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Curt Tofteland of Shakespeare Behind Bars: Creating a Circle of Trust

November 15, 2016

On September 24, Curt Tofteland took part in a panel discussion that was moderated by Still Point Founder and Artistic Director Lisa Wagner-Carollo and presented by Chicago Shakespeare as part of the Shakespeare 400 Festival. The discussion focused on using Shakespeare in prison arts programming. As Founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars, Curt was a must-have member of the panel. This organization serves incarcerated and formerly incarcerated juveniles and adults through innovative theatre programming. The work is designed to help participants develop life skills that will support a successful reintegration into society.  If you think this sounds lofty or unrealistic, consider this: while national recidivism rates hover around 60%, the recidivism rate for participants in Shakespeare Behind Bars is around 6 %.

Curt agreed to talk with me recently about his work.  Still Point has been conducting the Persephone Project for about 18 years.  While I am interested in the “what” and “why” of SBB, I am more interested in the “how” of Curt’s successful programming. By doing a bit of research, I learned that creating a circle of trust is the very first step in all of Curt’s work. I asked him to elaborate on how this actually occurs.

He recounted that at the very first gathering of a circle, he will ask each person to think of someone close to them. Then, he asks the participants to specify the quality that they most value or admire about that person.  That value is discussed by the group, and put up for consideration. The group considers whether or not that value translates into an agreement that everyone can honor.  Does everyone agree to honor this value, even if it’s not in their personal hierarchy of priorities? In this way, the group creates a living, working document. Everyone has a copy; everyone takes part in its creation. Already we begin to see the different level of commitment this begs as opposed to a typical hierarchy that is imposed from on high.

I imagine that a byproduct of this process is the connections that begin to be forged through sharing stories. Participants start with their personal stories, and in this way build trust.

I asked Curt what happens when someone breaks the contract, which is inevitable from time to time. He responded that it is an opportunity to practice and model restorative justice. For example, if one of the core values or agreements in the group is confidentiality, and someone breaks that by speaking someone’s confidences outside the group, the person who was hurt talks about that. They share what happened and how it made them feel. The other person listens.

Here is where another key agreement in the group comes into play: No fixing. Curt emphasizes that he is not the Leader in the group and will not behave as one. He acts as a Facilitator. The sharing works through story: participants are encouraged to share stories from their own personal experience in response to what others share. Curt stresses that sharing stories works in the circle because in listening openly to another’s story we either find ourselves reflected in that story, or we learn to develop compassion and empathy for those whose story is different from our own.

Shakespeare, of course, was a master storyteller, and participants in Shakespeare Behind Bars use story to chip away at the foreign language to find a common ground underneath. Shakespeare tells stories of trauma, grief and shame, among other big emotions, and prisoners connect with those raw human experiences. Together the new actors learn to analyze character and story – and they can apply these skills to their own lives, and to obtaining a deeper understanding. The tools of the actor require one to speak truthfully: self-reflection and self-awareness are key.

While acknowledging the universal appeal and value of Shakespeare, Curt also acknowledges that as far as he is concerned, building the circle of trust is the most important thing. “Once you have that, you can fill it with anything. You can fill the circle with Shakespeare; you can fill it with hip hop, playwriting, poetry, knitting.  It doesn’t matter – you can fill it with anything.”

As I contemplate the current political climate in the United States, I can only think of how deeply we need this consciousness, this ability to create and sustain circles of trust. I think of the elusive art of listening, and the value of Socratic learning.

From the Shakespeare Behind Bars website:

“Shakespeare Behind Bars was founded on the belief that all human beings are born inherently good. Although some convicted criminals have committed heinous crimes against other human beings, the inherent goodness still lives deep within them and can be called forth by immersing participants in the safety of a circle-of-trust and the creative process.”

I then think of what Curt said regarding how the circle works to facilitate growth, namely, “The circle functions on questions, not on answers.”

Please learn more about Shakespeare Behind Bars by following this link:

Still Point has been working with currently and formerly incarcerated women since 1998 through our Persephone Project. Learn more here:

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