The Pursuit of Character
If looking to the future can cause trepidation, what is this uneasiness I feel in looking back? Memory has a way of playing tricks on the mind, weaving minor accomplishments into major feats, small slights to great grievances. Recollection can morph an accidental occurrence to deliberate heroism; reveal best intentions as off the mark. Painful or shameful scenes can be buried with or without conscious intent. Perspective sometimes sharpens focus, but is often an artist’s manipulation to trick the eye.
I’ve been asked to discuss the process of developing character as part of the ongoing work in Shakespeare Behind Bars, particularly the character of Prospero in our 2002–2003 production of The Tempest. The nine month process is documented in the Philomath Film Shakespeare Behind Bars that premiered at Sundance 2005. How one is remembered, by oneself as well as by others, is largely a matter of perspective.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” —Hamlet
But when part of your life is irrefutably captured on film (despite director’s eye and editor’s cut) memory has far less free reign.
The documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars has been a mixed blessing. Reports that the film transforms viewer’s stereotypical ideas of inmates are greatly gratifying. Conversely, seeing yourself stuck in time, stuck in a self-pitying sadness, myopically focused on forgiveness (to the detriment of not exploring Prospero ‘s drive for revenge), seeing one’s unexamined character flaws glaringly exposed while publicly declaring one’s darkest deeds is unsettling. The experience is both freeing and shameful, humbling and challenging.
My pursuit of character is an ongoing thing in and out of Shakespeare Behind Bars. Each character over my 14 years of participation in SBB has informed me, sometimes challenged my basic assumptions about myself and others, and always helped to expand my awareness and humanity.
Curt L. Tofteland, then the Producing Artistic Director of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, began volunteering at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex outside of Louisville, Kentucky in 1995, my first year of incarceration after being convicted for the murder of my wife in 1984, to develop a program based on the works of Shakespeare. I wasn’t much of a Shakespeare fan at the time, but Curt’s presence brought the only theatrical outlet I was likely to find in prison. Theater games, monologues, and scenes were used to get to know each other, slowly introduce us to the words of Shakespeare, and develop trust as the program evolved into being. Initially an evening of scenes and monologues took shape to be shared with other inmates, as well as family and friends in the prison visiting room before we ventured into full production of complete plays. Fourteen years later, we’re into our twelfth full length play with several other evenings of scenes and monologues along the way.
Curt works with SBB differently than he works with any other company of actors. With us, he is more a facilitator than a director, a co-creator with us rather than an expert trying to impose a predetermined vision on us. The play unfolds in a organic, cooperative way. No idea is thrown out, regardless of its source, if it works and tells the story.
Curt works more like a karate sensei or Zen master whose great gift is to see into the soul of men and know how to gently nudge him to make personal discovery. He lets us know when we are off the mark and offers questions instead of answers to facilitate our journey to the truth. And that is the bottom line for Shakespeare Behind Bars—the truth.
I am an anomaly when it comes to Shakespeare Behind Bars as one of the few participants who had theatrical experience before joining the program. Not that it makes me any better than anyone else in the program; it gives me a different set of baggage to deal with. More often than not, Curt spends his time defusing my actor bag of tricks, the masks that impede the truth. After requisite skits and solos throughout elementary and Sunday school, my first full-fledged production came on the heels of the most severe beating of my childhood and a dissociative episode that forced me out of my body and locked me inside my head. Out of all the seventh grade choirboys I was selected to play Patrick in a high school production of Mame. I was treated like a prince in a production with 50 chorus members and a full orchestra in a state of the art auditorium complete with hydraulic orchestra pit. It gave me the opportunity to be someone else, someone people liked. Acting and performing became an escape for me. It was a chance to not be the worthless piece of shit I felt I was. From that point on I threw myself into school, community, and regional productions with performances and rehearsals overlapping to the point I didn’t have time to dwell on feelings.
The gift of having so many participants of SBB without prior theatrical or Shakespeare exposure is that they come to the experience clean. They have no preconceived notions of what it should or should not be. They don’t get caught up in iambic pentameter or academic debate. Their reactions are pure, unbiased and visceral. Often with text memorized by rote, they can get to the gut of the matter as Curt works with them, without getting stuck in their heads.
Another gift of the process of SBB provides is the luxury (or curse) of living with the text for 9–12 months. Most companies are lucky to have a few weeks to a few months to put up a play. As one play wraps for us in May, we know what next year’s play will be. Personal reading and research begins during our summer hiatus, often with group readings and study in the prison dayrooms, bullpens and Rec. Field. Official rehearsals begin again in the fall.
I make cheat sheets of my lines and cues, whatever character(s) I’ve taken on, and keep them in my pocket for the hurry-up-and-wait life-style of prison. We hurry up to get to the chow hall at the scheduled times and wait for Corrections to catch up. We hurry up to get to the Canteen line to pick up our once-a-week kiosk orders—a covered handrail queue like amusement parks—where the wait can be an hour or two. We hurry up to Medical at the prescribed time and wait for the nurses and practitioners to catch up on overscheduled appointments. This leaves a lot of time to memorize or ruminate on lines. It’s not unusual to catch a few members with scripts running lines waiting for Canteen or on smoke breaks in the bullpens or for discussions of the plays to break out in the chow hall or dayrooms.
When developing any character as part of a production of Shakespeare Behind Bars, it always begins with the text. Along the way, it always returns to the text. When in doubt, what does the text say? For me, the initial private read is for general impact, my ears pricked for characters calling to me and lines resonating within me. Prospero felt like a natural fit from the get-go. The second read, often out loud, is an exploration of what characters I find interesting, to feel whose words roll most naturally off my tongue.
As we move into self-casting the play, discussion begins between members, who wants what role, a spreadsheet is put together of each member’s top three picks, so we know who’s vying for each role. Egos often clash during the process and feelings get hurt during negotiations. There’s an unspoken understanding that if you play a major role one year, you step back the next season and let others come to the fore. Some members are line counters and initially pick roles based on how large a part is, while others pursue emotional connections to characters. Some want to play characters that expose the best parts of themselves, while others are drawn to what is going to challenge them to grow. And in an all-male company there’s always, who’s going to play the female roles? Again, there’s an unspoken understanding that at some point in one’s SBB career, one should take on a female role. Some swear they’ll never do it, some agree kicking and screaming in protest. Those who do take on female roles discover the gift of delving into the female psyche as we strive to develop truthful characters, not drag show caricatures. We learn that feminine affectation is not necessary, simply tell the truth while speaking the text. I’ve discovered Shakespeare didn’t write female roles for actresses, he wrote them for men to portray. His truthful text does the work, not actor affectation. As the cast comes together, and often times well into the rehearsal process, we discover what Curt has coined as one of our mantras: “We don’t choose the roles—the roles choose us.”
I compulsively pursued the role of Prospero in the 2002–2003 Shakespeare Behind Bars production of The Tempest for purely selfish reasons. Another prominent member of the company decided he too wanted the role of Prospero and it was on. There were private verbal knockdown and drag-outs, and a lot of hurtful things were said on both sides of the equation, but I was determined, come hell or high water, to stand up for what I wanted. That stance was unusual and unfamiliar territory for me. I’m usually the one to run from head-to-head conflict at all costs. For undisclosed reasons, the other member backed down (not a usual stance for him either) and the role of Prospero was mine. But along with the role I held on to hurts and resentments the conflict evoked.
Prior to The Tempest, I attended an Impact of Crime on Victims seminar (Spring 2001) and worked with a facilitator from a Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) through April of 2004. The VORP program included preparing for and making a video message for the survivors of my crime. Forgiveness, more specifically my desire to be forgiven, weighed heavily on me. I wanted to know why my Christian family and the Christian community from which I came could not or would not forgive me. I began extensive research on the process of forgiveness. During that research, both academic and personal, I became overwhelmed and felt myself shutting down. It reminded me of a lifelong habit of avoidance, evading conflict at all costs, putting off dealing with things, repressing what I was really feeling but did not know how to identify or deal with. But I’ve come to understand that unconsciously choosing not to do anything is a choice. It is a choice to give into the fear of the unknown and remain in a nether land of the familiar. By choosing not to choose, I allow myself to be pushed into emotional corners unaware, which eventually caused repression to erupt into my life and the lives of others. Repressed emotion, like Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, will not be ignored.
While working on The Tempest I was amazed to discover how compartmentalized my life has been. It seems for the most part, I was unaware of what was happening in different aspects of my life. It’s embarrassing to acknowledge that lack of awareness. It is similar to Prospero in Millaine, so focused on study of alchemy and magic, he was totally unaware of what was going on in other aspects of his life, particularly with his brother.
According to my journal in the winter of 2002–2003, I was exploring writing exercises from Dr. Phil’s book, Self Matters. I was primarily exploring the 10 defining moments of my life. In the midst of Dr. Phil work I found buried notes from a reading of Noel Cobb’s Prospero Island: The Secret Alchemy at the Heart of The Tempest based on a Jungian psycho-spiritual and metaphorical approach. I found particular interest in the assessment of Prospero’s psyche when applied to Jung’s “Idea of the Four Functions of Consciousness.” There were parallels to my own psyche.
Journal Entry The root of my desire for forgiveness began years ago, 8–9 years after I took my wife’s life, a year or so before my arrest. I’d never dealt with Lisa’s death. I didn’t know how to wrap my mind, heart, and soul around the whole concept, my responsibility for it, the pain I had caused others, the horror of the cover-up and daily denial among extended family and the church family of which I was “a leader.” I blocked the truth out. I couldn’t deal with the reality of it, or the notion that I could kill anyone, let alone the one person I’d felt had really loved me. I couldn’t incorporate it into the whole of me. I was emotionally and psychically fractured. On many levels, I had shut down (and continued to be so), focused on my new “role” of widower and single father, and looked only to the future. On the rare occasions I did look back, I blamed God for not healing me (by making me not gay), for not stopping me prior to the act of taking Lisa’s life, and for not bringing her back to life immediately after the act.
After remarrying, moving to California to attend acting school, coming out, getting a divorce—things long buried began to creep to the surface. I call my first acting class “Introduction to Therapy:” The instructor focused on Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting sense memory exercises. I watched younger, college-aged classmates’ (I was pushing 30 at the time) walls tumbling down. I hoped tossing a few bricks over the wall would placate the instructor’s demands. I couldn’t go where she wanted without a complete breakdown. On the flip side, the experience with my classmates, being away from the buckle of the Bible Belt, my family, and—at least geographically—my past, finally helped me start to deal with my sexuality. But with progress of personal acceptance, my sexual acting out increased. On the surface I explained it away as simply exploring aspects of my newly acknowledged self. Beneath it all, it was a way to keep deeper emotions and reality of my past at bay. I learned to skate across the surface of emotion, and with just the slightest emotional connection manufacture the imagined pretense needed to act.
During a rehearsal for a production of Carnival at L.A.’s Group Repertory Theater that I was required as the character of Paul to strike the ingenue, Lili. I couldn’t do it. The idea of striking a woman, purposely perpetrating violence against a woman froze me. Bizarrely, I had never considered killing Lisa violent. I rationalized it as saving her from me, that God was rescuing her for eternity. The musical director kept pushing me to darken my tone—the exact opposite of the bright, hopeful gospel singer of my training. I resisted my darkness for fear of being shallowed whole. I didn’t deal with my darkness, my shadow-self. I ignored it, pretended it wasn’t there. I hoped it would go away. But the shadow of my past life was catching up to me.
Once an SBB play is cast, the members start memorizing lines and researching character. We’re encouraged to use the text as the main source and ask the usual questions: What does the character say? What do other characters say about the character? How does your character speak? What kind of relationships does the character have? Where does your character fit into the telling of the story? Then add Shakespeare specific questions like: Are the bulk of your characters’ lines written in prose or poetic form?
Curt has us work from First Folio Editions. It makes the initial read more difficult, but gives more to reap in textual clues. Contractions in the first folio can make clear the rhythms of iambic pentameter. Phonetic spellings and long vowels give clues to pronunciation. What words are capitalized (besides at the beginning of poetic line) may clue vocal emphasis. We cross reference with modem editions, use lexicons and Shakespeare encyclopedias. I find myself continually looking up words, even words I think I know, to unearth archaic, Old and Middle English definitions. I’m always amazed how Shakespeare selects words with multiple layers of meaning. The definition of the word in context is not necessarily one thing or the other, but often all of the above; or it can mean one thing in one performance and something quite different in the next.
Once I begin to know the words and phrases Shakespeare wrote, I try to go beyond mere meaning to see what images are evoked by his language. The audience doesn’t have the benefit of dictionaries and encyclopedias during performance when they hear unfamiliar language. It is my job as an actor/artist to have a clear image in mind. When I know what I am saying, hold a clear image, I’m more likely to bring the audience along with me as I’m telling the story.
As we get on our feet in rehearsal, whether we’ve memorized the text by rote or dissected the life out of it, the major hurdle is to break out of speech patterns we developed as we learned it. Most of the initial memorization is solo work—going over the lines quietly in our heads in our cells with another inmate in a bunk two feet away, or in the hurry-up-and-wait lines of incarceration, or mumbling to oneself on endless laps around the Rec. Field. Some then move on to work with partners or mentors before work in a formal rehearsal. After the initial stumble-through of saying lines out loud in front of a group of people (often a big hurdle for newbies), Curt goes about breaking us out of our unconscious vocal patterns. Calling on techniques from Peter Brooks and others he’ll have us repeat a passage of text hitting all the pronouns. Then we’ll go back and punch all the verbs. As we place emphasis on words differently than we memorized them, we not only break vocal patterns, but find different meanings. Focusing on what’s a pronoun or verb also distracts us from the predetermined choices of what we think the line should mean or how we think it should sound. We discover the many options that are available to us in the moment if we only try them on for size. With Curt, there’s always “An ‘O’ is never just an ‘O,’ it comes from the gut!” Don’t dare try to gloss over an ‘and,’ ‘but,’ ‘yet,’ or ‘or.’ They demand some sort of emphasis. We inevitably feel vulnerable and stupid as the familiarity of our vocal patterns is pulled out from under us. We claim brain flatulence as we go blank while new synapses are created for the text.
Once vocal patterns break down, the next task is to bring the text out of our heads and into our bodies. As strange as that may sound, if feels even stranger to someone more comfortable in their head than in their body. You can see it in an actor when his gestures and posture don’t match or support what he’s saying. If he doesn’t know what to do with his hands, he’s in his head thinking, “What should I do with my hands?” When the text is rooted in the body, the hands take care of themselves. In fact, every gesture, step, or move is in sync and motivated by the connection of the text in the body. Curt constantly asks the infuriating question, “Where does that live in your body?” There are times it feels like he’s speaking a foreign language. “Don’t layer on an emotion, find a connection.” “Just let it drop in.” Drop in to what? Even after years of book-learned prison yoga in an attempt to reintegrate my head with my body, heal the rift between the spirit and the physical, going within my body is not a place I go naturally. Buried emotional memory hasn’t seen the light of day for years, if at all. I have to be coaxed as my heart constricts and my chest tightens in an attempt to shut down access. I try to follow my breath with techniques I learned in vocal training and meditation practice to move deeper into my body and make truthful connections. The mind tries to follow the body’s lead and zone out to prevent going there. But there’s safety in Curt’s voice and trust in the circle of this band of bard-brothers. He will not push me farther than he sees I can go on any given day. There will be acknowledgment as he reminds the whole group, “The nobility is in the attempt.”
Nowhere else in my life, particularly my life in corrections, am I required to reach beyond the surface. Nowhere else in prison, am I asked to get out of my head. No one, but Curt facilitates the space to process difficult truths and encourage complete responsibility for our choices and actions. The great illusion of incarceration in the United States is that warehousing and punishment requires offenders to take that responsibility and somehow miraculously rehabilitate themselves. Many inmates are stuck in the past or some imagined future, while most simply try to survive prison in the only way they know how. There are rehabilitation and educational options, but they are not widespread or for the most part required, and with funds diminishing for basic services, classes and programs are the first to go. Without Curt voluntarily developing the Shakespeare Behind Bars program at no cost to the Department of Corrections, and the generous support of Kentucky Shakespeare Festival and private patrons, hundreds of men over the past 13 years would not have been given the opportunity to habilitate themselves. Curt makes the observation that men can’t be re-habilitated if they haven’t been habilitated in the first place.
One of the most powerful SBB moments I remember was not captured on film. Rehearsing the scene between Antonio (Prospero’s brother and usurper) and Sebastian (King Alonzo’s brother and co-conspirator against Prospero) Curt was pushing the actor portraying Antonio to dig deeper, bring the text down into his body. Antonio is trying to convince Sebastian to take advantage of the shipwreck and usurp his brother to become King of Naples. As the textual assassination plot sank in, he quietly said to himself, “I didn’t have to kill him.” The actor was the only other SBB member who had attended the Impact of Crime on Victims seminar with me. I had been privately astounded at his insistence that his crime had been justifiable homicide, killing the alleged rapist of someone close to him. He rationalized that his cultural background and military training gave him no other choice. “I didn’t have to kill him,” he repeated as the room went silent. I could see the profound shift in him as Antonio’s plotting and scheming took root in his personal reality. He may have never come to his conclusion and change of world view had it not been for the Shakespeare Behind Bars experience.
We can know the text in our heads, but not fully understand it until we find a home for it in our bodies. Through Curt’s insightful questions, gentle nudging and welcoming spirit, he helps to navigate the not-so-easy path to body connection. Once those connections are made, we are simply asked to let them be. They’re there. We don’t try to artificially drum up the connections every time, or try to recreate a moment that has come and gone. We try to make as many creative synapses as possible, build an arsenal of options that we can draw from in the moment, because the moment is always new and our only connection to what is true. The task is to learn to be totally present in the moment, trusting in your preparation, and allow it to be without judgment.
My obsession with forgiveness kept me from consciously identifying Prospero’s shadow. And as I’ve found out over the years, the reason we think we choose a role is often eclipsed by deeper profundity. Prospero’s shadow was perhaps his obsession with all things magical and alchemical, to the exclusion of fulfilling his responsibilities as Duke of Millaine and as a parent. He allowed his brother Antonio to attend to the daily demands of running the city-state, and numerous attendants to care for the infant Miranda (as revealed in 1.2.) As with many of Shakespeare’s ingénues, Miranda’s mother is absent—referred to in past tense, most likely deceased with no mention of how, when, or why. Prospero lovingly recalls his wife “a piece of virtue.” Was it her loss that transformed curiosity to obsession in an attempt to drown grief in study and practice? Over-occupy his mind so he didn’t have to feel his heart? Is Prospero’s shadow-self his need to control? Or is Prospero’s shadow his desire for revenge?
Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University’s Forgiveness Project tells us in his book Forgive for Good, “Unresolved grievances are like planes on an air traffic controller’s radar screen, taking up precious air space draining attention and energy, increasing stress, forcing harder work and burnout.” He posits: “Three Core Components Underlie the Creation of Any Longstanding Grievance: 1. Exaggerated taking of personal offense; 2. Blaming the offender for how you feel; 3. Creation of a grievance story. Careful feeding and nurturing of these grievance components can keep a hurt alive forever.”
Prospero has 12 years on the island to feed and nurture his grievance story. Not only had Antonio and Alonzo deposed him and set him out to sea to die, they attempted to give his innocent daughter the same fate. While Prospero’s grievance story festers, he increases his magical power and ability to such strength that when the opportunity to wreak revenge arrives through the observation of spirits he controls, he finalizes his plot by raising a tempest and forcing the wrack of the ship carrying his perpetrators. The scheme is so far reaching that he includes his unwitting daughter in his plans to control Naples by putting a spell on her to fall in love with Ferdinand. His hurt and hatred are so great he doesn’t consider the consequences of using her without consent. This is another uncomfortable aspect of Prospero’s shadow-self that I did not fully explore at the time of our production. It was not a conscious choice to avoid this aspect of Prospero’s psyche (and conversely mine), as much as it was something that did not or could not come to the fore at the time. Who would want to admit using a motherless infant to gamer pity and a twisted sort of love and attention while deflecting reality?
But fortunately for Prospero, true love trumps his malevolent magic. I have the feeling (though no specific textual reference) while spying on Miranda and Ferdinand’s courtship, their burgeoning love begins to melt Prospero’s intent for revenge. He begins to see the long-term effects of his choices on Miranda and his future heirs. The “love-seed” planted in the observation scenes comes to fruition in 5.1 when Ariel reports the grief and suffering of Prospero’s old friend and advocate Gonzalo, another innocent bystander of collateral damage in his plot for revenge. Expanded awareness of the long-term effects of his actions, coupled with Ariel’s capacity for compassion with the “were I human(e)” comment reveals to Prospero the consequences of a future without forgiveness. So drastic is this moment of discovery that Prospero abandons magic—the focus of 12 years intense study and his means for revenge, so that he cannot return to such potential evil in the future.
The confrontation during Carnival caused a breakdown/breakthrough that finally got me to start a 12-step program for sexually compulsive behavior and to seek information about therapy. I still did not know how I would handle my deepest, darkest secret, or how much I could actually discuss with a therapist without them being legally compelled to report me to the authorities. I believed there would be little chance at personal recovery if I returned to Kentucky and turned myself in at that time. I didn’t even know if I would survive facing the truth because depression and thoughts of suicide were always knocking at my door. I confided in a roommate, my 12-step guru and friend (attending college to become a drug and alcohol counselor) to find what a therapist’s legal requirements were about reporting a crime. He was the first person I had ever admitted the truth to. I never considered the weight my admission would have on someone else, especially a person who thought he was the only one to know the truth. His fear led him to photocopy my 12-step journal and give it to the police, opening a cold case that had long been perceived an accident. He didn’t realize that I did indeed start therapy.
To make a long story short, I became aware of the investigation and secret grand jury action which would lead to my arrest. I was so overwhelmed by the truth catching up to me before I’d had a chance to deal with it, fear of having to face those I’d hurt so deeply without knowing how, and the betrayal of a friend (how’s that shoe fit, Hal?) that I attempted suicide by using a friend’s copy of Dr. Kervorkian’s book and his stash of pharmaceuticals, only to return to consciousness 36 hours later disappointed to be alive. Still determined to disappear one way or another, I vanished within two weeks.
A New Beginning
I ended up on the Puna side of the Big Island at an off-grid spiritual retreat center in the middle of the rain forest. They were in desperate need of kitchen help, so the son-of-a-chef, struggling actor with years of cater-waiter experience stepped up to a 30–hour workweek in exchange for room and board. Since there was no cash involved, no paperwork was required; ideal for an assumed identity with nothing to back it up. I moved into an 8’ x 8’ A-frame in the campground, spent the majority of time off meditating. My prime focus was for the well-being of the daughter I’d abandoned to my ex-wife, but the meditations began to expand out from her to include her stepparents, grandparents, her birth mother’s siblings, my siblings, the members of the churches back in Lexington—everyone who had fallen under the effects of my selfish, fearful actions.
My meditation practice was an attempt to find peace, gain perspective, seek answers, and effect healing. Prospero’s practice of magic may have started with purer motives to satisfy curiosity, but takes a harmful and hurtful bent when motivated by revenge. As his magical powers increase, his desire for revenge, unchecked and strengthened by his growing grievance, gives him a sense of absolute power. Prospero believes the popular Christian/Western idea that humanity is superior to all other creatures and creation. Even before Caliban makes his misguided attempt to mate with Miranda, Prospero treats him, Ariel and all other spirits and creatures as his underlings—only there to serve his needs and do his bidding. This inherent prejudice and bigotry flares from its ugly root as he arrogantly chides both Caliban and Ariel in superior ways. While Prospero’s practice brings out the worst behavior in him, my mediation practice helps the best in me rise to the surface.
As my search for inner tranquility continued, I began instruction with local Reiki masters. I also began participating as fire bearer in full moon sweat lodges offered at the spiritual center. I was hoping for understanding of my Cherokee roots, to connect with a part of me that had always been hidden from view. The facilitator taught me how to build the altar with alternating levels of wood and large lava stones to be used to produce the heat for the night’s sweat. I learned to pray to the four directions, and as I was inviting participation from my ancestors, I was met with the presence of my recently deceased and long estranged half-Cherokee grandfather. In an instant I was flooded with understanding, compassion, and forgiveness for whatever it was he did to my mother. Exposure to the indigenous culture of the Hawaiians, and the devastating effect western culture and religion had on it helped connect me to my Cherokee culture. I felt the sense of disconnection, the cultural stripping, and loss of identity my half-breed grandfather must have felt. I was not seeking to forgive my grandfather. It came upon me unexpected. With this new revelation, I began to see my situation as something much larger than my specific, fearful actions, but as a collective of unresolved multigenerational issues and events.
Similarly, Prospero’s forgiveness of Antonio and Alonzo falls on him unexpectedly and unsought. He was pursuing what he believed to be a just and righteous revenge. In both Prospero’s and my case, it was not so much a conscious choice in the immediate moment but rather an unconscious sense of forgiveness that washed over us. Once forgiveness came into our consciousness, the choice to embrace it or ignore it became ours. Choosing to embrace forgiveness is what Prospero refers to “Nobler reason.”
After six months at Kalani Honua, I moved to the other side of the Big Island to manage a Bed-n-Breakfast in Captain Cook. I leapt at the opportunity for a lighter work load, more privacy, and the time to practice meditation and Reiki, unaware that a few miles below the Samurai House was an ancient Hawaiian temple complex on Kealakakua Bay—Puu o Honua o Honaunau—The City of Refuge. Traditional Hawaiian culture had “an eye for an eye” type of justice. If someone was killed, the family of the deceased has the right to take the life of the killer. If the killer could make it to the City of Refuge, he could not only find refuge but could seek absolution from temple priests. The priest would then negotiate a form of restorative justice and restitution with the victim’s family.
I began to hitchhike down to the facility (a state park) and practice my healing meditation, hoping for forgiveness amidst the ruins of the ancient temple. After nearly a year in Hawaii, I had a shift in consciousness during a Reiki treatment from a co-initiate. My situation hadn’t changed, but it felt like my head popped through the clouds, and I could see things from a higher perspective. I knew that in order to facilitate healing, I had to return to Kentucky and take personal and legal responsibility for taking Lisa’s life.
In their own ways, Prospero’s island and my island retreat were sanctuaries. Either fate or some guiding principle led Prospero and me to our respective islands. Initially, they were places for simple survival. They became sanctuaries for our development. While others wanted Prospero to disappear, I sought to disappear on my own. We both had to survive by our wits. As we pursued our practices, we both arrived at startling discoveries, discoveries that we weren’t looking for. I found the clarity I needed to return to the mainland and own up to my wrongful actions. Prospero found the clarity to return to his kingdom. We both found the capacity to forgive.
“Live in hope, not expectation” is another Zen-like “Curtism.” The broken little boy in me longed to be loved and accepted. I was desperate to be forgiven. The Reiki belief is that the healings are complete and simply await acceptance. Why would people choose to hold onto pain? Why would good Christian people not follow Jesus’ example of forgiveness?
Since I wasn’t seeing the result I wanted, I became impatient with “healing meditation.” The trial, sentencing and incarceration seemed to do nothing in terms of reconciliation and restoration.
From my perspective prison is warehousing and punishment, separation and judgment, dehumanization and abandonment. After waiting seven-eight years (okay Hal, hadn’t your victims waited 10 years before any sort of justice or closure?), I intellectualized the pursuit of forgiveness through study. I tried to figure out what their problem was. Even though I was intellectually aware of the concept “you must be forgiving to receive forgiveness,” I entertained many grievance stories and held on to personal pain and sense of victimization as if the grievances were a part of me. I was ignorant of the principle that as long as I held on to my grievance stories, they would define how I navigate my life. As long as I didn’t forgive, I can view my perceived offenders as “the other” and feel perfectly justified about holding on to my grudges. Just like people label me as “the other”—convicted felon, murderer, and monster. Labels and grievances dull the vision and sense that “the other” has inherent humanity.
My grievance stories were far more petty and trivial than Prospero’s. No one ever tried to depose me or abandon my daughter and me to certain death. But I hold on to my grievances as if they were the most valuable treasure. I can’t seem to let go of slights from years ago. Every time I see or even think of certain people, grievances start looping my brain, indignation arises blaming the offender for what I feel instead of taking responsibility for those feelings myself. I can’t seem to let go of the self-identity as “the wronged one,” and yet I expect those whom I’ve truly hurt to let go and forgive me.
While rehearsing Prospero other SBB members could see similarities between the character and me that I could not (or chose not) to see. Prospero was very controlling—of Caliban, of Ariel, even of his own daughter. I was not controlling, I was trying to be helpful. Could people not see that I was simply trying to be helpful? Controlling! I was offended. And blind. Not only was my desire for forgiveness rooted in my own selfish need for acceptance and love, my “healing work” was a manipulation of the universe for my own benefit. There is an element of the greater good in my desire to facilitate healing, but my selfish attachment to outcome actually resists its good intention. Attachment to outcome is a sure sign of a control addict, no matter what helpful blanket is thrown over it. As Ariel holds up a mirror to Prospero’s nature, Prospero has a flash of insight urged on by Ariel’s compassionate comment in 5.1: “I would, Sir were I human(e).”
Prospero’s control reaches its peak as he traps his offenders on the island, his ‘righteous’ plans for revenge come to a head, but love breaks through his hard exterior. His attempts, through the use of magic, to control his daughter, are not strong enough to hold back the tide of Miranda and Ferdinand’s burgeoning love. It is their love that changes Prospero’s world view; showing him that his plan for revenge will have long-term effects. He begins to see the world from a higher perspective than his own grievance story. Prospero wasn’t seeking to forgive Antonio and King Alonso. It came to him in a flash, unexpectedly. His head pops through the clouds of hurt and pain and he sees the bigger picture. Prospero calls it higher reason. I see it as a higher consciousness.
from Prospero’s Island: The Secret Alchemy at the Heart of The Tempest
According to Jung’s Idea of the Four Functions of Consciousness an individual has one superior function and its polar opposite as inferior function. [Each function can, and usually does bleed over into the next function.] The superior function is often overdeveloped, while the inferior function is often underdeveloped, neglected, or uncultivated.
Thinking represses Feeling. Intuition represses Sensation.
Feeling represses Thinking. Sensation represses Intuition.
The inferior function is infuriatingly slow to develop. It is the source of many irritations and daily embarrassments. As it is extremely sensitive to criticism, it always manages to cover up and present the impression that all is well and functioning properly. In fact, most of the responses are either completely inappropriate or absent. It is only through the consistent attempt to assimilate the inferior function that it can gradually be raised to a higher level of consciousness. This is usually accomplished by a corresponding lowering of the level of the superior function—a sacrificium intellicus, for example, in the case of thinking as the superior function.
In Prospero’s case, focusing on thinking keeps him from feeling. The study of magic and its practice give a framework for his thinking. It feeds into the masculine idea that it is better to think and do, than to feel. And it also plays into the Christian/Western idea that intelligence is what makes humans greater than other creatures. My own thinking isn’t quite so focused.
Journal excerpt from Winter 2002–2003 I know how to think Thinking occupies my waking and sleeping hours. I wake up in the middle of the night with my mind racing, and quickly cannot remember what I was dreaming. I know how to think for myself but I still don’t always know how to feel for myself. I can feel through characters in a book or a movie or a play, ultimately an empathetic act, but somehow still (intellectually) detached from what I’m feeling. Give me a song or a character and I can think my way to what I imagine is the appropriate feeling. Sometimes, in spite of myself there is an automatic resonance of emotion that I can’t explain. I equate it with what I understand the experience of “channeling” to be. My ego/thinking gets out of the way and a connection to something deeper and broader than I am consciously aware of appears.
On my own I don’t always know what I am feeling, or how to deal with what I’m feeling. I grew up in an environment where it was appropriate to be quiet, unassuming, and appear to be happy/content. Any other emotion was deemed unacceptable. My feelings (wants, desires, etc.) were never important; they were never honored. As a result I did not learn to identify or process deeper, particularly darker emotions. I could never be angry. Not only was it inappropriate, it was sinful. God could be angry, adults could be angry (particularly at kids), but I could not. When my brothers and I would get into knock down drag outs when we were home alone, what I know now to be rage would often burst out—filled with hatred and a desire to hurt—that I did not understand, which in return would evoke a tremendous sense of guilt, remorse, and shame for being so sinful. But those specifics were private, never discussed, but often resulted in repeated public acts of repentance and contrition at altar call/invitation time in church. A tearful, frightened kid terrified of going to hell for such sinful acts; rededicating my life to Christ, eventually to full-time Christian service (the ultimate carrot dangled before young people at our church to prove one worthy of God’s love).
Looking at Jung’s Idea of the Four Functions of Consciousness’ correlation to the four elements, I’m reminded of the four temperaments: choleric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic. It is not lost on me that Prospero’s closet relationship with an elemental creature is that with Ariel, a creature of Air. Thinking is correlated with air.
Prospero’s superior function according to Cobb is the same as mine (in my own self diagnosis)—thinking. Conversely our inferior function is feeling. For me, thinking goes beyond the intellect to include the business of the mind in general, or what is called “monkey mind” in Zen. The mind stays busy, often in a hyper-overdrive, in many cases to keep from feeling.
Prospero seems to do a better job as a parent on the island than he did as Duke of Millaine. In 1.2 Miranda remembers being attended to by many women. The attendants had primary care of parenting in the absence of her mother and Prospero’s emotional distance. On the island there were no attendants; Prospero must be her primary caregiver. He prides himself, “… and Here / Have I thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit / Then other princess can, that have more time / For vainer hours; and tutors not so careful” (1.2.208+). He delighted in his time “homeschooling” his daughter. Perhaps the one-on-one time makes her a well-adjusted young lady.
The Trap of Thinking
There is no way to read, to study or to perform Shakespeare without thinking. I’m sure many people are drawn to Shakespeare’s work primarily because of the profound thought it provokes. This by no means excludes the emotional challenges of Shakespeare and SBB. If we only intellectualize the text, we would be no more than amateur scholars. Finding a personal resonance with the text and emotional connection to character is more a part of the SBB process than intellectualization. In fact, those of us who like to intellectualize are often trapped inside our heads, much like Prospero with his magic, keeping us from feeling. Curt constantly pushes us, particularly those of us more comfortable in our heads than in our bodies, to find where the text lives, resides, resounds in our bodies. The emotional connection, emotional memory is found in our bodies, not our heads. The problem with intellectualizing the text is the trap formulating an idea an emotional response or mood should be rather than finding an organic connection. That thought, or intellectual choice, is an imitation of life rather than a true emotional response in the moment. It plays as pretense and the audience is either unmoved or distracted by the impression of good “acting.” Neither one is authentic or connected to the truth in the text. Connecting with real emotional memory buried in the body communicates the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is in the nakedness of that truth that we find emotional development and healing.
One of my favorite aspects of SBB is the lively discussions that spontaneously burst forth during the rehearsal process. SBB participants have learned to speak their minds and are largely unafraid to voice their diverse opinions. Discussions erupt out of scholastic debate from topics of historical sources and mythological references to etymology. Many more dialogues are rooted in the personal resonances a piece of text arouses. “This is what I feel.” “This is what it reminds me of.” “Oh no, I don’t see it like that at all.” As Shakespeare himself says there is nothing right or wrong but thinking makes it so. The discussions can also provide real emotional responses, from the inevitable clash of egos inherent in any group, to the reflection of personal issues that are more glaringly obvious in those around us than we wish to admit in ourselves.
Whether the thinking is rooted in academic proofing or in personal experience, thinking can become a trap, a hurdle, an impediment for an actor attempting to live in the moment. Likewise, Prospero’s focus on nothing but revenge becomes the trap that he must overcome.
In a production where the focus is on the moment, the text, your acting partners, and the energy of the audience, thinking can trip up an actor. The skill is learning to trust all the academic and personal work of preparation and rehearsal, and letting it go. I liken it to surfing. One’s preparation is the skill, the training to ride whatever wave comes your way. Curt likens it to a jazz musician who knows the structure of a melody and has proficiency of his instrument, then can riff on the energy present with the other musicians and audience at the time of live performance. The moment is a once in a lifetime thing that cannot be rewound and replayed, reproduced like a book or proof-tested like an academic argument.
I see it in myself and in observation of other SBB actors as we rehearse (if I see it in them, it surely must be in me), that the mind and the ego are greatly intertwined. The author Eckhart Tolle speaks of the same observation as a condition of human (un)consciousness and the fundamental flaw of Descartes “I think, therefore I am.” We think we are our egos, when in fact we are much more. Sometimes a personal idea is so entrenched in ego that any comment construed as criticism is taken as an attack. As actors, at times, we get so attached to an intellectual or personal choice about a character or line reading, the ego tries to prove it is right at all costs. Supporting the decision is what seems right, and when the moment doesn’t support the predetermined choice, the ego forces the issue, and it feels like failure. When one holds a choice or an idea as the ideal, and the ideal is not achieved, the effect can be devastating to the ego. The choice to defend the decision becomes the focus rather than speaking the truth, and the moment is lost. And the truth in the moment is all that really matters.
“The evil men do lives after them
The good is oft interred with their bones.” —Antony in Julius Caesar
Being incarcerated often feels like being interred—dead to the world, dead to members of my family, dead to the church of my youth and former community. I imagine that if I am remembered, it is more likely for the evil I have done, eclipsing any good that may have occurred prior to or after all that surrounds the commission of my crime. There is nothing inherent in a punitive justice system that requires me to look within myself or take personal responsibility. The ongoing work of Shakespeare Behind Bars facilitates the rare occasion of personal reflection to take responsibility for my personal choices, as well as provides an opportunity to remember and encourage my goodness. It doesn’t ignore my shadow-self, but holds a mirror up to it, enabling me to embrace what I’d split from or hidden. The pursuit of character within the confines of SBB opens me to all aspects of my self (SELF) and embrace them in a holistic way.
Shakespeare Behind Bars, and more particularly, the friendship and mentorship of Curt Tofteland, has been the most humanizing and healing experience of my incarceration. Curt does not excuse my past behavior, nor should it be excused. He sees me as an individual of worth and potential, and even redemption—an extremely rare commodity in the warehouse wasteland of incarceration. He challenges all of us in SBB to rise above our past and current circumstance, while being totally responsible for who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. Shakespeare is the practice and Curt is the sensei who gently guides us to our own personal discoveries, self-enlightenment, and healing, and helps us to develop our own healthy sense of community and family. He also reminds those of us who have taken another life, that we are not only responsible for living our own life with integrity, we have the responsibility to make up for—as best we can—the life we took. No one else in my prison experience has ever even hinted at such a concept, let alone encouraged or supported such an effort.
Shakespeare Behind Bars is a program of choice. No one is compelled to participate with a carrot of educational goodtime (time reduction earned and deducted from minimum serve-out dates), fulfillment of sentencing guidelines, or parole board requirements dangled in front of our noses. We self-select this often difficult but ultimately rewarding process of soul-searching, personal responsibility, and truth-telling. Our greatest mantra is “tell the truth.” As we strive to tell the truth of a character with Shakespeare’s eloquent words, we must first examine our own personal truth to reflect and resound a character’s truth.
Prospero is not finished with me yet, nor I with him. In 2003, it was my blindness, my overwhelming drive for control, my prejudice of those who navigate the world differently from me, and the desire to create a better world for my daughter that were my strongest connections to Prospero. If I took on the role again today, he would be a very different man, as I myself am in a different place than I was six years ago. The moments then, cannot be recreated now. As I’m encouraged to find the truth in the moment while working with Shakespeare’s text, I see a spiritual dimension and correlation which I can apply to my everyday life. The only path to reconciliation of my past and my future is in the present.
“But release me from my bands
With the help of your two hands.” —Prospero
The momentary absolution of audience applause dissipates as they are escorted from the prison visiting room and I am strip-searched before returning to the yard and my cell.
“As you from crimes would pardon’d be
Let your indulgence set me free.” —Prospero
There is no priest to sacramentally absolve me of my sin, remit my punishment, or negotiate recompense and reconciliation. Sadness still stalks me seeking inroads. The joy of connection with company and audience —potent human connection—fades as the reality of distance from those I hurt the most sinks in.
A student of SBB documentary producer Jilanne Spitzmiller responded to a viewing of the film in a way that makes me realize my pursuit of character is hardly over: “The happy ending to this movie would be to find the guy that is totally free in his concrete prison.”
This is the moment in which I live, and the experience of Shakespeare Behind Bars reminds me that there is a spark of goodness in me yet. I trust the work I’ve accomplished and continue the work. I stand in the moment of infinite possibility. And in this moment, there is potential freedom.