Some might assume that there are few opportunities to dance, laugh or speak in iambic pentameter at San Quentin State Prison. But on Monday evening, 10 inmates will prove them wrong by performing "Romeo and Juliet" in the prison's Presbyterian Chapel, which will be the culmination of seventh months preparation in their Shakespeare class led by members of the Marin Shakespeare Company.
Monday's 5:30 p.m. performance, directed by the company's Suraya Keating, will be the third full show in the class's seven-year history, a company director said.
Acting is "completely foreign" to some of the men who come into the program, managing director Lesley Currier said, adding that the challenge is often daunting for the students.
Preparation for the performance began in September, when the actors read through three different Shakespearian plays and ultimately selected this year's work, she said.
Safety precautions at the prison mean that outsiders, including the actresses playing the parts of the Nurse, Lady Capulet and Juliet, aren't allowed to make physical contact with inmates.
So how does one perform "Romeo and Juliet" when actors playing the star-crossed lovers aren't allowed to press palms, let alone kiss?
With creative acting, of course.
"It has been a great learning experience for them," Currier said. "They've done a great job of stepping up to the plate."
It's a tough crowd too, she said, as the bulk of the 400 expected audience members are men with life sentences and the prison workers who discipline them.
"It takes a lot of guts for -1/8the actors-3/8 to stand up and perform in front of their peers," she said.
But Currier said the audience responds with respect. San Quentin is one of the few state correctional facilities to have an arts program.
When actors deliver their lines, "gasps of recognition" can sometimes be heard from the responsive audience, she said, because the tragic play's themes of murder, forgiveness, hatred and regret are resonant with the actors and audience.
The men gathered in the yard to rehearse their lines, often drawing curiosity from neighbors. But their eventual success and experiences with the arts program have inspired others to give Elizabethan theater a go.
"They've become spokesmen within the prison system," she said. "They are very articulate about how getting involved in a program like this is a benefit for all the men at the prison."
Despite frustration from the surrounding community that the company is wasting resources on its prison arts program, Currier said the company prides itself on its outreach work, which includes programs for low-income youth around the county.
"It's part of our community," Currier said. "And we can do something that enhances that community. Shakespeare can help them be better people and feel better about themselves. They may never leave San Quentin, but they're still becoming more educated and responsible human beings."
The performances have not been without their own drama, she said. Last year, during the performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," one of the actors had to miss the first 20 minutes of the show when his attorney appeared at the prison before curtain time.
This is the second year the performance will take place in the chapel. Two years ago, "Macbeth" was acted out in the prison art room in front of a cramped audience of 30, Currier said.
Actors will perform for two hours without intermission because inmates are required to be back in their cells by 7:45 p.m., she said.
"We were worried they'd have to leave before the show was over, and then they wouldn't know what happens to Romeo and Juliet," she said.
Bay City News