University hosts Shakespeare conferences
Andrea Vale | Friday, January 22, 2016
The Shakespeare at Notre Dame program will host its second “Shakespeare In Prisons: In Practice” conference from Jan. 25 to Jan. 27.
The conference will bring together professionals in both the study and performance of Shakespeare, as well as social justice-directed performance programs, to explore the effect of Shakespeare and theatre in general towards social reform.
“We’re holding two big conferences,” Scott Jackson, executive director of Shakespeare at Notre Dame, said. “The first is ‘Shakespeare In Prisons: In Practice,’ which is in effect the second Shakespeare in prisons conference. We held the first one here in November of 2013. [And] that rolls right into … the 26th annual Shakespeare Theatre Association Conference, which rotates venues every year.”
Jackson said the first “Shakespeare In Prisons: In Practice” conference came about as the result of the combined efforts of himself, the president of the Shakespeare Association of America, Mario DiGangi, Notre Dame film, television and theatre professor Peter Holland and the founder of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program, Curt Tofteland.
“A few years ago [we] got together and said, ‘There’s never been a forum for prison arts and community arts practitioners to come together and talk about the populations they work in with and the work that’s being performed,’” Jackson said, “We wanted to break that silo of isolation from practitioner to practitioner. … We raised some money, and we thought that we’d have 25 or 30 practitioners attend … from the United States, and I had to close registration at 66 because so many people responded. We had people from every corner of the States, we had people attending from South Africa, Australia, Wales, Northern Ireland, England.”
The conference in 2013 at Notre Dame was an “incredible experience” for participants, Jackson said, as they shared ideas, resources and stories of individual experiences.
“At the end we created what’s called the Shakespeare in Prisons Network as a resource for advocates for this type of work, not only in prisons but also in communities that are marginalized or that are often overlooked by traditional arts and cultural organizations. And that’s become a pretty powerful voice in the movement,” he said. “The timing, as you can imagine, is pretty fortuitous with all the talk about criminal justice reform and everything else, and it’s pretty incredible for Notre Dame to be situated at the center of that conversation right now.”
The Shakespeare Behind Bars program, according to its website, offers “theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to incarcerated and post-incarcerated adults and juveniles, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society.” While national recidivism rates hover around 60 percent, the recidivism rates of inmates who experience the Shakespeare Behind Bars program are 5.1 percent, according to its website.
Jackson said Notre Dame’s collaboration with Shakespeare Behind Bars and hosting of the “Shakespeare In Prisons: In Practice” conference “[shows] what makes Notre Dame special in the world of Shakespeare performance and study. We’re unique from the standpoint that we really bridge this divide between the study and academic pursuits of Shakespeare and the performance and practice of Shakespeare. What sets us even further apart from that is the fact that we are at Notre Dame, and we found a way to connect the broader social justice mission of Notre Dame into our own program.
“All of that speaks to a larger commitment to looking at Shakespeare specifically, and the theatre arts more broadly, as a catalyst for positive social change,” Jackson said, “When you’re on stage with someone, all socio-economic, racial, cultural, any sort of societal divides banish between us, and it’s the great equalizer that way. And not only does it do that but it allows us to embody a character and relate and have compassion for that character’s individual existence, the struggles and problems and conflicts that they have in their own lives, and justify them to ourselves internally. So we come out of that with a more well-rounded, compassionate viewpoint on life itself.”
This year’s conference is part of a larger initiative celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and his subsequent legacy, Jackson said. “He died in 1616 and this year … will be the world’s largest Shakespeare celebration in history. And Notre Dame is playing a major international role in kicking off these celebrations.”
According to Jackson and the Shakespeare at Notre Dame website, the “Shakespeare in Prison: In Practice” conference will be comprised of morning panel sessions followed by afternoon performance workshops.
“At the first prisons conference (there were) so many people in the room that we just ended up having panel discussions,” Jackson said, “I made a promise to those delegates that the second prisons conference would be more practically based in terms of approaches to the incarcerated and non-traditional populations, so that’s why the name of this conference is ‘Shakespeare in Prisons: In Practice.’”
Attendees will take part in one of four tracks as part of afternoon workshops. The first, “Including the Excluded,” will be taught by Tom Magill, from the Educational Shakespeare Company in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and will explore working with the mentally ill. A second, “A Taste of the Work of the Actor’s Gang Prison Project,” will be taught by Sabra Williams and Donna Jo Thorndale, members of the California-based theatre group The Actors’ Gang, and will center around working with the incarcerated. A third, “Story Into Song,” will be taught by Ozivell Ecford and Meade Palidofsky from Chicago’s Storycatchers Theatre, and will focus on working with incarcerated juveniles. Finally, the fourth track, “The Bard and the Brain,” will be taught by Nancy and Bill Watson, from the Milwaukee-based program Feast of Crispian, and will center on working with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m really excited about both the potential of these programs around the world strengthening Notre Dame’s place as an advocate for these works and as an active partner in engaging the social justice mission of Notre Dame to the performing arts,” Jackson said.