Sir Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson and Jerry Guenthner
share one thing in common: they’ve all played Hamlet. Jerry
Guenthner, however, is far from being a household name, unless you
happen to live in a cell
block at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex outside Louisville,
At 6 feet, 5 inches and carrying over 330 pounds, Jerry
Guenthner makes an imposing Hamlet. He is serving a 65-year
sentence for killing
an undercover policeman during a 1986 robbery. He is barely
40 years old. Mr. Guenthner and several fellow inmates, only
one of whom has
had any theatre training, are dedicated members of an ensemble
of players under the direction of Curt L. Tofteland, producing
of Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.
Ringed with watchtowers and razor-wire fences, this medium-security
correctional facility is home to an inmate population of
around 1,200 serving time for, among other crimes, manslaughter,
and murder. Since 1995, the company has attracted the talent
and commitment of blacks, whites, gays, homophobes, atheists,
Christians—all for the purpose of stepping into the challenging
and often chaotic universe created by Shakespeare’s compelling
imagination. In recognition of its extensive outreach programming,
Festival received the 2003 Governor’s Organizational Arts
Education Award. DPC recently interviewed Tofteland about
the origins and goals of the ensemble.
How did you become involved in prison drama?
Years ago there was a Books Behind Bars program at the facility.
It brought at-risk middle-school youth into the correctional
facility to discuss books and life with inmates. The hope was
that the students would see what might happen if they made
severe mistakes in their lives. The inmates enjoyed the discussions.
I became involved when we added a Shakespeare performance unit
to the Books program. The inmates so enjoyed the performance
unit that I volunteered to continue, on a weekly basis, to
work with those inmates who desired a deeper experience with
the Bard. They were highly enthusiastic, very dedicated.
After several months, we wanted to share our work with an audience.
We put together an evening of scenes, monologues and sonnets
from Shakespeare. We did several performances for the general
inmate population and one performance for outside guests. A
small handful of people were invited. Several family members
came, too. It was very moving. Very powerful to see the pride
on the family members’ faces.
When did you stage your first full-length work?
I’d meet with the men a minimum of twice a week, and in 1996 we did our
first full production, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
We’ve done Twelfth Night, Othello, Titus
Andronicus, Hamlet and in 2003 we toured The
Tempest to two other correctional
facilities in the state. That was the first time in the history
of the American penal system. We’re currently in rehearsal
with Julius Caesar.
And the men play all the women’s
Absolutely. Just as it was in Shakespeare’s day.
What’s the reaction of
the inmate audience when they see fellow inmates portraying
They were razed pretty heavily at first,
but then things quieted down. They all bought into the story.
They got caught up in
the genuineness of the performances. Good theatre will capture
anyone and transport them into a special world. That’s
what happens here.
You don’t do trimmed-down texts?
No. They want it all. I start with First Folio versions, but
I might make slight cuts here and there. For his role as Hamlet,
Jerry Guenthner had to get 1,600 lines of dialogue under his
belt. That’s a daunting task for an accomplished professional
actor. He was brilliant.
How are the actors selected?
If you want to join the program, an existing member has to
sponsor you as a candidate. If you’re selected, then
you’re allowed to sit in on the rehearsal sessions to
see if the program is a good match for you. If you agree to
join, you serve a one-year apprenticeship before becoming a
core member. Some inmates show an early interest and then drop
out for one reason or another. Sometimes they see that the
commitment and the caliber of work is higher than they think
they can match. But once you’re a member of the company,
you tend to remain active.
Have any company members dropped out?
Sometimes a man will tell the group, “I’m having
a bad personal time right now and I need to take a break.”
Everyone understands the pressures they’re all under. Most often
that individual is granted a sabbatical from the company until
such time as he determines that he is ready to return.
You said earlier that you allow the actors to select their
own roles. How does that work?
They read the script and get the feel for the role and the
demands it will make upon them. And they take a hard look at
what they’ve done up to
that point. How skillful they are. Whether they can do the job honestly. Then
they make their case in front of the ensemble. There is no secret balloting
or lobbying for a role. The man who feels he can play the role lays out his
reasoning. In time, through discussion, the casting is made. When two actors
want the same role, they talk it out. All is out in the open.
If you’re on site only twice a week, who’s
directing the production in your absence?
They rehearse on their own. Constantly.
We don’t have
a formal theatre setting. We rehearse in whatever space is
available, usually the visitors room or the TV room in the
gymnasium. They hold book for each other, give each other honest
responses to the work they see. This is serious business. Some
have never completed a single positive project in their life.
Membership in the company gives them a sense of accomplishment,
a creative outlet in what normally is a highly structured and
repetitive environment. They work hard to maintain a high level
of collective respect.
Do you treat the men as actors or as inmates?
These men are actors. Some are more accomplished than others,
but they all want to do well. My job is to help them discover
the truth behind the motivations and behaviors of their characters.
Involvement in the program can force an inmate to confront
their deeper, and often darker, impulses and emotions. Shakespeare’s
world is understandable for them. Playing such roles helps
the actor come to terms with his past actions.
One of our founding actors, Sammie Byron, is serving a life sentence for murdering
his girlfriend. The actors choose their own roles here, and Sammie chose to
play the role of Othello. The death scene he plays with Desdemona was close
to a reenactment of the crime he committed. To face yourself, to make that
commitment, to admit the rage of your anger and jealousy, to take responsibility
for your actions and all the hurt those actions have created, takes incredible
Many of us spend our lives running away from our responsibilities, not owning
up to the consequences of our actions. It’s impossible to keep running
and denying while claiming to be exploring a character’s true emotional
truth. They have my utmost admiration and respect.
How do they handle the pressures of performing in front of a live
Like all actors. They aren’t any different. They are nervous, dry mouthed,
afraid of making fools of themselves. But they go on anyway. They have good
nights and bad nights. Some have learning problems, memory problems. Sometimes,
everyone is bunched up off stage looking in on a scene that didn’t go
well the night before. They’re all hoping that the actors will do better,
will rise to the occasion. Nobility lives in the attempt. The support they
give each other is tremendous. They learn empathy and compassion. They learn
what it means to be vulnerable and to be accepted at the same time. They learn
what it means to be a member of a family and to put the needs of the family
ahead of their own needs or desires.
What kind of technical support do you have?
Very little technical support at first. And actually, very little is needed.
The audience forgives what isn’t there. Our first production had a backdrop
painted by an inmate, made out of bed sheets. The actors wore their correctional
uniforms. But I recognized that raising the production values would create
a deeper commitment and pride in the work. The backdrops are still painted
by the same inmate, but the drop itself is professionally manufactured. Michelle
Bombe, head of design for Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, designs and builds
costumes that incorporate the correctional uniforms.
How many performances do you give?
Interest in seeing the shows has increased over the years. We now give between
six and 10 full performances, two for a public audience of friends and family
and the rest for the resident inmate population. On average, 500 people see
How has this experience affected you personally?
I was nervous when I entered the facility for the first time. I had all the
preconceptions about criminals and murderers. But in a short time, the nervousness
and the preconceptions dropped away. I have never felt threatened during rehearsals
or walking with the actors in the yard. I see them as men. Individuals. I extend
my respect and trust. They do the same to me. They are hungry for acceptance
and want to learn and grow beyond the walls of their cells. For our first full
production, I chose the same play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, as the one I was
producing and directing with Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s professional
summer ensemble. We brought the casts together. They each performed for the
other. Following the performances, we had an amazing exchange of energy and
warmth and insight.
Anything else you’d like to share?
The first mandate of a correctional facility is to provide security to the
public and for the inmates themselves. After providing security, I believe
the second mandate of a correctional facility is to educate and prepare the
inmate population to return to society and make a positive contribution. After
all, 97% of the two million plus inmates incarcerated in our correctional system
will be getting out of prison at some point in their lifetimes. The question
I ask is, “How do I want them coming out of prison to a neighborhood
near you and me?” In my small way, I am trying to do my part in helping
to prepare inmates for success on the outside of the wire. I believe that involvement
in the arts is a major way to help an inmate discover truths he has never known
Thank you for your time. And good luck.