August 6, 2011; Source: San Francisco Chronicle | This weekend, ten months of rehearsal under the direction of actors from the Marin Shakespeare Company culminated in a standing ovation for the inmate actors in the unlikely venue of the San Quentin Prison Chapel. The production of Twelfth Night which brought an audience of invited guests to their feet, is part of a partnership between the nonprofit theater company and the prison’s rehabilitation program.

For the last seven years, members of the Marin Shakespeare Company, who ordinarily perform in a scenic outdoor amphitheater for picnicking residents, have been passing through security checks and into the stone walls of one of the country’s most notorious prisons to put novice actors through their paces. Convicted murderers, robbers and other criminals participate in the weekly Shakespeare class as part of the San Quentin Prison in Arts Correction Program and their training concludes with a chance to perform one of the Bard’s plays for the public.

For any actor, Shakespeare’s plays are a challenge, but with the help of their neighbors from Marin Shakespeare, the San Quentin amateurs are able to take the classic plays in hand and present admirable productions. Time out from prison routines and the demands of mastering lines and working with other is having a dramatic effect on the lives of cast members. The company’s managing director, Lesley Currier, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We’ve seen some amazing transformations in here….Men who had very little education, who were being exposed to parts of the language they never heard before, who were so shy they could barely get onstage—after 10 months they grow so much. “

The prison program has been part of Marin Shakespeare’s outreach work since 2004. The company performs for more than 10,000 theatergoers and offers education and training to more than 3,000 students in northern California each year. – Laura Cronin