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2004-07-31 - 2:33 p.m.

To Be or Not to Be

Our love of theatre led us to buy our vacation home in Ashland, Oregon, where the family has been gathering over the past 30+ years to see Shakespeare, as well as more modern plays. This past February, we saw Comedy of Errors, The Visit, and The Royal Family…and had planned to see the remaining plays in July during our vacation. However, as many of you know, Ed’s surgery took precedence over vacation this year…perhaps we’ll be able to get up again before the end of October when the theatre season ends. In the meantime, today thanks to seastreet, I found my way to This American Life’s Shakespearean Hamlet, performed by a group of inmates at a high-security prison outside St. Louis. Turn up the volume on your speakers, sit back and listen to an enlightening, energizing, and encouraging hour of radio at its best. An hour long – but well worth it.

"To be or not to be,that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?"

-- From Hamlet (III, i, 56-61)

This is perhaps the most famous soliloquy in literature, reflecting the desperation in which Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, finds himself as he contemplates suicide. His father, the King, has died. His mother, the Queen, remarried within a month of the King's death, an act which has disturbed young Hamlet in and of itself. But to make matters even worse, it is to the King’s brother, Hamelet’s uncle, who is now the King of Denmark. As Hamlet's despair deepens, he learns (through the appearance of an apparition of his dead father – a ghost, in other words) that the his father was murdered by his stepfather – the new King. This growing awareness of the betrayal and evil of Claudius leads to Hamlet’s deepening depression and madness. "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all", hinting that the "dread of something after death"-purgatory, hell, perhaps-is what keeps Hamlet alive to avenge his father.

Act V

“Since 1999, a group of inmates at a high-security prison outside St. Louis have been performing Shakespeare's Hamlet for fellow inmates and outside visitors. Hamlet may seem an odd match for a group of hardened criminals, but they understand him on a level most of us might not. It's a play about murder and its consequences, performed by murderers, living out the consequences. Due to prison logistics they can't stage the whole four-hour play at once, so they've been performing it serially, one act every six months. In this week's show, we follow the cast for half a year, as they rehearse and stage the last and bloodiest act: Act V. Visit Prison Performing Arts' website for more on the program.”

What a concept! Too bad this can’t be replicated all of the country in all of our youth detention facilities, if not high security prisons. Take a look at the following:

I'M AN ACTOR

is a new educational program at St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center. Prison Performing Arts offers each of the at-risk youth in Detention 24 weeks of classes in acting and circus skills. Classes are designed to help incarcerated youth learn life skills: focus, voice & diction, improvisation, self-expression, impulse control, decision-making, cooperation and collaboration.

* * * * * * *

Each year we look forward to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where we rendezvous with our friends Mary and Joe McKenzie. This year, remembering The Laramie Project, I’m eager to see the World Premiere of Stories from Jonestown and the Peoples’ Temple, written by the same group:

STORIES FROM JONESTOWN AND THE PEOPLES TEMPLE

written by Leigh Fondakowski with Greg Pierotti, Stephen Wangh and Margo Hall / directed by Leigh Fondakowski / April 15—May 29, 2005

WORLD PREMIERE

“As head writer of The Laramie Project, Leigh Fondakowski with her collaborators sculpted interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyoming, into a stirring portrait of the effects of hatred on a small American town. Her newest work, Stories from Jonestown and the Peoples Temple, is a riveting examination of the charged events surrounding the 1978 murder-suicide of 913 members of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in Guyana and the unique mixture of radical local politics and Pentecostal fervor that fueled this organization. After decades spent enshrouded in secrecy by bitterness and remorse, the stories of Jonestown survivors are now being told, many for the first time. Splicing together gospel music and found text with testimony from former Peoples Temple members, families of the victims and Bay Area community leaders, Jonestown evokes empathy, humor, shock and insight. A quest to make sense of the inexplicable, and perhaps find healing power in the process, the play explores this historic event with a candor only hindsight can provide.”

We would certainly support a theatre program in our prisons and youth detention facilities. A step toward rehabilitation…more hope is on the way!

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