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Theatre Expert Uses Shakespeare in Prison Ministry

By Amanda Morad | October 24, 2012

Curt Tofteland

In a talkback session before the last showing of Regent University's production of The Tempest, Shakespeare Behind Bars founder, Curt Tofteland discussed the themes of the play with Regent president, Dr. Carlos Campo.

"The Tempest starts with a man consumed with a desire for revenge—what a waste of time," Tofteland said. "Forgiveness is more about the victim, not the victimizer, and that's a theme that resonates with the men we work with."

Shakespeare Behind Bars is a non-profit organization that produces some of Shakespeare's most-beloved masterpieces in prisons with the incarcerated. According to Tofteland, these theatrical encounters create major life changes in the inmates who play the classic characters, helping ensure their successful reintegration into society.

Tofteland leads Shakespeare Behind Bars with 34 years of theatrical experience and a lifetime of adoration for the work of Shakespeare. "The insight he had into the human condition—it's deeper than any other writer I've ever encountered," Tofteland said.

Much of what's to love has to do with Shakespeare's willingness to tackle the most controversial ideas of his day. For The Tempest, President Campo explained, that controversy centered on the wayward flagship of the 1609 Virginia Company voyage that ran aground off the coast of Bermuda. "What made Shakespeare such a contemporary artist was that he wasn't afraid to address really delicate issues, to comment on the events and issues of his day," Tofteland said.

"This play in particular really lends itself to themes that the incarcerated can really chew on," he explained. "We're talking about forgiveness and redemption and territory—that's their world."

Shakespeare's tragedies seem to evoke the most profound changes in the actors he works with, Tofteland continued. "Anger is at the root of dysfunction. Anger is what stands between you and your wish," he said. "Shakespeare Behind Bars is about unpacking and exploring that and really creating a family."

That family helps inmates build trust and have a safe place they can feel unthreatened and valued for what they have to offer. "People ask me why I do this and I tell them it's because I love miracles, and I see miracles every day."

Although Regent's run of The Tempest ended Oct. 21, Joyful Noise opens Nov. 16. Learn more about the 2012-2013 theatre schedule.

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