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A statue of William Shakespeare with trees in the background
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Dec. 18, 2017, will live forever as one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I was humbled to be part of a band of brothers from Moose Lake Correctional Facility that performed various monologues before an audience that included the warden, a current and former commissioner, and other Minnesota Correctional Facility Moose Lake staff — all sitting alongside my mom and dad. We opened with an ensemble performance of the opening lines of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” 

We, the performers, were the remaining members of a new 12-week theater program that was being beta-tested by the corrections department. Now in its sixth year, The Redeeming Time Project is a nonprofit that “uses Shakespeare to effect positive change,” according to the group’s website. Run by Kate Powers and Travis Bedard, the project was inspired by Powers’ decade of work as a teaching artist at Sing Sing. 

Redeeming Time was introduced to the Minnesota corrections department by program director Candy Adamczak and her colleague Laraine Mickelsen and as part of Moose Lake’s restorative justice programming. The initial class was only open to Restorative Justice Council members. 

In order to effectively portray a character, we needed to develop empathy and understanding to know why a character was speaking or responding in a certain way. Through class exercises, we were able to drop the prison masks we use to help us survive the day and instead learn to laugh and play. We celebrated our mistakes. We encouraged creativity and free-thinking. We self-directed our opening piece as well as our own monologues. 

For three hours every week, we transported ourselves into another world. We were able to forget we were in prison, all while working on “soft skills” such as confidence, memorization and presentation — which have practical applications in real-life jobs on the outside.

Despite being a former professional actor with over 40 years of experience both on stage and screen, I was ashamed to admit that I had never performed in any Shakespeare play before. I was intimidated by the language, the meter and the mystique. But by sitting there in class, I joined a band of brothers — learning, laughing and growing together.

We were allowed to select our performance piece from an assortment of monologues provided early on in the class by Powers. Most were written by Shakespeare, but there were also works by August Wilson, Edgar Lee Masters and Stephen Adly Guirgis. Some of us made special requests for other pieces.

Without knowing it was from “Henry V,” I asked to do the St. Crispin’s Day speech. I selected this piece because of a very special Christmas Eve dinner with my family a few years earlier. Christmas dinners at my mom and dad’s are surreal experiences, with unique and eclectic guests. In that particular year, our family was mesmerized by the vibrant tales of a 90-year-old local historian named Woody, who stood up at the family dinner table and started reciting the St. Crispin’s Day speech from memory. Woody transported Shakespeare directly to our dining room. 

If I had remembered how long it was, I probably would have reconsidered my choice. But I wanted to memorize this piece so at some future Christmas Eve dinner I would be free to stand up and recite the piece for my parents.

As we started presenting our monologues to the group, I was horrified and frustrated at my struggle to memorize lines, while at the same time astonished by my fellow brothers’ skills at not only memorization but also their impassioned and heartfelt performances. 

When we found out we could have a public performance to which our friends and family might be able to attend, I was scared to get my hopes up only to have them dashed by some bureaucratic hogwash. Prison has a way of making cynics out of even the most cockeyed optimist. 

But the performance for our families happened. The next day my dad told me how impressed he was by each man’s performance and it was an event he would remember for the rest of his life.

As inmates, we don’t have a lot to be proud of. Our name has been replaced by a number and our hopes and dreams are controlled by others. But I was able to make a dream come true with my performance.

We can all be very proud of the work we did. Former commissioner Ken Schoen said after our performance that what he saw reminded him of something worthy of Minneapolis’ famous Guthrie Theater. Having performed at the Guthrie in the past, I can say I had more pride in our production than I have ever had on any other stage.

I’m writing this on Christmas Day 2022, and I’m now serving an indeterminate civil commitment service, which means that I have no idea how much longer I will be held. My dad is now 84 years old, and I still dream of a future dinner when our whole family can be together once again — perhaps a year from now. 

That year though, my Christmas wish came true: I got to share a powerful experience with my friends, family and a remarkable band of brothers.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Matthew Feeney is a writer and poet who has won awards from PEN America and the League of Minnesota Poets. Feeney's writing has appeared in journals and anthologies, including The Analog Sea Review, The Pinyon Review, and Evening Street Review. Three of his poems were performed live at the 2019 World Voices Festival in New York City. Feeney is incarcerated in Minnesota.