Tim Settles, administrative section supervisor at Northpoint, is coordinator for the Pioneer Playhouse project, which was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“We were excited about the unique opportunity to share a program with the inmates that had never been introduced before,” Settles says.
Catharsis seems to permeate the words of the fledgling playwrights, whether through exposition or through humor. It is a coming to terms with the demons and sharp-toothed clowns, the shadows and mottled sunbeams of their lives, brought to stage in front of the playwrights themselves.
As each play unfolds, the pertinent playwright leans forward or sits straighter on the bench to see what is created onstage.
During the next hour-plus, performances unfold that reflect a wide variety of subject matter. Some are funny — some, even downright hilarious — while others are poignant. One features a brother and sister who find out they have the same father, and who have vastly different views of their patriarch.
Another focuses on an online auction battle for a prized piece of memorabilia, and the instant messaging war that arises between the last two bidders standing.
Yet another features two brothers trying to catch the biggest fish, one with a fishing pole named Ol’ Granddad.
A Q&A/feedback session is held after the performances. One inmate says, “They were all good — all of them.”
Orndorff adds she is impressed by the playwrights and their efforts.
“You showed up and you cared. ... You really put in the work,” she notes.
Cavins, the inmate who wrote “Reflections from Behind the Wire,” is moved by the culmination of his playwriting efforts.
“To actually write something and see it come out of other actors? It’s empowering,” he says, adding the experience also is humbling.
Another inmate asks the playwrights if there are underlying meanings to their plays. Murrell, author of “Lie and the Cover,” says his is, “Be careful what you say.”
Holder, who wrote “Screen Warriors,” notes the irony of what we pursue so vigorously — something as simple as a piece of “Hello, Kitty” merchandise.
Daughenbaugh, author of “Sotto Voce,” says you hear people say “can’t” all the time. “If you go through life with that attitude, you won’t,” he notes. Cheating, Daughenbaugh adds, will undermine your support, which won’t be there to help you achieve the end result you want.
Tofteland says “every individual playwright’s voice brought something new and different,” and he hopes the summer 2010 project at Northpoint is just the beginning.
“I feel strongly the arts are an opportunity for expression. ... We’ll continue to try to build behind the wires.”
The genesis of the project
Tofteland has worked with inmates for years, beginning in the mid-1990s at Luther Luckett Correctional Facility in La Grange. “Shakespeare Behind Bars” is a derivation of “Books Behind Bars,” which started in 1991 at Luther Luckett under the direction of faculty and students from Bellarmine College, now Bellarmine University.
Filmmaker Robby Henson, who directs plays at Pioneer Playhouse and is brother to artistic director Henson, was familiar with “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” a documentary about Tofteland’s work with the inmates at Luther Luckett in creating a production of “The Tempest.” The film was nominated for a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, among many others.