Documentary explores inmate theater |

Documentary explores inmate theater

Stewart Oksenhorn

ASPEN – Hank Rogerson was not looking to make a film about prisoners and prison life. A former actor, Rogerson’s initial interest was in making a documentary about acting.In “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” Rogerson, a 38-year-old from Los Angeles, made a film about both prisoners and acting – and much more. Gaining intimate access to the theater program at Kentucky’s Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, Rogerson shot for 37 weeks as a group of 20 inmates rehearsed a production “The Tempest.” As the players, a company that included murderers and sexual assailants, explore Shakespeare’s story of vengeance and responsibility, Rogerson revealed his own drama of self-examination, redemption and, above all, forgiveness.Rogerson came upon a mention of Shakespeare in Prison, a program instituted in lockups across the country, in American Theatre magazine. He settled on the program at the medium-security Luther Luckett facility after learning that Curt Tofteland, the director of the prison’s program and the play, had an eight-year track record at the facility. Rogerson was further attracted by the fact that the next play to be produced was “The Tempest,” whose themes seemed ideal for a company of reprobates, but he reasoned that any work of Shakespeare’s was a worthwhile endeavor.”I’ve done some acting, and I’ve tried to do Shakespeare,” said Rogerson, who is expected to be in attendance at the second of Aspen Filmfest’s two screenings of “Shakespeare Behind Bars” Friday at Carbondale’s Crystal Theatre. “And I know if you make the attempt, it’s all there for you. He’s put the characters, the emotion there. If you make a bold attempt, you can have a great experience as an actor.”One of Rogerson’s principal concerns was that the actors would not be good enough to handle the material. “I was worried it would be ‘Waiting For Guffman,'” he said, referring to the mock documentary about a small-town, small-time community theater production.Talent level is toward the bottom of the list of all the things “Shakespeare Behind Bars” is about, however. More important is how seriously the actors take their roles – not only in order to give a good performance, but also to find whatever insight the characters give into their own lives, their own pasts. The film features numerous episodes of inmates using “The Tempest” to confront their crimes and search their souls with surprising depth and honesty. The prisoners come across not only as worthy of our empathy but human to the point of having something to teach us about forgiveness and responsibility.”As a documentary filmmaker, that’s your biggest challenge. You have to have the characters, or you’re not going to have a film to watch,” Rogerson said. And in finding people who were willing to open themselves up, Rogerson says you can’t do better than inmates serving long sentences. “You’re dealing with a population of people who feel neglected, that no one will listen to them. So here comes a guy with a camera, and they get to tell their side of the story.””Shakespeare Behind Bars” presents an entirely different perspective on prison life than filmgoers are accustomed to witnessing. While the prison is overpopulated, it is also well-lit and reasonably roomy. As seen in the film, the inmates are able to move around freely. The warden, friendly and familiar with his charges, is concerned with rehabilitation.”It really changed my view of prisoners,” Rogerson said. “A lot of stuff that comes out of the media is very sensational, very black-and-white. I’m not saying that bad stuff doesn’t exist.”One lesson I learned, if someone has done the most heinous thing – murdering their wife – and they have the consciousness to work on themselves, change themselves … . Everybody makes mistakes in life. This is a lesson about forgiveness. Not forgiving holds us back, I think. They were inspiring us in that way.””Shakespeare Behind Bars” shows at 7 p.m. today at the Springs Theatre in Glenwood Springs.Filmfest runs through Sunday. See for a complete Filmfest schedule and coverage of the event.Stewart Oksenhorn can be reached at, Colorado

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