A Barren Stage

Sarah Doyle

The final line echoes through the stark room and the performance is over. After 12 weeks of rehearsing and practising, the cast stand side-by-side on the little black stage, revelling in their success. In a couple of hours, they will change back into blues, head back to their blocks, or maybe go to work. But right now, they are performers taking a bow – and the applause in the prison is thunderous. 

2019 was the first year of the Shakespeare Prison Project (SPP) in a women’s centre, however the project has been running since 2006. The project involves roughly four facilitators working alongside 12-20 prisoners once a week, for three months – culminating in a production of a Shakespeare play. This 90-minute performance is attended by the participants’ friends and family, other inmates, and paying members of the general public. 

A participant in the 2019 project, and a first-time performer, described her enjoyment of the project in a feedback form. 

‘I wish it kept going on. It takes us out of being in jail,’ she said. 

Another 2019 participant explained how sceptical she was in the beginning of the project, but how her attitudes quickly shifted. 

‘I actually began to enjoy it and began connecting to my character and those around me,’ she said. ‘Amazingly, I have learnt that it’s okay to change your approach and try new things.’ 

Founder of the project, Dr Pensalfini, impressed that SPP is not a rehabilitation program, but serves other functions. 

‘If there is such a thing as rehabilitation, it doesn’t happen in prisons,’ Dr Pensalfini said. 

Instead, the project uses drama games, Shakespearean text and Theatre of the Oppressed philosophies and techniques to allow prisoners to ‘play’ and ‘expand their role repertoire’. Dr Pensalfini suggested that most people have a fairly small set of ways we approach situations, environments, or certain roles in our lives. 

‘Through the games from the Theatre of the Oppressed, but also through stepping into the very articulated roles that Shakespeare gives…you get to experience a variety of different ways of approaching situations,’ Dr Pensalfini stated. ‘And it’s not that you consciously then find yourself in a situation and go hmm, shall I be Mark Antony, or shall I be Cassius? I think I’ll Brutus my way through this, not that.

‘But on an unconscious level you’re rehearsing, you’re practising, you’re playing out different roles in different ways – and so that expands our role repertoire.’ 

Liliana Macarone, director of the 2020 project, described the importance of having that performative outcome in the project, where possible. For the participants, the chance to perform for family and friends – from inside and outside the prison – is often an incredibly exciting prospect. However, Ms. Macarone also emphasised the thrill of performing for a group of strangers. Exploring the play for a different group of people can allow the participants to find new insights into the text, the characters, and the relationships between both. 

There is no ‘getting it right’ or ‘getting it wrong’ when it comes to performing in the Shakespeare Prison Project, Ms. Macarone says. Often participants are so connected to and confident in the story of the play, that even if lines are forgotten, the show will still go on. During a memorable 2019 performance in the women’s prison, Ms. Macarone was managing the backstage – making sure no one missed a cue, keeping track of costumes and having props on-hand. She was listening to the performers on stage when the actor playing Prospero blanked on her lines about Miranda and Ferdinand falling in love. 

‘Instead of calling for a line – which she could’ve done – she looks at the audience…she goes, “Look, these two dig each other right”,’ Ms. Macarone said while laughing. ‘And the audience just lost it!  

‘And it was beautiful…It gave all the other players confidence, because if she could forget her line and still tell the story and be fine, and the audience – on top of that – would cheer and applaud it?  Then they’d be ok…that was special.’ 

Professor Tamara Walsh says she supports the Shakespeare Prison Project, saying it is one of a small number of positive aspects to prisoner support and rehabilitation. Professor Walsh said that her recent study on solitary confinement in Queensland prisons was the most disturbing study she has undertaken. One prisoner in her study has been alone in a barren cell for more than 12 years. 

‘These very very vulnerable people – very unwell people – are being subjected to the most horrific conditions a human being can possibly live in,’ said Prof. Walsh. 

Professor Andrew Day supported this assessment of the harmful conditions in Australian prisons. 

‘The return-to-corrections figures suggest that prisons are criminogenic – prisons are making people worse rather than helping them,’ Professor Day said. ‘Prison should be a last resort, I think, for sentencing.’

In a recent article, Prof. Day stated that re-offending rates for Australian prisoners were at roughly 50 percent. Queensland Corrective Services Statistics also show that the prisoner population has increased by 58.5 percent from 2009-2019. Due to these large increases in prisoner numbers and decreases in conditions of centres, Prof. Day urged the public to question the purpose of our prisons. 

‘If we don’t try and rehabilitate, what are we doing with our prisons?’ 

Sarah is an emerging creative writer and journalist with a passion for varied forms of writing. Whether it’s poetry, screenwriting, or audio documentary, she enjoys finding – and bringing to the forefront – the threads that connect us as humans. She also drinks a lot of green tea, which only helps the creative process.