Episode 263: A Test of Empathy


In which I compare inmates, Hamlet and next-door neighbors. 😳 It made sense in my head. 

Find out more about Shakespeare Behind Bars HERE.

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Hello, good morning, my friends. Oh, it’s a beautiful, sunny, sunny fall morning. But it’s very nippy, and the wind is blowing. And I’m going to go off today and see Funny Girl on Broadway with my mom. So that should be a fun experience. That is a show that I don’t know, at all so I’m looking forward to it. Oftentimes, you know, the musicals that I go to, I can sing along, and I love that experience. (I don’t actually sing along. I’m not one of those horrible people.) But it gives me great joy to feel connected in that way. But this will be a whole new experience. I’m looking forward to it. It’s supposed to be very good. 

I actually have a song stuck in my head today, I got this ear worm and I don’t even know what the song is. It’s like some crazy screaming pop song that Savannah played for me, previewing it by saying, “It’s terrible, but I love it. And you’re gonna love it too.” And she knows that about me. I do have a repertoire of erstwhile hits that should long ago have been abandoned, but which seem to resurface just when I was hoping for a quiet morning or another hour of sleep, and then this frickin song just won’t leave me alone. Of course, I can’t think of any of my other usual suspects right now because I have this stupid unknown 2022 pop hit buzzing in my brain! Whatever… What are the songs that you hate to love? Put some of them in the comments, I’d love to share your misery. 

Oh, speaking of sharing, let’s share airspace. This show, this person here, Diana Green, is coming live to you. If you live anywhere close to Nyack, I’m going to be doing a live version of The Bard of Hudson, where I’m going to tell some of the stories that I’ve told here on the podcast. And I’m also going to tell some more of the stories from my travel adventures recently. And I’m going to mix in a few folktales as well, because I’m really getting interested in storytelling and the tradition of storytelling that I was exposed to in Herefordshire, if you heard those episodes. If you didn’t, go back to the episode called The Old Storyteller. It’s a really wonderful chance to listen to this guy who was a professional storyteller tell the story for me and for my friend who were listening, and we happened to record him. It was great. I’ve been collecting these books of stories and folktales from the British Isles, and from the world collection of folktales, and I’ve been reading them lately. It’s so fascinating. It’s a rich and wonderful tradition. So I’m going to share some of that too. So The Bard of Hudson Live, is going to be on Saturday, December 3, at 3:30 at the Nyack Library in Nyack, New York. Come check it out. I will put a link in the show notes as well. And if this one is not in your neighborhood, or too far away, let’s schedule one near you. Let me know or put me in touch with your local library or community center, and I’ll see if I can schedule one, I would love to do more of these. I would love to sit in person with people and talk with them and share laughter and stories. I want to contribute to the movement to bring back storytelling as a bigger worldwide event. We all need to find ways to slow down and spend some time listening and laughing, you know, with friends and such. And if you’ve come here to listen, then we are friends, and I want to see you in person someday, one way or another. 

Lately, I’ve also been trying to figure out some kind of freelance work that I can do. Not that I have blank time to fill where I’m otherwise lounging around and eating bonbons. But with the end of my Vagabond voyages, I seem to have lost my sense of purpose. I have this wonderful work, which I love to do, and for which I’m very grateful. But I also miss teaching. I had an online coaching session last week with a student of mine, Jasper, from what seems now like my long ago Shakespeare days, and it was so fun. I get so jazzed up about unpacking the mysteries of Shakespeare play. And he absolutely caught that spark and was full of enthusiasm. Actually, if you haven’t done so yet, if you want to hear me get really fired up about Shakespeare, you can listen to my other podcast which I also do on a weekly basis. It’s called Fuck Shakespeare. And don’t let the name fool you. It just means the naughty parts about Shakespeare. And I love doing it. I do it with my dear dear friend, Erin, and we just sit and talk about the plays. We prepare them, so that we can talk in a scholarly way about them also. And it is very informative, and very scholarly this show, but it’s also very irreverent, because we point out all the dick jokes and all of the naughty bits. And it’s very, very fun. So you can tune into that you can find it in on all the platforms as well, Fuck Shakespeare – fckShakespeare. And we have a website. You can listen to it from that, too. 

Anyway, back to Jasper. He’s playing Macbeth in an upcoming production in the spring, and he thought it would be great to really delve into the play before rehearsals begin. Twist my arm! I helped him before casting with his audition monologue too. He has played a number of very funny parts for the Children’s Shakespeare Theatre in the past, and he wanted to change tack for his senior show and try this lead part because he knew it would challenge him in all new ways. When he expressed his interest in auditioning for the Scottish King, however, he was basically told not to bother because he was a comic actor. Well, when I heard this, I persuaded him to let me coach him because that is unacceptable. I made it my mission to prove that naysayer wrong. First of all, it’s ridiculous to typecast people because, as Shakespeare shows us time and again, humans are much more complex than that. No one is always funny. Just as no one is all evil or pure lover, or any kind of narrow limiting description. Romeo, after all, proves to be quite a killer when all is said and done. And how expansive and fascinating it would be to let someone who presents to the world as a cheerful and light disposition, explore the darkness that must also be inside him somewhere. 

We audience members go to see Macbeth to have a chance to dip into the darkness without too much personal risk. We sit in that dark theater, and we take that ride with the actor from hero to murderer, witnessing all of his doubts, terrors and theories. And in the end, we get to shake it off and go home to our loved ones. The actor lives in that place for a bit longer, through the rehearsal process and then sharing it with the audience. It’s an incredible opportunity to put on that skin, be a killer, go farther than brief fantasy and then walk away, understanding more fully how close each of us comes to that precipice. “There but for the grace of God go I,” the saying goes. Right? It puts me in mind of all of those people who work inside prisons with men and women who have been convicted of terrible crimes. They too have the opportunity to closely associate with people who have tipped over into the darkness. The difference is, of course, they aren’t fictional characters. 

We can all watch these intersections in movies like Dead Man Walking, but there’s one documentary that hit home for me in a more personally relevant way. It’s called Shakespeare Behind Bars, and it was made in 2005. The film was made in a state prison in Kentucky, where a group of inmates were rehearsing The Tempest under the guidance of a man named Kurt, who has since become my friend. He’s one of the most peaceful, quiet, non judgmental souls you could ever hope to meet. In the Shakespeare Theatre Association where I met him, he is revered for wisdom, and he is the one they look to when any prickly situation needs an impartial arbitrator. I imagine he honed those skills working with the guys on the inside. 

Kurt was one of those pioneers of bringing Shakespeare to the prison system. He began his work in 1995, and after more than 25 years, he has some impressive stats. The national rate of recidivism is 60%. That’s terrible. I mean, 60% of people who are released and considered rehabilitated, end up committing a crime and coming back to prison. In Kurt’s program, it’s 6%. That is a staggering improvement. It seems, as I have long believed, that Shakespeare’s language has power far beyond the black marks on a page. When these men read those words and then learn to embody them, they are finding ways to express the pain and anxiety that they carry around inside them on a daily basis. When their traumas couldn’t be expressed and discussed, they turned into desperate actions that had dire consequences. 

Ben Johnson said, “Violence happens when words fail.” Shakespeare knew this. When he has characters who really don’t want to turn to violence, like Macbeth, and Hamlet, he gives them tons of words to speak first, so we can see them reason through every other possibility. In culminating fight scenes, he often has the two opposing characters exchange a whole page of dialogue before they exchanged blows. Perhaps there’s a better way to solve this, these characters are asking. Like how when Hal meets Hotspur on the battlefield, or Edgar when he challenges his sociopath of a brother at the end of King Lear. Sometimes it’s too late for words, as when Macduff finally finds the fiend of Scotland on the battlefield and says, “I have no words, my voice is in my sword.” 

The men behind the prison bars know that feeling very well. Sadly, their moments of violence are often enacted upon some collateral victim, rather than the true object of their hatred. When I watched the film for the first time, I experienced an unexpected test of my ability to empathize. When we first meet the prisoners who will be taking part in the play, they’re just a group of guys who happen to be wearing the same uniform. No mention is made of their crimes, much like the rules for engaging with prisoners in that you don’t ask them. To know their crime is to forever see them through a filter. They just want to be treated like fellow human beings. Therefore, it isn’t until halfway into the film, that you find out what they did to end up in that place. By then it’s too late because you’ve heard them speak as Prospero, or Caliban or Miranda, and you admire them, you laugh with them, and you’ve forgotten that they are criminals. 

I had a particularly hard time with one however. Halfway through the rehearsal process, he was sent to solitary confinement, because they found he was continuing the behavior of his crime from the inside. He was in for sexual abuse of children, and he had been caught again soliciting kids via the internet. While my brain can reason that this behavior comes from mental illness and a history of similar trauma, my heart grieves, and rages and screams: “No forgiveness!” But then Kurt’s wise voice is heard in the film, saying, “The people most in need of mercy are the ones who least deserve it.” I wish I was that generous of spirit. I will try to remember those words. I know I will fail. But I guess that just means try again. 

I just this morning had an experience that put me to this test. Remember that cat I told you about? A couple of episodes ago whom we were calling Morpheus, the cat who showed up here in desperate straits very hungry and skinny and out in the cold? Well, we finally located his so-called owner, after bringing him to the vet and finding that he had a microchip after all. But the microchip company had not been alerted that he was missing. And there were no posters up to say that he was missing. But we found some phone numbers and we got in touch with the person who was supposed to be caring for him. And after a horrible exchange with this person in which they never said thank you, but they blamed us for not trying harder to find them, they took the cat back. And I thought, Okay, I hope that’s the last I see of it. But this morning at 7:00 in the morning, there the cat was after being gone for a week, one week of being taken care of – maybe. The cat was back and so hungry. And there were large tufts of his fur that were falling out and he seemed to be even more rickety than he had been the last time I saw him. I just started to cry, and of course I fed him. And then when my mom came down, she said she was going to call this person and try to give him back again. I was not for that. I was absolutely not for that course of action. But my mom felt that was the right thing to do. I’m sure she’s right, but when this woman came to pick up the cat, she was absolutely vitriolic. She was horrible, and said, “I’ve never had a problem with this cat until you came to this neighborhood.” And I can’t even believe the level of misunderstanding of the entire way the world works! The only appropriate response would have been ‘Thank you.’ That’s it. That’s it. And yet she was accusing us of judging her. This poor cat is terribly mistreated. 

So I don’t know what to do with the fury that I experienced in this situation. And if I see this cat again, I just don’t know. I feel like he needs better. He deserves better. He’s a sweet fellow. And this sociopath is not caring for him. Oh, them’s fighting words. I know. I have a rough time with people who mistreat others so badly, especially children and animals, and I don’t know what to do with that. I’m living with that today, and it’s very upsetting. 

So, thank you for hearing me out. And I hope that you got some interesting points of view from my discussion of the film. Go and see that film. It’s terrific. You can get it from your library or online. Or you can go to Shakespeare Behind Bars the website and they have it there for rent. And see how you feel about being confronted with those kinds of feelings as I was there, and as I was today, It’s an interesting reflection on ourself. I hope to keep practicing patience and wisdom, like my friend Kurt. Thanks for staying in the struggle with me, and I’ll see you next time.

Published by dianathebard

Podcasting about growing up in the Hudson Valley in the 60s and 70s, falling in love, raising kids, getting divorced and being a free and creative world traveler!

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