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Shakespeare Presented at Maximum Security Prison

On Thursday, April 23, Dr. Jack Heller, assistant professor of English at Huntington University, is going to prison.

Heller will co-direct a group of 18 inmates at the Pendleton Correctional Facility in the Shakespeare play, Coriolanus, with Dr. Stacy Erickson, associate professor of English at Manchester University. Since September, Heller has made weekly trips to the maximum security men’s prison in Pendleton, Indiana, a two-and-a-half hour round trip from Huntington.

In 2006, Heller attended a lecture by Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars, a theater program for incarcerated adults at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky. Heller was intrigued by the idea of literature that could make a difference in the lives of others. He began regular visits to Luther Luckett and, since 2010, has conducted yearly seminars for the inmates there.

Heller connected with Dr. Laura Bates, professor of English at Indiana State University, to arrange a Forester Lecture at Huntington University. She encouraged him to start his own program. Through her urging and after reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, Heller found his unique calling. Shakespeare at Pendleton was the setting for an April 2014 National Geographic magazine article about Laura Bates’s efforts to teach Shakespeare to inmates.

Heller launched Shakespeare at Pendleton in October 2013, and the inmates have read through and rehearsed Coriolanus since then. While Coriolanus is a lesser-known Shakespeare play, its themes hit home with the inmates at Pendleton Correctional Facility.

“The lead emotion in this play is anger, and the lead character is working through his anger,” Heller shared. “It’s allowed the participants to rethink why they’re at Pendleton and how they want to be while they’re there. We’re not denying the past, but the past is the past. The hope is that the men will be communicated with and would learn how to better communicate.”

The play will begin at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Pendleton Correctional Facility. It is not open to the public except for invited guests.