Robert O'Brien

How the Course of My Incarceration was Changed Through Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB), by Robert O’Brien

Four and one-half years ago, after serving one year in my local county jail and then six months at the prison assessment center, I stepped into the gates of the prison and caught sight of my new home. How hopeless I felt at that moment.

For months I lived life in a depression that only my brothers inside can understand. I thought very little about my future. If I tried, I only saw eight and one-half more years of incarceration. I decided to continue to do what has always worked to numb my pain and proceeded to get high using the readily available drugs in the yard.

One day I walked past a flier promoting “The Twelfth Night” to be performed by a group of inmates involved in a prison theater program called SBB. Knowing I had nothing to do on the nights of the show, and although I knew nothing of the works of Shakespeare, I decided to go.

On opening night, I followed a large group of inmates through the yard and into the chapel, where the performance was to take place. I was greeted by thespians of every age, a mix of anxiety and excitement in their warm handshakes as they thanked us for coming and showed us to our seats.

After a brief introduction explaining the mission and values of SBB, the players entered from the back of the room.

Although the actors worse simple, but well thought out costumes, and even though their speeches were delivered against an unchanging backdrop, I was instantly transported to 17th century Illyria. It was evident from Orsino’s first words, “If music be the food of love, play on;” to the conclusion announced by the Clown, that these guys put in some serious work.

As they gathered at the stage, slapping one another’s backs and whispering words of praise, to take their bow; I knew I had to be a part of that brotherhood.

In the weeks following the close of the season, I sought after members of SBB to learn how I might join their troupe.

I quickly learned that SBB puts serious thought into the individuals they recruit, and that there were interviews, sponsorships, and even a vote before the interested inmate could entertain membership.

I’ll admit, I wanted to join initially because I strongly desired a moment in the spotlight. My desire was less about brotherhood than my own ego. 

None-the-less, it sparked change in my life. SBB carefully considers the individuals that are to be entrusted with their vulnerabilities and truths. It was evident that I could not continue to walk the path I had chosen. I could not more continue to get high and wander through my situation numb to the world I lived in.

Thankfully, I did not have to bear this burden alone, because although I was not yet a member of SBB, the guys who became my friends and I was so much less alone in my endeavors.

For an entire year, I maintained a respectable life behind bars. During the first week of each month, SBB allowed non-members to sit in on practices and participate in giving feedback to the actors as they were practicing for their next production, Julius Caesar. I don’t think I missed a single opportunity to do this.

SBB gave me a reason to dream again. How great it was to feel hope once more.

These dreams, hopes, and desires spread to other parts of my life. I began to think of my future, my health, and my family and friends.

Julius Caesar was performed with the vigor and zest I had come to expect from the hard work and dedication I witnessed during practices throughout the year.

Showing a willingness to be a better, productive person, I was voted into SBB’s 23rd year and performed as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

There is much I can say about my growth and experience from that year and the ones to follow, but the purpose of this writing was to talk about the effect SBB had on me while I stood on thin ice, a life way out of balance.

If you would like to learn more about my journey, or about SBB, contact me through using my institutional number #27296 or write to me at:

Robert O’Brien
DOC #272196
LaGrange, KY 40031

Categories: Robert O'Brien

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