In an early rehearsal, Scott Cox was trying to remember which parts he'd cast. His gaze alternated between his script of Macbeth and an assembly of inmates who had signed on to play roles.
"Do I have a Second Murderer?" asked Cox, who is in his first year as the director of the Lansing Correctional Facility's Shakespeare in Prison program. "Who's my Second Murderer?"
After a pause, someone spoke up. "I think we're all murderers in here."
When directing an assortment of robbers, drug dealers and killers in a Shakespeare production, there are little reminders that you're on the inside.
This doesn't faze Cox. As a kid, with his stepmother, he visited his father in prison.
"My dad was kind of a con man," Cox says. He delivers this deadpan, like a line from a monologue in a one-man show. "He went to prison for 12 years — I guess that's an important thing to know. It was on conspiracy to commit murder charges, and a lot of them were trumped-up. The murder was not committed. There was an attempt. My dad always said, 'I'm not guilty for what they put me in prison for, but they probably should have put me in jail for something because I got away with a lot.'"
Cox's early familiarity with prisons, however, isn't what made him want to teach Shakespeare to convicts. He wanted to be an actor.
"I was going to go to New York and become a big actor man, and then I watched those towers go, and my ambitions changed," Cox says of 9/11. "I wanted a quieter life with a family and a home, somewhere far away from anyplace where somebody might consider bombing." He laughs a little. "It was a fear-based decision."
So Cox settled in Kansas City with his wife and began working toward a doctorate in theater at the University of Kansas. This year, he became the head of Benedictine College's theater department. His dissertation is on theater performances in oppressed populations, and this led him to rent Shakespeare Behind Bars, a 2005 documentary about a production staged at a Kentucky prison.
"They're talking about The Tempest, which is about redemption, and I'm weeping," Cox says, "Really, really weeping. It was shortly after they performed the prologue from The Tempest. The most important part is —"
Here, Cox recites from memory: As you from crimes have pardoned me, let your indulgence set me free.
"And there was this pedophile, and he made the most profound statement in the whole documentary, which was that those who need redemption the most, deserve it the least," Cox continues. "And I thought, Well, that's really true, and then I cried more. And I thought, I have to do that."
Meanwhile, a group of inmates in Lansing prison's African Awareness Organization was taking a survey for Arts in Prison, a nonprofit organization that sends volunteers inside Kansas correctional institutions to teach subjects such as photography, poetry and painting. (Full disclosure: I serve on Arts in Prison's board of directors.) The survey asked inmates what other classes they would like. The inmates responded: We want to do Shakespeare.
Cox approached Arts in Prison's executive director, Leigh Lynch, and things came together quickly. In two months, Cox passed the requisite background checks, and fliers advertising his Shakespeare in Prison program were posted around the medium-security unit of the prison. In September 2011, Cox met his actors for the first time.
The cast rehearses in the prison auditorium, otherwise used for concerts and religious events. Getting there requires a walk across the yard, beyond a collection of barbells and weight benches, past fenced-in grass where men run dogs with the Safe Harbor Prison Dog Program, beyond a bank of pay phones and a walking path where shirtless men air their inked skin.