“The Greatest Gift”

We at Shakespeare For Our Children want to highlight a wonderful episode from “This American Life” radio program. (Listen here.) First broadcast in 2002, the episode chronicles the work of the Prison Performing Arts organization and its staging of Hamlet in the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, directed by Agnes Wilcox. With the inmates themselves performing in the production, and reflecting on their lives as they inhabit the characters, this is a celebration of the transformative power of Shakespeare’s theatre.

Although a great deal of the content would be too intense for children, teachers can learn much from this documentary about the literally life-changing impact of entering Shakespeare’s world. As one inmate explained, “After doing this, I felt like I was human again … Like I really could do anything when I get out.” This is truly among the greatest gifts which Theatre can provide: a feeling of shared humanity, of creativity and accomplishment. It also brings to mind the words of one of our young SFOC actors following a performance: “I felt like I was flying! I know I’m going to dream about this tonight.”

What unites the responses of a young child and an adult prisoner? The shared feeling of liberation, of belonging, on the stage. It is something marvelous that Shakespeare made possible, hundreds of years later. For with his profound understanding of human nature, Shakespeare’s words allow us to express the truths of our universal experience – no matter our circumstances.