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This is the first in our series called New Directions in Dramaturgy. We’re looking for submissions that draw on dramaturgy to explore relationships, histories and expectations in new and revelatory ways. Find out more about the project here. 

We Know What We Are, But Not What We May Be:  The Circle of Trust
By Curt L. Tofteland

Masks-of-deception . . . peeled . . . and . . . checked . . . at the portal-of-resignation . . . false-faces-forged with the pain-of-inhumanity . . . received . . . and . . . passed on . . . and . . . received . . . and . . . passed on . . . a never-ending-cycle-of-circular-abuse . . .

In my life’s work with the incarcerated, it has been my mission to create an alternative to the circular abuse described above, and to inspire an oppositional circle—one of hope and healing—what I call the Circle of Trust.

Through the eternal movement of the Circle of Trust, seekers return again and again, allowing themselves to glimpse the horror of abuse … what has been done to them and what they have in turn done to others … without being lodged and hammered into place within a certain viewpoint. They are always in motion within the safety of The Circle Of Trust … the circle for change.

At the center of the Circle of Trust is a question. Around its rim reside the elders holding the core values of the Circle: authenticity, curiosity, creativity, empathy, epiphany, integrity, truth. The Circle is a sanctuary for the sojourners who rest on the rim. It is a harbor of confidentiality. It is a haven for humanity. And it is continuous.

I don’t begin a Circle that lasts for three months and then is gone. I create Circles that can last a lifetime.

I will return to the Circle, which is always around me and within me. But now, there is the face-of-the-question squinting at me.

“You do what with whom?” . . . blue eyes brimming with a victim’s rage . . . a victim’s hurt . . . a victim’s stolen innocence . . . a victim’s cry for justice . . .

Breathing into the boundary-less pain weeping before me . . . knowing the flash point of anger has sparked . . . preparing to bear the burden . . . that will in some form be shared . . .

“I do Shakespeare with the incarcerated.”

“What?” . . . words come stumbling out of a broken heart . . . “he killed my mother . . . my brother . . . my wife . . . he raped me . . . my girlfriend . . . my child . . . and you give him Shakespeare?!”

“Why?” . . . thoughts tumbling over and over each other . . . “he’s an animal . . . scum . . . a bastard . . . he deserves to rot in prison for the rest of his miserable life and then to burn in an eternity of endless fire!”

I am humbled before an abyss of unrequited justice. I know that in the forest of pain the timbers of hurt are often felled by an axe: that of justice, sharpened with the whetstone of revenge.

The victim’s sorrow and grief rages through the forest of pain, craving revenge to … get even … make sense … bring clarity … create meaning … issue comfort … receive closure … discover peace … find justice.

But what is justice? And where does justice live? Does it live only in revenge? Or might it also live in mercy?

Two images are presented to me:
Justice with her sword, holding the severed head of an offender; and the Mercy whom Caravaggio envisages as a woman visiting an imprisoned person, offering milk from her breast.

I believe that the duality of revenge and mercy lives in all human beings. Which pathway is chosen will make all the difference—but it need not make the difference for all, all the time. Change can be made—again. And again. The Circle of Trust is built on this capacity for change.

***

As a young artist, I was drawn to working for marginalized communities. As I grew into a mature artist, I was drawn to doing artistic work with marginalized communities. That change from the preposition “for” to “with” has made a profound difference in my creative life.

I am an artist who does artistic work that is therapeutic.
I am not a therapist who does mental health work that is artistic.
I never forget the difference.

I am a Prison Arts Practitioner.

I am the archeologist of my inner world. I know that I often loathe in others what is most loathsome in myself. I know that I can’t see outside myself what I don’t find within myself. I dig into my past to sift through my mind (memory), my heart, and my soul—searching to understand how the place I came from influenced how I perceived the world and why I did the things I did that brought me to this current place and time.

As an artist living in the present moment, I lean into questions, not answers, willing myself to delve ever more deeply into the four essential questions of life:

1. Who am I?
2. What do I love?
3. How will I live my life, knowing I will die?
4. What is my gift to humankind?

As a practitioner, a human being, I must confront my fear of failure. I’ve learned that success is built on a mountain of failure. Each day, I sit on the rim of the abyss of not-knowing, allowing myself to free-fall into the mystery at the core of why I have done what I have done, and why this matters for who I can be.

***

In 1995, I founded the Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky. Since that beginning, it has been my privilege to create Circles of Trust with incarcerated, post-incarcerated, and at-risk communities.

Entering the world of the American Industrial Prison Complex can be likened to entering Dante’s Divine Comedy.

All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Shakespeare Behind Bars, like Dante’s Inferno, is a circle: but the Circle of Trust is the antithesis of the injunction to abandon hope: the Circle of Trust offers hope and healing in a punishing world that’s designed to strip human beings of identity and belief in humanity – both their humanity and that of and others.

***

The Circle of Trust is my sanctuary of shared presence. A Circle can be created anywhere, in any life’s pursuit, in business, in worship, in a book club, or in working with marginalized communities as I do. I believe that when the Circle of Trust is created, any pursuit, passion, avocation, or past-time can be put into its center. For me, it happens to be art, theater, The Collected Works of William Shakespeare, and original writing.

In the first year that a Circle of Trust is established, we are all apprentices. We’re all learning, together. After the first year, if a participant chooses to continue, they are advanced to the status of junior mentor. They are beginning a process based on Indigenous cultures, where the governance comes from within a Circle of Elders. Then after two years, they can be advanced to senior mentor status. Now they are in a place where they are ready, if they choose, to create their own Circles. They might take the principles and values of the Circle back to their living quarters, to another group of which they are a member, and eventually, on release, to their community beyond the razor-wire. Contemplative sojourners—we are the members of the Circle of Trust. No matter where we are in our physical presence or our life’s journey: because physical places and communities need not be the same as the journeys taken into the most profoundly damaged, broken, isolated, and lonely places of our minds.

I have supt full with horrors

***

Thus play I in one Prison, many people,
 And none contented.

From among the inhabitants of the village of incarceration . . . gather the prisoners . . .

I have bin studying, how to compare

This Prison where I live, unto the World:

And for because the world is populous,

And heere is not a Creature, but my selfe,

I cannot do it:
Yet I’le hammer’t out.

Steppin’ ‘cross the threshold of now into a world-of-reflection . . .

to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image 

a sacred space of questions . . .

what is this Quintessence of dust?

Passing through the gateway of “for real” . . . round-the-ring-of-resting-chairs-the-circle-members-sit . . . the self-chosen . . .

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers:

Who will “get nick-ed” to bear witness within the Circle of Trust?

But what ere I am,

Not I, nor any man, that but man is,

With nothing shall be pleas’d, till he be eas’d

With being nothing.

Sitting with my pain . . . and . . . the pain of others . . . the journey-of-again-beginning-and-beginning-again into wholly-becoming-beings embarking on ships-with-sails-of-mirrors . . .

to hold as ’twere the Mirror up to Nature

Words resonate in a silence at the center of the Circle . . . ears hear . . . listen . . . eyes look . . . see . . . lungs inhale . . . exhale . . .

“We choose to trust, to believe, what we each speak is the truth.”

Held captive in the world of incarceration behind double-strands-of-razor-ribbon, “truth” is a commodity traded with suspicion . . .

“We choose to trust, to believe, that what we each speak is the truth.”

Among the Circle members . . . those who had their trust violated . . . who in turn violated the trust of others . . .

“We choose to trust, to believe, what we each speak is the truth.”

Within each Circle member . . . inner vibrations increase as thoughts-rub-against-thoughts . . . a four-part-harmony between . . . mind . . . heart . . . soul . . . mystery . . .

“We choose to trust, to believe, what we each speak is the truth.”

The gospel choir of redemption sings . . .

How Vast is the Abyss of Trust that contains the Chasm of Truth?

***

As a member of the Circle of Trust, I embrace the key precepts of the Shakespeare Behind Bars Collective Agreement that bind us together.

 

I CHOOSE: to speak from the personal “I” rather than the collective “WE.”
I agree that it is speaking in “I” that allows others to hear my story
and does not assume “WE” as a collective.

I CHOOSE: to labor to fix myself, rather than attempt to fix others.
When a circle member shares a personal issue that they are wrestling with,
rather than leaping to offer advice or a solution to their struggle
I may choose to share my personal story that resonates with their struggle
which might offer insight and hold a potential pathway to a solution.
Together, we step into opening the aperture of our awareness.

I CHOOSE: to be present.
I agree to wake-up—to remove my mask (s)—to bring all of myself to the Circle—
to live from moment to moment in the eternal now—
to recognize that with each moment of my life—
I am living into my death.

I CHOOSE: to listen.
I agree to listen with unconditional love and non-judgmental ears
with an awareness that seeks not to filter what I am hearing through my own
biases, prejudices, theories, concepts, formulas, beliefs, or dogmas.
I agree to listen to hear something new
not just in the words that are spoken
but also
in the silence between the words
for in this silence
I find the absence of myself
and in this absence of self
I relinquish the illusion of knowing
and enter the realm of not knowing
where I may find the freedom of discovery.

I CHOOSE: to see.
I agree to see the divinity in each human being, including my own.
I agree to see the reality of what is presented
rather than
the illusion of what I wish it to be.

I CHOOSE: to live into the life that I have, rather than pine for the life that I wish I had or to regret the life that I could have had.
I agree to believe, without patronage,
in the power that is the right of every human being.

I CHOOSE: to embrace the freedom of not having to be right.
I agree with unremitting readiness that I may be wrong.
It is in this freedom to be wrong that I release my fear of failure
and achieve the learning I need
to bring me the knowledge
to unlearn everything
And arrive at new insights.

I sit on the rim of the Circle of Trust to work on myself
to bear witness to the miraculous transformation
from within myself
and
within others.

What a piece of work is a man!
how Noble in Reason?
how infinite in faculty?
in form and moving how express and admirable?
in Action, how like an Angel?
in apprehension, how like a God?
the beauty of the world,
the Paragon of Animals;
and yet to me,
what is this Quintessence of Dust?

Trauma-/-shame without voice can cause immeasurable suffering. That suffering can lead to addictions to try to manage it or make it go away. It can lead to mental illness. It can lead to violence. It can lead to death. Each Circle member becomes an artist who is open to finding expression in Shakespeare for the intellectual, the emotional, the physical, the spiritual, as a way of speaking for themselves the deepest and perhaps the most impermeable truths of their being. Each participant gains the skills as an actor to analyze the text, to explore the backstory, to embody the character, and slowly but steadily to express a part of [in the case of this prison, “his”] self that has been inexpressible, inaccessible. The Circle is not there to fix participants – we fix ourselves. Even though I am the facilitator, I am an equal member of the circle who sits on the rim to work on me.

Theater most closely resembles real life in real-time … theater is traveling in the world of for real where I seek, via the authenticity of my outer-world being, a reflection of my inner world … theater contains a direct connection to a live audience in the present moment … theater is safe space to practice being human … theater promotes the safe expression of emotions through the aesthetic …. theater socializes … theater releases a person’s humanity … to make theater is to make believe …. to make believe is to believe in the possible … to make theater is to make life itself … theater is an act of creation and understanding … theater is an act of imagination, an act of empathy, an act of responsibility, an act of assertion; of being seen; of finding my voice … theater is an act of making a spectacle of myself—in a vulnerable yet resilient and resistant way … making theater in prison is an act of intention—to make art in a place where there is so little beauty … where I must look to find beauty … making theater in a prison is a release from the structure and stricture of a punitive world where everyday life is about the binary of permission and denial … creating theater is an act of duality born of humility and hubris. It can be both sacred and silly … profound and profane … selfless and selfish … a form of getting and giving … anchoring and transporting …
I use The Collected Works of William Shakespeare because this volume offers a palate of emotions to be explored and expressed; because within the body of Shakespeare’s words, I can find the courage to dare to explore the trauma-/-shame that I have suffered; because his words offer worlds for how to think and not what to think.

And through and beyond and ever looping back into the Circle of Trust, and because I can put anything into the center, I put original writing. Writing in my journal promotes self-authorship. Writing in my journal gives me creative control, free choice, and free will in a repressive world of correction. Writing in my journal develops my self-expression, self-reflection; perhaps inchoate, or perhaps clear as the shriek of a flower in the sunlight.

***

The unexamined life is a life not worth living.
— Socrates

My life’s laboratory is the correctional institution. My work as a Prison Arts Practitioner is to facilitate the exploration of the journey inward.

I embrace the belief of the ancients in the realm of becoming:

If I educate the human mind without educating the human heart,
then I have only educated half the human being.

In the Shakespeare Behind Bars Circle of Trust, I seek not to be remembered for the worst things I’ve done … through introspection and through finding words for my past to release into the Circle of Trust, I give momentum to my past: understanding where I came from and what values were instilled in me as a child, and what experiences shaped me into who I was … through giving my past this momentum, I come to understand why I am in my present situation and that my future is yet to be … my past is but a portion of the whole that will not be completed until I die. I live into the now … and through living in the now, I explore who I wish to become …

in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can remove my mask of protection . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can hold the mirror up to myself
                                 to see who i am, why this is, who i might become . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can see the injustice i have suffered
                                 and the injustice i have caused . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can sit with silence . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can look into the eyes of my brothers and sisters . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can reach, even momentarily, my deepest self . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can reveal my truths
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can face my deepest fears . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can give breath
                                 and words
                                                 to my greatest shame . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can weep for my agony
                                 and the agony of others . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 my heart can crack open
                                 to let the light in . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can find the compassion to forgive those who hurt me . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can find the empathy i need to love the whole world
                                 and in loving the whole world,
                                                 i can love myself . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can be at peace
                                 and in harmony
                                                 with the world . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can honor my ancestors,
                                 my family,
                                                 my fellow human beings,
                                                                 and myself . . .
in the safety of our Circle,
                 i can be of service to others
                                 and in serving others
                                                 i serve myself . . .

***
I come to the Shakespeare Behind Bars Circle of Trust to be awakened from my anesthetized state of indifference … to learn to grieve for my losses and harms … to find language for my suffering and shame … to listen deeply to others … to find myself in another human being’s story … to find the compassion I need for myself and others … to become the most empathic human being I can be.

CURT L. TOFTELAND brings forty+ years of professional theatre experience to his current role as a freelance theatre artist – director, actor, producer, playwright, writer, teacher, program developer, prison arts practitioner, and consultant.

Curt is the Founder of the internationally acclaimed Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) program, now in its 25th year of continuous operation.  From 1995-2008, Curt facilitated the SBB/KY program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky.  During his thirteen year tenure, Curt produced and directed fourteen Shakespeare productions.  Multiple participants in the SBB/KY program have garnered Pen Literary Prison Writing Awards, as well as been published in academic journals.

During the 2003 SBB production of The Tempest, Philomath Films chronicled the process in a documentary that premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and forty+ film festivals around the world winning a total of eleven film awards.

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6 thoughts on “The Circle of Trust”

  1. Shared this post with an elderly friend who I thought might like this, and she sent the most interesting message in reply:

    By the strangest co-incidence I had just listened to the same message from Val on the phone, in desperation, as in Curt’s piece…..in Val’s case she is suffering from a total lack of control in her life as she tries to regain some control over her situation “in care” in the nursing home, with a very active brain which she over-uses in trying to foil the decrees from the nurses over her physical condition…..will not eat for days, then over-eats..then bowels don’t work, then bladder plays up,,,then doesn’t eat..over-eat ..rows with nurses etc etc then the psychiatrist does not answer her phone, is away..is delayed etc…It never occurs to Val that sometimes she herself is the cause of all this and her “circle” is myself and Jesus…the latter long avoided and the former at 87 is absolutely without influence anymore…I was relieved when a visitor enabled me to get off the phone, only to find Curt’s very similar story awaiting me…..but in a prison and not a Nursing home, tho both take away one’s total control, if not in accord.

  2. Hannah C. Langley

    Theatre is one of the most healing and special places to grow as a person and as an ensemble. So glad to see this work being done!

  3. A good reminder of the theatre’s potential as a resource in healing processes. The interspersing of lines from Shakespeare gives evidence of the material’s relevance in the program — the scope of human questions that Shakespeare voices in his work, and the possibility for anyone to apply them to themselves and their world. I would be interested to hear from those who have participated in the program, and of their experience of building trust in this context.

  4. By the strangest co-incidence I had just listened to the same message from my friend Val on the phone, in desperation, as in Curt/s piece…..in Val /s case she is suffering from a total lack of control in hr life as she tries to regain some control over her situation “in care” in the nursing home, with a very active brain which she over-uses in trying to foil the decrees from the nurses over her physical condition…..will not eat for days, then over-eats..then bowels dont work, then bladder plays up,,,then doesn/t eat..over-eat ..rows with nurses etc etc then the psychiatrist does not answer her phone, is away..is delayed etc…It never occurs to Val that sometimes she herself is the cause of all this and her “circle” is myself and Jesus…the latter long avoided and the formr at 87 is absolutely without influence anymore…I was relieved when a visitor enabled me to get off the phone, only to find Currt/s very similar story awaiting me…..but in a prison and not a Nursing home, tho both take away one/s total control, if not in accord. Marsie

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