Certainly with at risk populations, and I'm including people inside prisons and people we work with outside prisons that either have learning disabilities or social problems, or drug problems or any number of issues, and this certainly applies to inmates; bonds of trust have been broken.
A lot of the time what I have discovered with the inmate population, those who are incarcerated, they either never had trust, that was not something that came out as a product of their childhood, from a very early age, or they had trust and the trust was broken. So re-establishing that, getting them to trust is a very individual journey and process.
This is my 11th year running this program so I have a long history and I have some founders who are still with me, so I have an 11-year relationship with those founders and then the continuum goes out from there.
In comparison with your professional actors, how long does it take for the Luther Luckett actors to prepare for a production?
The documentary [Shakespeare Behind Bars] was a nine-month process, so sometimes they're nine months, sometimes they're 14 months, sometimes they're three months, sometimes they're six months; for those, the length of time is very dependent on what's going on in the institution.
In the Shakespeare Behind Bars part of it we never get a full run-through of it until we open the show for the yard.
How does an inmate come to participate in the SBB program?
The SBB program is completely voluntary. It isn't mandated in any way, shape or form.
We now have a process by which someone from the institution can apply to join Shakespeare Behind Bars. The number one prerequisite with that is they must have one-year clear conduct with the institution, meaning no write-ups and or convictions or rule violations for one year. So that's a biggie. And if they have that they can approach an existing core member. You become a core member of the company once you have gone through the rigors and process of a production and then you can, like Alcoholics Anonymous or any of those types of programs, you can then sponsor another inmate.
Then it is the core member's job to ferret out: What's the agenda? Why do you want to join Shakespeare Behind Bars? Why do you want to become a part of this community? And if they [core members] are then convinced that their intentions are honorable, that they will become a contributor to the family and not a detractor, then they are brought to the full group and are able to sit and/or participate in any way, shape or form sort of as a temporary process to find out: Is this program, and is the commitment that it takes to this program, and are the values that we hold as sacred values--does that fit into you, your agenda, the inmates agenda?
If the answer is yes, then they become a participant and the newer members are cast in smaller roles or several small roles in a production and they're coached by the existing members and then I meet with them at a minimum of twice a week up until about a month before we go into performance when I'm out there every day, and the limited amount of time that I have with them is only two hours and 30 minutes which is why we don't get our first run-through until the yard performance.
How would you characterize those who usually gravitate toward SBB?
The guys that tend to gravitate towards Shakespeare Behind Bars are, or quickly become, very, very high high functioning inmates; many if not all of them have an inmate industries job, many if not all are getting their GED or their undergraduate associate of arts or associate of science degrees through the college program. Many of them are involved in vocational programs, carpentry, masonry, heating and air-conditioning, automotive-repair, and many of them are also involved in groups, i.e., there's a violent offender group, one, two, three, four, if that's their offence they have to go through a violent offender program; if they're substance abuse then they go through a substance abuse program; if they're sex offenders they go through a four-phase sex offender program. Those are mandated by the institutions. So the guys involved in my program are, literally, the busiest inmates on the yard.
And there is a misconception about prisons that mostly what the guys do is pump weight, and shoot baskets and eat and sleep and that's it. At Luther Luckett we have over 70 programs and if an inmate is not involved in those programs they're not at LLCC, they're shipped somewhere else.
How is the SBB program funded?
I don't take any state money, tax money, because if you take tax dollars they'll quickly close you down because some tax payer that doesn't think inmates should be doing Shakespeare will mouth off about it and shut it down, so the great joy that my wardens have is when someone calls about that, and rants and rails about it, they simply say, "Well guess what? It doesn't cost us a penny! He raises the money elsewhere!" and can quickly hang up on them.
The money comes primarily from foundations and from individuals. The corporate world does not sponsor--at least I haven't found a corporate sponsor. And foundations tend to be more heart-connected than are corporations which are worried about their image, worried about what the public's going to perceive of them, and God forbid they should be good people, you know. So it's through foundations, and really more and more it's through individuals, it's through people making individual donations, 50 bucks, 100 bucks, 200 bucks, 500 bucks, a thousand dollars, whatever. That's what supports the program.
I also noticed while watching the film, how articulate and introspective all the inmates were in speaking about the program and about their crimes.
That's part of the process. That's part of my process is that journey into self-reflection. Because you cannot change human behavior, good, bad or indifferent, without self-reflection, without the ability to self-reflect and without the ability to develop empathy.
One of the great epiphanies that I had in this work was I thought that empathy was just a part of the human nature, that that's just innate to the human soul, like love, anger or any other emotions, and the reason for that is I was raised in an empathetic home, so I developed it at a very young age and never thought about developing it. But what I discovered when I started doing the prison work, is that there were people who had no empathy, literally none.
And then what I discovered, which is even more fundamental, is that empathy can be learned later. There are guys that had no empathy and now have empathy, and will tell you, "I didn't know what empathy meant; I never thought about thinking of anyone other than myself; I was very egocentric, narcissistic." And a lot of that had to do with survival, a lot of them come from such violent backgrounds that that narcissism and egocentrism was truly: I better take care of myself because no one else is going to take care of me. And that's not the way to prepare an inmate to get out in the real world.
The way to get out in the real world is to develop social skills and to develop skills from the heart. Aristotle said many, many, many years ago, "Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all." And that's a mantra that for me, and for many people that do work in prisons, or do work with at risk populations. There is no "normality," but there are individuals that have a higher level of dysfunctionalism in the world and you have to deal with that. You can't just educate their mind.
We have wonderful education programs. We can teach them computer skills, and we can teach them automotive skills and carpentry and those kinds of things, but if you don't change their heart, they'll be right back in prison, no matter how highly skilled they get on the outside. And that's what Shakespeare Behind Bars is about. It is the education of the heart. It is developing empathy. It is developing a community. It is developing a family. It is developing a support system. A support network.
Do you think part of learning empathy comes through learning to act?
I really don't teach acting. They become actors. As you see in the play some of them are quite professional. But that's not the journey. And the program started without the thought of them ever performing for a public audience.
Yes, I am using techniques that I use when I teach or when I develop actors, but that just comes as a by-product of the work. The work is to journey into what's happening in the play, in the scene, with the character, with the human being, with the inner world. Shakespeare was the first writer to write about the interior world revealed through soliloquy to an audience--when the Shakespearean actor, up alone onstage, turns to the audience and starts talking to them--that's sharing the inner world. And nobody had, prior to that, nor to this day, done it as effectively as he, this understanding of the human condition. So that's really what the journey is--it's to become a better human being.
Do you believe that this process, in a way, rehabilitates the actors?
There's a term that's used that I just completely reject, and that's rehabilitation. You hear it a lot, and it's just the wrong word. You can rehabilitate a knee. If you injure a knee, you can rehabilitate it back to perhaps a hundred percent of what it was prior to the injury. But rehabilitation of a human soul, of a human heart, of a human being, that came from a background where they didn't see empathy, where they didn't have any of that, where they were, you know, beaten and sexually abused, or any of the horrendous things that can happen to a child--what? You're going to rehabilitate them back to what? They are acting out the world that they came from. They are reflecting the world that they came from. It is not their fault. They are reflecting the culture, the societal whatever that they came from, the milieu, the home. It's about habilitation. It's about helping them become better human beings. Which I think should not be thought of just in terms of prisons, but I think, in terms of the world. The work that I do is in prison and it's out of prison, and it is about habilitating to make people better human beings. And better human beings means an empathetic human being, or a human being that thinks of community and family, and makes a contribution, and thinks about the future, and all of those things that we are or need to be as human beings if we're going to continue to exist.
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