Manchester University
Oak Leaves

November 20, 2015

prison pix

Back row: Alec Trzeiak, Caleb Noffsinger, Elizabeth McKenney, Aaron Lloyd, Tate Wooding and Haylee Parrish. Front Row: Stacy Erickson-Pesetski, Franziska Kulbel, Hannah Deubner, Mary Powell and Hannah Hathaway. Photo by David Lloyd '14.

'The Bard' Behind Bars

Aaron Lloyd

Nov. 10, my Shakespeare class traveled to Pendleton Correctional Facility in central Indiana to visit inmates who perform the Bard’s plays within the walls of the maximum- and minimum-security prison for men. Ten classmates accompanied Stacy Erickson-Pesetski, associate professor of English, to the place where she spent her sabbatical last semester.

The days leading up to the visit, my biggest fear was not the close quarters with criminals – it was being banned by the security guards because my jeans were too skinny. So, in order to avoid the embarrassment, I bought a cheap pair of loose-fitting jeans the night before.

I was surprised to find a golf course right next to the concrete walls and watch towers of the prison. I walked into the prison with my driver’s license in the pocket of my baggy jeans, and waited to go through the metal detector and get rubbed down by the male officer on the other side. While we waited, we played with a baby who belonged to a woman also going through security.

A different guard escorted us through the gates to a grassy area between all the buildings. There, we could see the fenced-in area where the prisoners get exercise by playing basketball and volleyball or running around the track.

As we neared our building, my nerves began to tighten up. What was I going to see? Was this prison going to be just like the ones in the movies? We entered, climbed a flight of stairs, and were lead to a room with desks. It looked like an underfunded elementary school for the underprivileged with chipped-off paint on the walls and cracked tiles on the floors.

We arranged the desks and chairs into a circle, leaving an empty seat in between each of us for inmates. Jack Heller, an assistant professor of English at Huntington University who has been working with the class for two years, took our questions.

He told us that the play the inmate class was working on was Much Ado About Nothing, and that the guys were about three months from having it down.

The students laughed when someone asked how they do violent plays. Heller told us that swords in the first play were made out of cardboard. He reiterated “cardboard” for the security camera and microphones hidden in the room.

Then, our classmates for the day entered. They were dressed in khaki jumpsuits and green hats. Each introduced himself and expressed how great it was that we were there for the day.

When everyone was seated, we did an activity called Rose and Thorns. A rose is something good that happened to you in the past week and a thorn is something bad. Then, they started to discuss their play and who was going to act for our class.

Seven prisoners got up to act out the scene and I was astonished by what I saw.

I saw seven men put everything they had into their acting, using different accents and personalities to show that they understood their characters. On top of that, several even put their own twist on the characters. Once the scene was finished, Heller gave each actor pointers on what to do better, and they acted it out again.

Drs. Erickson-Pesetski and Heller set aside the last 20 minutes of class for us to ask the inmate actors questions. “Why are you taking this class?” a student asked. I had been wondering the same thing.

Two prisoners answered, each differently. The first said that he acted in high school and wanted

to start up again. The other response stood out to me: “It’s a lot of fun and I like storytelling. It’s really hard, so I like the challenge and I’m friends with all of these guys.”

After our hour of class was done, a bell rang and the actors got up to shake our hands and thank us for coming inside to spend time with them. The guard escorted us back to the entrance.

Our day was coming to an end, and I think that each of us was upset about that. We could have spent hours with those guys. There wasn’t a single person in my class who didn’t hold a conversation with a prisoner actor and enjoy every second of it. We all hope to return in the spring to see their play performed for an audience.