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The Bard Behind Bars: San Quentin Inmates Indulge in Shakespeare

Inmates to perform popular comedy "Twelfth Night" for their peers on Friday as part of Marin Shakespeare Company's outreach program.

"If music be the food of love, play on ..." are perhaps not words one expects to hear in the halls of San Quentin State Prison. 

This Friday, however, 13 inmates will perform one of Shakespeare's most popular romantic comedies in front of more than 300 of their peers.

The performance is the annual performance that results from the weekly classes offered by the Marin Shakepeare Company as part of its outreach program. Funding is provided by San Quentin's Arts in Corrections Program, Marin Arts Council, Kalliopeia Foundation, and the William James Association Prison Arts Project.

Marin Shakespeare Company's Suraya Keating has worked with the inmates once a week for two hours a day over the past 10 months. The performers practiced songs, learned dance moves and rehearsed lines for an adaptation of Twelfth Night.

Keating, who has been working with inmates since 2005, holds a master's degree in art therapy. As a therapist, she sees acting as more than just entertainment. 

"It's getting to step out of that image of ourselves so we can be more of who we think we are," she said.

The Marin Shakespeare Company, which normally performs at 's Forest Meadows, began the program at San Quentin eight years ago and Lesley Currier, the company's managing director, said the enthusiastic response from participating inmates and the audience has been overwhelming.

Currier credits the acting experience with helping inmates to improve their self-confidence, enhance their conflict resolution skills and learn to express emotions. She said that over the years she has seen the participants transform before her eyes.

Keating agreed and said that this kind of transformation can be an inspiration to others."When a person who has gone to the depths of the shadow of our society can actually redeem themselves through the arts -- there's a real gift in that to inspire us to be the best we can be," Keating said.

Currier, who is also performing in the play as one of the show's three female characters, said that after all the hard work invested in the play, the participants would love to do more than just one performance -- but due to security issues, putting on even one show is a hurdle.

"It's always a minor miracle to have one performance happen," she said.

Keating and the performers are using a script adapted by Lesley Currier and her husband Robert Currier, the artistic director of Marin Shakespeare Company. 

The Curriers' version keeps the original language, with a few exceptions, but has been modernized to take place in the 1960s. The actors will be lip-syncing and dancing to music from the period, including songs by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. 

"It's probably our campiest show yet," Keating said. "It should be hysterical.

-Bay City News Service

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