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Shakespeare Behind Bars Founder to Speak at UO on Theater and Inmates

They sleep in cells, monitored by guards. Some of them are serving life sentences for their crimes. But when they are working with Curt Tofteland, the founding producing director of Shakespeare Behind Bars, they are actors. On Jan. 19, Tofteland will speak at the University of Oregon about his 20 years of experience guiding prison inmates, in Kentucky and Michigan, to perform the works of Shakespeare. 

Tofteland, whose passion for Shakespeare is reflected in his 38 years working in theater, maintains that the SBB program provides a safe space for prison inmates to reflect on their past choices through asking four questions: "Who am I? What do I love? How will I live my life knowing I will die? What is my gift to humankind?"   

Before working as founding producing director of SBB, Tofteland worked as the producing artistic director for Kentucky Shakespeare Festival and also became involved in the Books Behind Bars program, which later led to Shakespeare Behind Bars. At first, before arriving to work with prison inmates, Tofteland had a misconception about the men and women he would be working with. 

"I was naïve, too,” he says. “I thought they were all juvenile delinquents because that was what the media had told me, and then I discovered of course that was totally inaccurate." 

For Tofteland, Shakespeare's works and characters relate to prison inmates because they reflect the ability to transform. "Shakespeare writes about villains who are villains and good people who are good people, good people like Macbeth, who do bad things and become villains, and villains who become like Prospero become good people,” Tofteland says. “That's what makes his understanding of the human condition so deep.”

According to Tofteland, the program allows experienced SBB inmates to lead by example for incoming and non-SBB inmates. SBB inmate participants have influenced their fellow inmates so much that in the Michigan SBB program, which started in 2011, participation rose from eight participants to 200.

For family members of inmates, SBB can change how they see their loved ones. "It's often times seeing their loved one in a successful situation,” Tofteland says. “If their kids come, it's seeing their father doing something that's difficult to do and takes a lot of courage to do it, so they get to see their dad in a different light." 

Tofteland will speak at 7:30 pm Tuesday, Jan. 19, at the University of Oregon campus, Straub Hall Room 156; the event is free and open to the public.