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Conference welcomes prison art practicioners

Nicole McAlee | Friday, November 15, 2013

The Shakespeare at Notre Dame Program will host a Shakespeare in Prisons Conference, a weekend focused on the relationships between prisoners and the arts, today and tomorrow in the Philbin Studio Theatre of The Debartolo Performing Arts Center.

According to the program’s website, it is “one of the world’s first major gatherings of prison arts practitioners.” 

 “The Shakespeare in Prisons conference is a gathering of scholars and prison arts practitioners really from across the globe … that explores how the theatre arts and Shakespeare specifically help incarcerated populations to develop a habilitation of the heart, mind, body and soul,” Scott Jackson, executive director of Shakespeare at Notre Dame, said.

The goal of the conference is to establish a community of prison arts practitioners, specifically those who study Shakespeare’s work, Jackson said.

“A lot of what happens within prison walls is very fraught with isolation,” he said. “That [isolation] is something we’re trying to break through with the conference and create a broader support network and community for these practitioners to utilize in their work and to open their eyes up to how people are doing it in other parts of the world.”

Jackson said he is both pleased and surprised that 60 prison arts practitioners from around the United States, England, Northern Ireland, Wales, South Africa and Australia will be in attendance.

“We were initially expecting about 20 to 25 practitioners to come,” Jackson said. “This is the first major conference of its kind so we had no idea what to expect.”

The conference’s featured speakers are Tom Magill and Curt Tofteland.

Magill, an ex-prisoner and the founder of the Educational Shakespeare Company, is the director of “Mickey B,” a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” featuring prisoners from Belfast’s maximum-security Maghaberry Prison.

Tofteland is the founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars, a prison arts program whose 2003 production of “The Tempest” at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky is the subject of the documentary “Shakespeare Behind Bars.”

Both “Mickey B” and “Shakespeare Behind Bars” will be screened in the Browning Cinema at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center as part of the conference.

Other guests at the conference include representatives from the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Program, Prison Performing Arts in St. Louis and the Independent Theatre Movement of South Africa.

“They do this because they want to effect societal change. They see a problem within our prison populations,” Jackson said. “They see the recidivism rate for ex-prisoners at 60 and 70 percent and higher, and then we look at programs like Kurt Tofteland’s where, after a couple decades in existence, his recidivism rate is six percent. That really speaks volumes about just how impactful this kind of programming is on these populations.”

Jackson said the conference will provide a unique combination of both spiritual and artistic missions of Notre Dame.

“My job is to facilitate the exploration of Shakespeare in performance, in whatever context that might be,” Jackson said. “This just happens to be a very innovative one that ties in beautifully with the University’s larger message of tackling issues of social justice.”

Contact Nicole McAlee at nmcalee@nd.edu