An Exploration of Forgiveness in the Performing Arts

Artistic creations can be a means for the exploration of human attitudes, feelings and behaviors.  The performing arts are an example of an artistic media that can be utilized in this way.  For example, the use of theatre and film can be applied as method to explore some of the human attitudes, feelings and behaviors that are related to the topics of hatred, anger, tolerance, acceptance, as well as forgiveness.  Two such performing arts examples are The Laramie Project and Shakespeare as presented in the Secured Housing Unit (SHU) at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility (WVCF), a super-maximum security prison located in the state of Indiana.  These productions offer their creators and audiences alike, the opportunity to examine the attitudes, feelings and actions concerning how people relate to one another.  They also offer an opportunity for people to understand themselves better, as well.

The Laramie Project, developed by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company, consists of both a theatrical representation and an HBO film based on the actual 1998 murder of twenty-one year old University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard.  On October 6th, 1998, Mr. Shepard was bound to a fence and severely beaten and left to die in the outskirts of the small town of Laramie, Wyoming.  He passed away as a result of the injuries he sustained six days later.  This was a hate crime, since Matthew was targeted because he was gay.  The Laramie Project originated when members of The Tectonic Theatre Company went to Laramie in order to interview the residents concerning the circumstances surrounding the murder of Matthew Shepard, as well as their reaction to this incident.  Their purpose was to create a production pertaining to these events.

Shakespeare, as presented in the SHU at the WVCF, was born out of a prison outreach project that was developed by Associate Professor of English at Indiana State University, Dr. Laura Bates.  Dr. Bates offered prison inmates the opportunity to study Shakespeare.  She worked with men in solitary confinement as they rewrote the Shakespearian language to “contemporary prose” and the plays’ themes into “life lessons for the convicted and incarcerated” (Scotts-Douglas, 2007, pp, 110-111.).  Then, Bates’ drama group, Shakespeare Locked Down, performed and videotaped the production, and in turn, they shared their performances of the adaptations with the men in the SHU at WVCF (Scotts-Douglas, 2007, pp, 110-111.).  This opportunity offered the men in solitary confinement a way to meet their human need for community and companionship.  It provided that and much more.

These productions offered their creators and viewers alike a unique opportunity to learn about human attitudes, feelings and behaviors in relation to the themes of injury and forgiveness.  These themes can be seen in scenes from each production.  For example, in the HBO version of The Laramie Project (n.d), there is an especially emotional moment in the scene of the sentencing of Matthew’s murderer, Aaron McKinney, where one can see a process of forgiveness beginning to take shape.  Likewise, the SHU Shakespearian writers display a similar movement from a negative attitude toward one more positive, as they fashion a new nonviolent conclusion for Hamlet. These scenes present the performers in different stages along a continuum of possible attitudes, feelings and actions, ranging from the extreme emotions of anger, hatred and the desire for revenge and retribution, moving toward positions of greater tolerance and acceptance.

In a scene from The Laramie Project (n.d.), Matthew’s father, Dennis Shepard, feeling a great deal of pain and anger, expressed words of hatred along with a desire for revenge, even as he was generously accepting the plea bargain that the defense lawyer requested on McKinney’s behalf.  Dennis Shepard said in his ‘impact statement’ at the sentencing, “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. Mckinney” while at the same time he was offering McKinney life instead of the death penalty.  He continued, “However, this is the time to begin the healing process” . . . “you made the world realize that a person’s lifestyle is not a reason for discrimination, intolerance, persecution, and violence” and “good is coming out of evil . . . My son died because of your ignorance and intolerance.  I can’t bring him back.  But I can do my best to see that this never, ever happens to another person or another family again.”  Wavering back and forth from a desire for healing to feelings of anger, he followed with,  “You robbed me of something very precious, and I will never forgive you for that.”  Although Dennis Shepard struggled with feelings of anger and hatred, he was beginning the process of healing.

Regarding the SHU Shakespearian production, the writers decided to modify the ending scenes for their adaptation of Hamlet.  The men in the SHU determined that Hamlet, when faced with the option to seek revenge or not, must choose the latter because they acknowledged that acting with vengeance could only result in more violence, his death or else his imprisonment.  The man in Cell E explained that, ‘Shakespeare doesn’t offer an alternative to the violence.  Is this the message we’re trying to send society, particularly the youth? No’ (Scott-Douglass, 2007 p. 113.).  The writers determined that Hamlet would present a speech explaining an alternative approach, ‘I don’t want to become what my father was. I don’t want to become what your father was. We’ve got to break this cycle, man, the two of us, right here and right now’ (Scott-Douglass, 2007 p. 113.).  The men in the SHU rewrote Hamlet in such a way as to send a message, in order to teach the world an alternative to retaliation.  This was a method for nonviolent social change.  In this way, the men in the SHU became some of ‘our most valuable teachers’[1].

Each production offered a unique lens with which one can observe the topics of hatred, anger, tolerance and acceptance.  The Tectonic Theatre Company explored the attitudes, feelings and behaviors of the people who witnessed a violent hate crime.  While in contrast, the men in the SHU considered their own role as violent offenders as they recreated Shakespearian dramas.  Each work, in its own way, led its creators to produce an outcome that would illustrate for the world an alternative response to violence that would work for a greater good.

Each of these scenes led their audience to consider the cycles of violence that are perpetuated in attitudes of anger, hatred, and revenge.  In the scene from The Laramie Project, Dennis Shepard spoke of attitudes, feelings and actions that were at odds with one another.  On the one hand, he desired revenge against his son’s killer, while on the other hand he desired an outcome for a greater good.  Dennis Shepard verbalized what social ‘norms’ kept silent.

In a similar fashion, the SHU’s Shakespearian project also created a space, that otherwise did not exist, for contemplation and dialog.  The men in the SHU experienced, first hand, the costs of violence and retribution.  They had learned from their own experiences that there is a better way.  They wanted to share their wisdom with others.  In order to do so, they rewrote the storyline of Hamlet so that it would teach its audience a different approach when confronted with conflict.

Both Shakespeare as portrayed in the SHU of WVCF, and The Tectonic Theatre Company’s production, The Laramie Project, have allowed their creators and audiences alike a space and an opportunity to discuss what was otherwise normally kept silent.  In this way, they have learned, and by this they are also now teaching, that there is a way out of the chaos that is left in the aftermath of violent actions and brutality.

Perhaps it is difficult to understand a response of kindness toward a violent transgressor, such as that which Dennis Shepard offered to his son’s killers.  To some, this type of attitude might not seem likely or even healthy.  Yet, there is scientific evidence that suggests that humans have been endowed with a “forgiveness instinct” that makes forgiveness possible and even desirable in such circumstances (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.).  A ‘forgiveness instinct’ acknowledges that one’s own protection and safety happens in loving community.  Therefore a response to transgression that is likely to build and maintain loving community is the preferred action.

Dennis Shepard understood this concept when he said, “I can do my best to see that this never, ever happens to another person or another family again” (The Laramie Project, n.d.).  The Tectonic Theatre Company understood it too, as evidenced when Amanda Gronich, one of its gay members, acknowledged that they might not be able to clear the town’s bad name.  “These people trust us. They want everyone to know that they are not this crime.  Its more than just clearing Laramie’s name, it is clearing their own, and I don’t know if we can do that” (The Laramie Project, n.d.).  Dennis Shepard, and the members of the Tectonic Theatre Company acted with forgiveness toward people’s violent attitudes and actions as they simultaneously exposed the unwanted attitudes and behavior and held the perpetrators accountable.

The men in WVCF’s SHU acted in a similar way.  They discovered, through the performances that they created, that violence is cultivated in a society, by people’s attitudes, feelings and actions.  Violence was all around them in their upbringing.  There was violence at WVCF too.  It was a social norm that one act of violence was returned with another act of violence.  When they studied the Shakespearian dramas, they discovered that it was an attitude that was the ‘seed of violence’[2].  Therefore, they set themselves to cultivate a positive and peaceful attitude and actions when they changed Hamlet’s conclusion.  In this way, they have called attention to the prevalence of a violent attitude in society that shapes how its members respond to one another, and they simultaneously demonstrated a preferred nonviolent way.

The performing arts, such as theater and film, have the ability to impact our perceptions.  They can be used to create a space for people to be able to observe areas of their lives that they might not otherwise wish to examine.  When one does make space for the exploration of the violent attitudes, feelings and behaviors of others, they may learn about their own violent tendencies, too.  Likewise, through the examination of the ‘self’ it is possible to learn about ‘others’.  When seeing with a resulting more expansive view, people may gain a greater degree of compassion for both themselves and others.  The performing arts are a medium that often exploits violent themes.  Yet through thoughtful and intentional productions, the performing arts may nurture and cultivate a culture that values an alternative peace-promoting response.

References:

Scott-Douglass, A. (2007). Shakespeare Inside: The Bard Behind Bars. Bloomsbury Publishing.

The Forgiveness Instinct. (n.d.). The forgiveness instinct. [Web page] Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/forgiveness_instinct

The Laramie Project. (n.d.). [Audiovisual Material]. (Original work published 2002) Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1qiTmF0p4


[1] Father Roger Schmit, the Catholic Priest in The Laramie Project (n.d.), used this phrase when describing the violent offenders, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, as ‘our most important teachers’.

[2] Referencing, again, Father Roger Schmit, the Catholic Priest in The Laramie Project (n.d.), when he used this phrase in describing Laramie community members’ negative attitudes and language against members of the LGBTQ community as, ‘the seed of violence’.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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