A prison play on the way

Jack Heller teaches Shakespeare at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, preparing inmates for their first performance.

Jack Heller teaches inmates at the Pendleton Correctional Facility about Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.” Photo Provided
Jack Heller teaches inmates at the Pendleton Correctional Facility about Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.” Photo Provided

Jack Heller, Ph.D., has been helping to teach Shakespeare to prison inmates for seven years at three different prisons. Presently, he is working with residents at Pendleton to put on a production of “Coriolanus.”

“We are working towards getting a play into performance,” Heller said. “We’re rehearsing, going through scenes, standing them up and figuring out what it’s supposed to look like.”

Shakespeare at Pendleton is currently selling t-shirts to raise funds for their first prison play production.

“We need to think about costuming and props,” said Heller. “That is where the fundraiser comes in.”

Props will include cardboard swords and daggers, a crown or laurel and sashes designed in an ancient Roman fashion.

“We need to think through props, but we also need to aim towards simplicity,” Heller said. “It’s a prison that we are doing this in and the less complicated it is, the better.”

The fundraiser shirts are $15.00 apiece and available in sizes extra-small to XX-large. Four color options are offered to fundraiser supporters, each representing a different character group or social class in the play.

“Irish green represents the tragic hero, Coriolanus. Sport gray is the color of the Roman aristocracy. Tennessee orange stands for the lower class Roman citizens who fight for power. Daisy yellow represents the Volscians, the armies threatening,” Heller wrote.

Aside from props, funds gained from shirt sales will be placed towards ordering t-shirts for the men in the necessary colors to serve as costumes for their roles in the production. Roughly 15 to 20 men participate in the Shakespeare at Pendleton program on a regular basis, and some of the actors may be filling more than one role.

“That (role changes) may involve them changing a shirt if they need to be in another role,” Heller said. “We’d like to sell 100 shirts. But, if we don’t, the key is to sell enough to get shirts for all of the men, props and printing.”

The t-shirt design was created by an active member of the Shakespeare at Pendleton program.

“He goes by Silence,” Heller said. “Silence’s heritage is Mexican, and one reason he is called ‘Silence’ is because he doesn’t feel very comfortable speaking in English.”

According to Heller, one thing they have seen in the Shakespeare at Pendleton program is that Silence is becoming more comfortable and expressive with the English language

“I hope to get his drawings again to make them the covers of the program we are hoping to produce for the play,” said Heller. “He has very interesting drawing talents.”

The deadline for shirt orders is March 6, and Heller says the goal is to distribute them right before or after spring break. The production of  “Coriolanus” will hopefully take place at the end of April.

“We haven’t firmed up dates,” Heller said. “There needs to be conversations with a variety of people because we are in the setting we are. I think that it’s going to take a lot of work, but I think that we can do it.”

Heller’s hope is that there are three performances of the play so that different groups of people may see and enjoy what the men have been working on and learning.

“I want one [performance] for the men within the prison, something that would be particularly for inviting the family and friends that can get clearance to come in and something for a certain number of the public,” said Heller.

However, since this is Pendleton’s first play production, Heller isn’t sure that the three performances will be cleared.

“This is new for them. We may not be able to host everyone who wants to go,” Heller said. “But, hopefully some press, some good friends of the program and different people will be able to attend.”

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