Taking “Shakespeare Inside” Out,

Colette Gordon Talks to Tauriq Jenkins about Hamlet in prison and a “first for South African theater”

In December 2011, in a community hall in Cape Town, youth awaiting trial in Cape Town from Ottery Youth Care Centre performed their version of Hamlet—created, rehearsed, and performed inside the institution, for one time only before the public and outside incarcerated space.

Performances like this are rarely seen. Shakespeare prison projects tend to allow only fleeting glimpses of performance “inside.” Mickey B, which Ramona Wray wrote about in the fall 2011 special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, with a follow-up interview with the director in the SQ Forum, is one exception. Through the Educational Shakespeare Company’s film project, prisoners at Belfast’s Maghaberry Prison were able to produce a full-length adaptation of Macbeth which was then screened for audiences outside the prison.

In the case of Hamlet, performed by incarcerated youth in Cape Town, actors and audience experienced a live performance that took both groups away from the prison and expectations of prison Shakespeare. I interviewed the director, Tauriq Jenkins, about the role and importance of this work and about Shakespeare in a South African context of incarceration.

—Colette Gordon

Colette Gordon The Hamlet that played in December with actors from Ottery Youth Care Centre was billed as a “first for South African theater.” I believe this was the first time in South Africa a “prison production” was performed and viewed outside of incarcerated space. Could you speak a little more about this? How you perceive this first in SA theater history?

Tauriq Jenkins I see this as a crucial step toward transformation of South African theater. This production serves as an advancement toward effective representation along the lines of race and culture in South African theater. It puts away the notion that classical theater belongs only in institutions of higher learning, or on well-funded mainstream stages.

Shakespeare can account for the physical freedom of the participants. If this were a production of Hansel and Gretel, it most likely would not have been given the benefit of the doubt. This is the power of having classical theater’s blockbuster being performed by a group of so-called miscreants. The skepticism that met this project was overcome by an intense belief in its success. After a number of pre-performances in prison, it became clear that the participants were taking this on with zeal that quickly reshaped the opinions of skeptical onlookers.

The originality and intensity of this Hamlet stems from the unique archive of human experience the actors brought. The play needed to be accepted by the actors because the main focus of this performance was not the audience, as much as it was the participants themselves. This Hamlet was an exploration by those in it who become both the actor and the spectator, and the audience in this case is the witness to an event unfolding.

Colette Gordon Within the prison context, what are your reasons for focusing on Shakespeare and Classical theater in your work at Ottery and other detention centers?

Tauriq Jenkins Hamlet says, “Denmark is a prison.” To me, one of the most important facets of Shakespeare is how he tackles the concept of judgment. What interests me is the exploration of a part of our society that has had judgment passed. The criminal justice system in South Africa, while attempting to rehabilitate young offenders, in many ways does the reverse. I believe Hamlet is a play of catharsis and that these young people can relate to its specific content. Many of these young people know what it means to lose a family member and to experience tragic loss that many of Shakespeare’s characters experience. This in itself makes Shakespeare appropriate, as these actors can draw on their own archives of experience to authentically act the roles. Theater, and specifically Shakespeare, can address their need for expression. Shakespeare is also right for prison because of the Shakespearean antithesis of true and honest expression coming out of a symbolically dishonest space.

Colette Gordon I know Hamlet is a play that has personal significance for you. What significance do you think it has for these young men?

Tauriq Jenkins During rehearsals, I would always say to the young men that Shakespeare is one of the most difficult parts of Western theater. I made no bones about the fact that many actors are terrified of and deeply appreciative of Shakespearean actors. It didn’t take long for the young men to realize why it terrifies, its difficulty. In prison, young men cannot show their emotions. But in Shakespeare, vulnerability is required. Performing Shakespeare allows vulnerability to be received in a positive way. For example, when Claudius breaks down in tears, the audience erupts in applause and commends him for being a really good actor. He doesn’t get beat up in the corner for being a sissy.

We faced scheduling problems systemic to working in youth detention centers. There is a high turnover rate of youth awaiting trial and youth at risk. In this case, the amount of time a youth stays in detention depends the nature of the offense(s) he has committed or is being accused of. Some have had judgments ruled by the courts, and others are awaiting trial, and it is common for a person to have numerous court dates, for an assortment of reasons, which would include multiple offenses or tardiness in the criminal justice system. Once the courts have come to a decision, they either return home, stay in the facility, or are sent to one of the bigger prisons. This means that there is a particular window of time when the project can take place with a steady group of actors, and finding this window is a huge challenge. This short time is further complicated by the necessary bureaucratic protocols dealing with safety and security especially for outside facilitators coming in. Another challenge was getting permission to have the participants perform publicly, for obvious reasons. It is unusual for a jail to allow its inmates to rehearse in a public space, which occurred in this production, and then having it performed in a public venue open to all. The unpredictability of space availability and actor availability, and the volatility of the detention facility, itself forced us to use different approaches.

A number of unique factors came together to make this work. This included the support and commitment of social workers, the principal, his staff of psychologists, the warders, the security personnel, the kitchen staff, parents, the South African police services, and the participants themselves. Having rehearsals until 1 o’clock in the morning in spaces that are usually inaccessible after 6 o’clock is testimony to the exceptional nature of this project.

Colette Gordon After following the project through its first two productions, I’ve learned to anticipate that each performance will be a game changer. But the change wrought in the build-up to this public performance was phenomenal. I’ve seen footage from the rehearsal the night before. Academics are hesitant to talk about epiphanies, but the footage clearly showed a staggering breakthrough, especially for the actor playing Claudius. This was at about 11 pm. Could you talk a little about that rehearsal and the actors’ development?

Tauriq Jenkins The actor playing Claudius was grilled for the entire day by myself and two other professional actors supporting me. I insisted that the actor do the “O, my offence is rank” speech in its entirety—he was not allowed to take any shortcuts. We were working with him on lines and character development; however, we each had our own takes on the role of Claudius. We were giving him three different ways to access the character. For example, Zackie is from a township background, and his Claudius is reminiscent of a gang leader. Irshaad, who also comes from a pretty dangerous neighborhood—Hanover Park—plays Claudius with a lot more reserve.

In prison, you need a façade to survive. That day had been about unlayering the façade in order for the actor to access the character. There was also something about rehearsing on a stage with stage lights; the realness of the rehearsal space brought a level of excitement and intensity. This was catalytic for the actor. You could hear when he switched from reciting lines to speaking with his true voice. I believe that the sound of that, the sound of his own true voice, was very motivating. Prisoners are constantly acting to stay alive, and I believe prisoners have a great respect for actors for this reason. Because these men must constantly act, this experience with performing Shakespeare is (hopefully) actually a break from acting and a return to authenticity and vulnerability, despite it being a theater experience.

Colette Gordon When I observed you directing the young actors in Ottery, I was struck by both your flexibility and the force and clarity of your vision. I know that you use strategies of workshopped theater; Augusto Boal is a strong influence for you as it is for many others working in incarcerated space. But you also have a very strong directorial vision—which seems particularly necessary in prison, where so much changes from moment to moment and it’s very difficult to maintain focus and concentration. How do you work as a director? To what extent is what an audience sees your vision and to what extent is it the actors’?

Tauriq Jenkins It is important to know the play very well and to have a very clear vision. I need to be able to adapt to changes and challenges at a moment’s notice without losing sight of the objective. The director takes on numerous roles with this kind of project; acting coach, mentor, facilitator, and negotiator between incarcerated space and production team. I attempt to surrender the artistic initiative to the participants while, at the same time, take control and coordinate.

Audience members come with a particular expectation when they come to watch a prison play. It was very important to us to demonstrate that we were able to make use of elements such as original music, lighting, with an attitude of professionalism among the actors during rehearsal and performance. I always interacted with the “prisoners” as I would with a team of professional actors in an ensemble. I gave complex notes regardless of the fact that many of these actors had never performed before. The effect of having high expectations was evident; the young men were putting forth their most serious effort, learning their lines and devoting themselves fully to the work.

Making seemingly impossible demands in an impossible situation tests the waters of the human spirit and pushes perceptions of what can be. The difficulty, the feeling that this may not work, is an important aspect of this kind of work. The doubt, the fear that the limitations will not be overcome, is what pushes people to rise and conquer. This is what makes the miracle.

Colette Gordon What are the plans for the project now?

Tauriq Jenkins We’ve developed relationships with a number of youth-incarcerated spaces in Cape Town. Over the past few years, we’ve proven the relevance of our work, and I hope to expand into other incarceration spaces which see the value of this work. For me this is lifelong work. I’m currently doing all that I can to improve on my skill set so that I can continue to go into these spaces and contribute meaningfully.

Colette Gordon I know that you’re very interested in joining with other projects especially in Anglophone Africa, but also in Italy and South America, while you’re skeptical about “international” initiatives originating in the US and UK. Can you talk about how you see these relationships developing and why these collaborations might be important?

Tauriq Jenkins I would like to have similar projects in every English-speaking African country. English is part of our lives, and while in former English colonies it is the language of the oppressor, I believe it can heal. English-speaking African countries, postcolonially speaking, have their own peculiar and specific challenges. A collaboration between South Africa and other English-speaking countries in Africa doing this work is invaluable. I believe collaborations of this kind can produce a strong theater. I’m wary of collaborations with volunteer-based entities in [the] US and the UK because I’m concerned about the commodification of African pain.

Colette Gordon There are difficulties, but also real benefits to working with youth in incarceration. I know that two young men who played Hamlet and Claudius have been given scholarships to train as actors through the Independent Theatre Movement of South Africa (ITMSA); with this model of training and apprenticeship, they can be employed in the project, and when they leave Ottery they leave as skilled actors. The way you connect the work of Shakespeare Literacy Project, along with ITMSA’s professional actor training offers a great opportunity for men, especially young men in incarceration, to learn skills that make them employable, and in many cases acting becomes a professional goal that drives and motivates them to seek a future outside of the prison. But you’ve also worked with prisoners who may not see release. How do you see the Shakespeare in Prison project working for them? Will you continue to focus on youth? What kind of possibilities will your work hold out for those in long-term incarceration?

Tauriq Jenkins The Shakespeare in Prison project has a potential to encourage men who will never be released to live lives that are productive and meaningful by paying them for their work as actors. By doing so in a society that does not value the work of actors in general and does not adequately compensate them for their work, we hope to be a shining example of how the work of actors should be respected. We are looking at many possible developments within the project, such as an interprison Shakespeare troupe. The goal would be to work with a group of full-time prison actors who move between prisons performing the work and mentoring other prisoners as they interact with the work.

I will continue to focus on youth. The youth detention center is the umbilical cord between society and prison. I believe that to transform the prison space, we need to enter into creative interventions with those who are going into prison, not just those who are already in or going out. Working with young men going into prison, I believe, creates the little sparks of transformation that can carry through in the bigger cycle of things.

Colette Gordon  I’ve been in Ottery a number of times. I can remember on one occasion writing out individual parts for actors, where photocopied pages risked being rolled up and smoked. However, the last time I visited, I was amazed to see the actor playing Hamlet riffling through the pages of a small print paperback Hamlet. Claudius asked to borrow my copy and spent a good ten minutes looking through it before asking me to help him find his place. There was nothing self-conscious about this act of reading. It looked like two professionals making use of the tools available to them. This is an amazing achievement.

But obviously literacy is an issue at Ottery and in other South African prisons. Can you speak a little about this? And about the Shakespeare Literacy Project’s role?

Tauriq Jenkins Shakespeare can help a performer develop confidence in his language abilities. The performer can hear that he’s speaking serious English that he’s put together well, and this can be very motivating. In the case of Claudius, the more he learned his lines and rose to the challenge of the speech, the more his perception of his own intelligence and language abilities could shift. In a space where he was perceived as stupid, this performer was able to begin the work of changing his own perception of himself as a speaker and reader of English through performing the role of Claudius.

Colette Gordon Filmmakers came to Ottery to collect interview material and rehearsal footage for a documentary covering the event, but their presence also meant that the entire public performance at Observatory was captured on film. Typically, people “accessing” Shakespeare in prison see only snippets of performance within a documentary frame. In a film project like Mickey B, audiences are able to see a complete performance, but it’s very unusual for a theatrical performance to be experienced in its entirety. Although film can’t stand in for the live performance, this seems like a rare opportunity for audiences to get away from the clichés of prison Shakespeare and the fascination with getting “behind bars” to focus on the prisoner’s own storytelling through theater. What do you think? How do you see the film?

Tauriq Jenkins The film was made for archival purposes. Ultimately, the experience was for the actors and the audience present.

I’ve turned down a number of requests by individuals interested in making documentaries about our work because I felt they didn’t bring the level of prestige these performers deserve. The documentary filmmaker who filmed the performance did so beautifully and brought a great amount of experience and an impeccable reputation appropriate for the task.

The performers understood that part of what made their work so special was its newness in South African history. Having a documentary filmmaker preserve the performance and aspects of the experience concretized the uniqueness of the work.

Colette Gordon When the actors walked into the lights in front of the audience, you began by talking quietly with them, doing warm-ups and picking up, essentially, where you left off in rehearsal. You framed this quite carefully to make sure that both the audience and the actors understood this as part of a process. The fact that the work was being shown before an audience was not allowed to dictate or compromise that process. At the same time, you train your actors as actors and consider their achievements as actors to go beyond rehabilitation.

We could talk at length about the differences between the Shakespeare Literacy Project bringing Shakespeare rehearsed in incarceration to a public audience and the work of an organization like the Educational Shakespeare Company in Belfast, which has given the public the first feature film to be made by prisoners inside a maximum-security prison. But what strikes me about both projects is their insistence on the artistic value of the work, beyond the prison, the belief that these productions are adding to the performance history of Shakespeare. How do you strike a balance between the integrity of the process and the “finished” product?

Tauriq JenkinsThe artistic vision cannot be more important than the process. Our Shakespeare project here was only about the participants and how they were contributing to the history of Shakespeare. Rather than, as a director, creating a shell of an artistic vision and filling it with prisoners, it’s a group of young men who have Shakespeare in their hearts. The shape of their work is of their own making.