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Shakespeare Prison Project offers inmates life lessons

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

According to Hamlet, a play can hold a mirror up to life.

Jonathan Shailor enacts this truth with inmates who are part of the Shakespeare Prison Project, a course he created and teaches at the Racine Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison located in Sturtevant.

For nine to 10 months each year, Shailor — a professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha — works with up to 16 inmate enrollees in the course focused on a play by William Shakespeare.

Each class dives deep into the Bard’s work, analyzing characters and comparing them to archetypes described by psychoanalyst Carl Jung — as well as to themselves. They keep journals and have regular discussions.

“We’re all works in progress and its through communications that we create identities and relationships,” Shailor says. “By sharing stories with each other and reflecting on them, we create better stories and a better world.”

The current class is preparing a production of The Merchant of Venice to be performed at the prison in May. As always, Shailor directs.

In the month following the production, the class will rehearse the latest in a series of productions called Shakespeare’s Mirror, original works based on personal stories and observations by class members in response to the play they performed.

“Script writing is ongoing during the months of rehearsals, so the Mirror script is ready to go immediately following the Shakespeare production,” Shailor says.

Current class

According to prisoner descriptions found on the DOC’s Offender Locator website, Shailor’s class of 16 inmates reflects the prison population overall. The majority of class members are serving time for sex crimes, along with a few charged with unclassified felonies, a repeat DUI offender and one inmate incarcerated for first-degree reckless homicide and mutilating a corpse.

Their ages range from 25 to 65. Six of the class members are African-American, and 10 are white.

For each meeting, the men move the tables and circle the chairs so the class members face each other. Other than the fact everyone is male and dressed in dark green uniforms and gray sweatshirts, the participants look and act like any other adult education class.

The students take their seats and, at Shailor’s request, introduce themselves to me and reveal which Merchant of Venice characters they’re playing. Class participation requires a minimum eighth-grade reading and writing level. While some in the group are very articulate, others have barely made the cut.

Some students are reluctant to talk and others take command of the room when given the floor. A few have high school and community theater experience. Others have never seen a play, much less studied one.

The one characteristic they share is an almost painful honesty about the way the characters and themes of the play touch them. They know that “Doc’s class,” as they call it, is a safe place for them to reveal feelings.

“I lobbied for the role of Shylock because I identified with the part immediately,” says Eugene Thomas, who, at 59, is one of the two oldest members of the class. “My hope in playing this part is that it will be a little bit cathartic for me and that I can bring some human qualities to Shylock that aren’t in the play.”

Other class members chose their roles for other reasons. This includes Michael Shortt, 34, who participated in high school and community theater and has the performance persona to prove it. He plays the role of Portia.

“I just knew it would make sense for a man of my girth to try and pull off playing a lithe Venetian heiress,” Shortt jokes.

Introductions segue into discussions about the previous session’s journal assignment on self-evaluation and what it may have meant to various class members. Shortt says he gained much insight from the process.

“When you think about what you’ve done and write it down, it takes on the voice of the accuser,” Shortt says. “It’s hard when you start asking yourself the tough questions, which becomes almost a meditation for me. But there is an accountability because you know someone is going to read it.”

That someone is Shailor, who reads and comments on each entry.

Edward Marquardt, 65, who with a white beard and hair looks very much like a Santa Claus, agrees with Shortt, taking the thought to its next logical step.

“Doc is a listener, and because he listens we’re beginning to learn how to listen to each other,” Marquardt says. “To talk about empathy is one thing, but to show that empathy is something else.”

From that point, the class engages in warmup exercises, followed by a rehearsal of the first scene.

Everyone gives it their all.

‘An opportunity to reflect on life’

While some of the men may be first-time actors, many are repeat performers in Shailor’s classes. The empathy they learn leads to new levels of camaraderie and trust for many.

“This is my fourth production and I learn something new every time I come here,” says actor Dale Quake, 37. “This class taught me how to get along with other people. Out there we have to carry our dogface around, but in here we get to be real people.”

Class member Sean Duerr, 40, agrees. “The hardest part about being in prison is not being productive,” he says. “This is one of the few opportunities in which we can choose our involvement, and I find it personally rewarding.”

The Shakespeare Prison Project is different from many activities available to or required of inmates. Some call it playing while others see it as therapeutic — but all agree it plays an important role at RCI, including RCI Warden Paul S. Kemper.

“The value this project offers to the men participating is that it is out of the norm for a prison setting and more likely than not, something unlike anything any of them has ever done,” Kemper says. “Additionally, it gives them an opportunity to express themselves and to do so in an environment where such expression is readily accepted.”

The program’s benefits also have staying power. Just ask Haisan Williams, a Chicago native who served his prison time at RCI and now lives in Green Bay.

Williams was on parole for armed robbery when he was arrested for having sex with a 15-year-old girl and then setting fire to her house.

He was embittered and angry when he discovered Shailor’s class and won the lead in Othello. He credits the experience with helping him turn his life around.

“I learned more from that class than I did from any program they made me take during my 23 years in prison,” says Williams, who now sells tractor-trailer parts and is getting ready to buy his first home. “If it wasn’t intended to be therapeutic, then the mere process of understanding the characters’ needs taught me how to understand people.”

Regaining a daughter

Nick Leair tells a similar story.

Born in Milwaukee and raised in Wausau, Leair first went to prison in 1999 at age 19 for armed robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment.

It wasn’t until 2004, after he had traveled around a number of institutions in the state correctional system, that he landed at RCI and found in Shailor’s class.

“We did The Tempest,” says Leair, who now lives in Merrill and works in food service. “What we were going through was very therapeutic on the level of discovery and helped me better empathize with other people.”

This includes his 17-year-old daughter Alexandrea. Leair began his incarceration when Alexandrea’s mother was six-months’ pregnant, meaning the child didn’t know her father outside of the prison system, nor had she seen him dressed in anything other than his prison uniform. Things changed when Alexandrea, then 5 or 6, sat in the front row during the performance of play.

“I came out dressed as Prince Ferdinand and she kept saying to everyone within earshot, ‘My daddy is a prince!’” Leair says. “After we took our bows, I stepped off the stage and she rushed into my arms. I held her for what seemed like an eternity — and I still think about that moment every day.”

Not surprisingly, Alexandrea has grown up to be an ardent Shakespeare fan, a side benefit to Shailor’s work that makes the teacher in him very happy.

“I love Shakespeare and the opportunity to get into it with people who can appreciate his work on multiple levels,” says Shailor, who has volunteered literally hundreds of hours to serve a small slice of Wisconsin’s prison population.

“It’s not just a play, but an opportunity to reflect on life,” he says. “It’s the idea of following one’s passion and this is a passion for me.”

Shailor’s commitment has helped transform the lives of his students.

The current class continues on this trajectory, finding value in the Shakespeare Prison Project at various levels that go well beyond the Bard.

“It’s therapeutic,” says Samuel Petrusch, 34. “Getting down here and onstage allows you to be someone you’re not.”

“Or maybe it enables you to be someone you really are,” Duerr offers.

Therapeutic aspect

Shakespeare’s Mirror will close the loop on the therapeutic aspect of the many months of study and self-examination.

In the best cases, the twin productions open the door to better self-understanding for the actors, ostensibly helping them heal wounds that may have brought them to RCI.

Shailor — who holds a Ph.D. in communications from the University of Massachusetts and specializes in conflict analysis and resolution — originated the course in 2004 and taught it until 2008, when he took time off for personal reasons. He resumed the class in 2012 and has been meeting twice a week with inmates ever since. The results, according to Kemper, have been very positive.

“My goal for the course, and Dr. Shailor agreed, was to have something more than just acting,” says Kemper. “I wanted the course to incorporate conflict resolution and personal growth. Dr. Shailor really had a good plan for this and has demonstrated this aspect throughout.”

The class isn’t therapy in the traditional sense, says Shailor, who began his volunteer prison career at RCI in 1995 teaching meditation and working with a pair of therapists who discussed masculine maturity using the Jung archetypes that Shailor now employs.

But the lessons are structured to be therapeutic and help inmates better understand themselves using the “mirror” that Shakespeare provides in his works.

“These guys are wounded human beings and have buried their feelings pretty deeply,” Shailor says. “A lot of their bad behavior grows out of the fact that they haven’t yet addressed their own wounds. You can’t have empathy for others if you don’t first have it for yourself.”

The works of Shakespeare offer an ideal medium for the necessary level of reflection, explains Shailor, who found solace in Bard’s work after a particularly painful breakup years earlier. Shakespeare uses his rich and colorful language to bring readers and audience members deep into a world of well-rounded and thoroughly developed characters, he adds.

In addition, Shakespeare has written plays in which distinct empathy lines give even his darkest characters a level of humanity — something that touches the actors at multiple levels, the professor explains.

“The Shakespeare Prison Project offers good life skills and deep emotionalism that resonate throughout the plays,” Shailor says. “The class members learn to relate better to each other and, once outside, to other people as well.

Visiting the ‘stage’

The Racine Correctional Institution sits at the end of a road so dark on the November night of my visit I wonder if I had left all humanity behind and plunged into a bottomless abyss. No doubt some inmates see it that way, too.

At 5:30 p.m., as promised, Jonathan Shailor is waiting for me outside the guardhouse that serves as the prison entrance. As instructed, we have our bags x-rayed and empty our pockets, putting the contents into a coin-operated locker.

I surrender my ballpoint pen and receive a prison-approved pen for use. We pass through a metal detector so sensitive that, had I any artificial joints, I would have needed prior approval and a note from a licensed physician attesting to that fact to get in.

As it was, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections took two weeks to complete a background check before granting me permission to visit.

Since I have a laptop computer and camera, an officer is assigned to escort me. She stays with me the entire evening, making sure I take no pictures outside of Room 10, Shailor’s classroom.

After being issued visitor badges and getting our hands stamped with a symbol visible under ultraviolet light, we pass through a series of locked gates and onto the prison campus.

Before becoming RCI in April 1991, the facility was the St. Bonaventure Prep School, established in the community of Pulaski in 1901 to serve young Polish men wanting to become Catholic priests. In 1921, the Franciscans who ran the school moved it to Sturtevant. Declining interest in the priesthood eventually changed the facility’s mission and ultimately closed its doors in 1982.

Now the prison is home to 1,940 male inmates serving time for everything from nonpayment of child support to first-degree murder. The prison population has a disproportionate number of sex offenders largely because it has the facilities to provide them with necessary treatment.

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