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At the recent conference of INARS, the professional organization around Rubenfeld Synergy, we talked a great deal about the restoration of movement to the body, and how restoring movement can give us our sense of soul back. In an interview with Bessel van der Kolk, he spoke of how in trauma, the body gets stuck in the experience, and the brain is unable to make narrative out of it – the story we have about our lives that helps us process and synthesize intense experience.

So when I also heard in that interview about a Shakespeare program as an alternative to prison for juvenile delinquents (van der Kolk joked about them being “condemned to be a Shakespeare actor”), I started thinking about the ways that theatre can help restore people to themselves. I had heard a This American Life episode called simply “Act V,” about a group of maximum-security prisoners performing a portion of Hamlet, and I was transfixed by the ways in which working with Shakespeare’s text and embodying his characters helped these men to reflect on their crimes, to know themselves better, and to heal.

It turns out that this idea has some traction, and a simple search on “shakespeare in prisons” turns up Shakespeare Behind Bars, a Shakespeare in Prisons conference, an Atlantic article and an NPR article on the topic, covering instances of this practice in Kentucky, Indiana, New York, and at Notre Dame.  What is it that makes the Bard so compelling as a tool for prisoner rehabilitation?

I cannot overstate the power of narrative to make sense of emotion, of difficult experiences, of our very lives. Human beings are meant to tell stories; it is something we have done in one way or another since there were people we can recognize as human. And making stories – whether with spoken word, ritual, theatre, writing, art, music, dance, or games – is the most powerful tool we have for freeing our bodies from the “thousand slings and arrows that flesh is heir to,” and making the things that hurt and scare us most manageable. In acting Shakespeare, what has been trapped inside literally becomes expression, emotion and story that happens outside the body, even as it is generated by the body – the limbs and heart and face and vibrating vocal cords of a human being trying to make sense of the world.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we combine talk and touch in order to help people not just access the stories that are held within their bodies, but to tell them in words – to make narrative out of the body’s sometimes incoherent signals, responses, pains and tensions. By going inward we find how the mind makes associations with sensations as we pay close attention to them. But the next and vitally important step is to express outward – to tell that story so that we may better understand ourselves.

These prisoners, then, in my view, are using the Bard’s words to help them in their journey of self-knowledge, and in acting those words, are moving emotions through their bodies that are similar to ones they know from their previous lives: jealousy, love, anger, guilt, shame, the thirst for revenge, the possibility of redemption.

I work with text as well as the body. If you are a performer, a storyteller, or just someone who wants to make sense of your life – contact me.

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