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Prisoners find their voice through Shakespeare at Groveland prison

You’ve may have heard of Shakespeare Behind Bars. It teaches Shakespeare to incarcerated and post-incarcerated adults and juveniles. There’s a program like that here in Western New York called Voices UnCaged. WBFO’s Nick Lippa has more from Groveland Correctional Facility near Perry, New York.

The universal themes of Shakespeare—love, jealousy, revenge, and redemption—are relatable to almost everyone. That includes some prisoners at Groveland.

They’re part of a theatre education program called Voices UnCaged. It’s designed to work in Correctional Facilities, in large part due to program founder Chad Bradford’s childhood.

When he was 8, his father went to prison for about five years. Now he wants to help rehabilitate prisoners, including those getting ready to be released.

“Every Saturday me and my sister and my Mom would hop in the car from Little Rock, drive all the way to Texarkana, Arkansas which is a good two hours and 45 minutes away or so, and that was our Saturday. So we stayed in contact… Anytime I think you go through some kind of suffering like that you come out stronger,” Bradford said.

Bradford started in Arkansas with Voices UnCaged after getting a fellowship through National Arts Strategies. He said the program faced a lot of resistance there.

“Who do I want coming home to my community? Someone who has had this theater training? Who has invested their live engaged in self-inquiry? Or someone who hasn’t felt anything but punishment for years and years? Who has been told they’re garbage for years and years,” said Bradford.

As the prisoners rehearse, you can see how supportive they are in a group setting.

“One person yesterday said I’m just trash or something. The other guy said no you’re recyclable. I thought, that is so witty but so apt,” said Bradford. “I don’t think anybody is trash. Every guy in there has something special within them.”

Marshall Gilcrease is participating for a second straight year.

“At first I was against the idea of joining. Who wants to do a play in front of a bunch of inmates at an almost 1000 inmate prison? You’d be afraid of being laughed at,” he said.

Gilcrease was talked in to joining by his fellow prisoner Thomas Lawson. Gilcrease said this program helped them form a friendship.

“I learned more about who he was after this event last year than I did beforehand. I think the majority of people wear a mask. When they are brought to a level of embarrassment in front of everybody, that mask is momentarily removed,” Gilcrease said.

“We supported each other more for sticking through to it. It’s not exactly easy pretending these plays, Romeo and Juliet in a prison setting… that’s not an easy one. The fact that we both stay committed to our goals and actually stayed in it, we gained a lot of respect for each other and we were able to form a friendship out of it,” he said.

Outside of Romeo and Juliet, the group performed excerpts from Hamlet and Macbeth.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Lawson said when they read in front of each other, you can see their inner-conflict come to the surface.

“You can see the raw emotion of somebody when they’re reading Macbeth. Just like we were doing. Is this a dagger I see before me? They are questioning that. They are questioning their sanctity,” Lawson said.

For this group of prisoners, it’s a chance to express themselves in ways they couldn’t otherwise.

“You can’t just speak up to your loudest volume and you can’t just be your angriest or be your saddest. You can’t expose yourself that kind of way. You have to be at a more calmer level,” he said.

Lawson said he’d look towards doing Community Theater once he leaves Groveland.

“We’ve done some wrong things, but it’s nice that people know that we’re not just bad people,” said Lawson. “The staff sees us and they don’t act like we’re something that’s just to be discarded and left away. They act like we’re clay. We can be molded. We can be better.”

Anthony Adams has struggled with parole in the past. He thinks this time will be different.

“To remember this freedom by coming down here is like a blessing in disguise… I’ve already has my mind expanded,” said Adams.

Like most at Groveland, he will soon be released back into the Western New York Community.

“When I get back, it’s going to give me something to be able to introduce to some of the younger kids… For me to be able to successfully complete parole this time would be one hell of a step for me,” he said.

Groveland Superintendent Shawn Cronin says it’s difficult for people to see the humanity in others if they don’t see it in themselves. That’s something arts-based programs may help with.

“What we do with them here is important,” said Cronin. “Not because we want to coddle them or maybe treat them better than they deserve. You can’t get around the idea we’ve locked them up, but we didn’t throw away the key. They’re coming back to a neighborhood. They’re going to be your neighbor tomorrow.”

Groveland runs several outreach programs that aim to prepare the community for life after prison.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

“Every one of these guys is an individual,” said Cronin. “If any of the programs just get the light to go on where it has an impact. Where they see their lives differently, whether it’s education, Voices UnCaged, religious programs, or recreation programs… something clicks with them so that the rest of their life looks different to them now.”

The prisoners performed in a large gymnasium. Their show involved a fair bit of improv which drew laughs from their peers in the audience.

But as soon as they all lined up to recite a passage from Macbeth, the room went silent. 

“I think one thing that dealing with Shakespeare also does, is it shows them how smart they are,” said Bradford.

“That maybe all their entire life they haven’t been told they are smart. They haven’t been given the chance to feel they are intelligent. We all possess a genius inside of us. Working with that text gives you confidence to say that, yeah I am intelligent, I can do this. It’s just one of the many byproducts of working with this 400 to 500 year old enlightened literature.”

Bradford is working on a curriculum and making a handbook for teachers so this program can be taken to other parts of the country. He recently started a GoFund Me page to create some sustainability.

One thing is for certain. Groveland and Voices UnCaged will continue to work together as long as they keep finding the right audience.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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