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.
As opening night nears, the cast members increasingly refer to one another by the names of their characters.
Cox knew that he'd have to overcome a modicum of skepticism. To start, he led the group in a reading of Macbeth, stopping line by line to translate the unfamiliar language into everyday speech. He started out of order, with the monologue of the drunken Porter who muses on the effects of alcohol while staggering through Macbeth's castle to answer a knock at the gate.
"I did it to hook 'em," Cox admits, "because it's all talking about boners and stuff, about getting drunk, and it's a bunch of dick jokes. They love it. As a teacher, I try to demystify everything. I'm very casual, very real, very comfortable with everything [they] could possibly need to bring up."
When it was time to cast parts, Brian Betts was an easy choice for the title role. He stands 6 feet 1 inch, with cornrows and an easy smile. He's affable and humble and carries himself with the loping grace of an athlete. Most importantly, he's willing to take on Macbeth.
Before his conviction, Betts lived in the Quindaro neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, where residents are fiercely proud of its history as a stop on the Underground Railroad between slave-state Missouri and free-state Kansas.
"I loved it," Betts says. "It was nice. I seen it go through a major transformation when the drug epidemic hit, you know. It was like, it went from being peaceful to violent overnight. But it was still home; it was still beautiful."
Betts is serving 25 years to life for the murder of a Quindaro resident shot 18 times with a shotgun and a rifle in the early morning of December 29, 1997. He was one of only four cast members "cleared" by prison officials for interviews with The Pitch. (Prison staff first asks victims if they'd object to an inmate appearing in a newspaper story; prisoners not granted consent can be identified only by their first names.)
Learning Macbeth's lines has been a pleasant distraction, Betts says. One of his favorite passages:
I have liv'd long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but in their stead,
"I've felt, in my situation, like, 'Why is this happening to me?' " Betts explains. " 'Is it meant for my life to be cursed? Is it meant for me to not have a family and be free?' So I can really relate to that." He pauses, nodding. "I can really relate to that one, right there."
After rehearsals began, Betts encouraged his friend Vaughn to join the cast. Vaughn, 45, first met Betts 15 years ago in county jail while both were awaiting trial.
Vaughn is built like a linebacker — 5 feet 10 inches, 273 pounds — but he speaks with quiet, polite reserve. "He [Betts] was like, 'Hey, man, I know you. I know you can do it. Come on in here.' "
So Vaughn went to a rehearsal, and Cox asked him to take the part of Lady MacDuff, a small role that, once introduced, is promptly killed off by Macbeth's assassins in Act 4.
"I was like, 'Aww, I gotta be a woman, right out of the gate?'" Vaughn says, grinning. "But it's no problem. I don't have hang-ups about that."
In November 1997, Vaughn walked into the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department and announced that he'd killed his grandmother. He is now serving a hard 40, meaning a 40-year sentence without parole, a punishment reserved for "heinous, atrocious and cruel" crimes.
"A lot of these guys never got to experience life," Vaughn says. "I graduated college. I was in the military and traveled around."
Men like Betts, who were locked up young, missed those opportunities.
"It's good that these guys can get a taste of culture and education," Vaughn says. "Broaden their minds."
Of Betts, Vaughn says, "I know him. I know what kind of background he comes from. He's really furthered himself in here."
Cox started with 30 men in the program, but only 12 were left by opening night. Turns out, the medium-security inmates have busy schedules. Many of the men at Lansing work shifts at one of the 15 industries that function as joint ventures between private corporations and the Kansas Department of Corrections. Inmates who work for Impact Design, for example, churn out Royals T-shirts that are given away to fans at Kauffman Stadium each season. Cox had to move rehearsals from Wednesdays to Sundays because, by his estimate, 75 percent of his cast works at the print shop.
As people dropped out, Vaughn became something of a small-part collector, picking up the roles of Prince Donalbain, the Porter and Seyton and understudying for those who had to miss a week. "I think Banquo is the only part I haven't played," Vaughn says. "You get confused, understudying for everyone."
Vaughn quickly picked up the stage directions and became sort of a stage manager, coaching the rest of the cast members on their cues and reminding them of their blocking. He also choreographed the fight scenes.
Cox chose Macbeth, murderous plot and all, for reasons that were both practical and philosophical. For one thing, it's Shakespeare's shortest play. It has one of his most accessible plots. And a few key lines really lend themselves to this population, Cox says. The "Tomorrow" speech is "probably the most profound moment in the show for any of the prisoners," he says.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
'Til the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.
The most troublesome role to cast was Lady Macbeth. The men wanted Cox to bring a woman in to play the part. He explained that in Shakespeare's day, the part would have been played by a man. Still, Cox wasn't getting many takers.
"One guy stepped up, and he got transferred [to another institution]," Cox says. "Another guy stepped up and got released. Another guy stepped up and lost his nerve. So after going through four Lady Macbeths, back in April, I just said, 'Fuck it. I'm going to play Lady Macbeth.'"
Cox found that the actors' performances improved once he joined them onstage. Perhaps they dropped some of their own fears after watching Cox, in Act 1, Scene 5, clutching a pair of invisible breasts and bellowing, Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.
Harold Wayne Hodges was also a late addition to the cast. He showed up at a rehearsal one day and sat silently in the audience.
"He's a really rough-looking guy," Cox says. "White guy, and I don't have too many of those. He's got big, crazy-looking white hair, which I love. He comes in covered in tats, and he's got this voice." Cox imitates it, a dark rasp, like Nick Nolte with a cold.
Cox asked Hodges if he would read the part for an absent cast member. "I'm just here to do tech," Hodges replied.
Cox pressed. Had he ever acted before? Nah. Ever read Shakespeare? Nah.
"And then I couldn't help it. I just said, 'Well, you are remarkable,'" Cox says, "because he was. And the look on his face, it made my heart soar because he just smiled at me like a man that probably hadn't smiled in four years. He just lit up, like somebody told him something nice, and that he was good at something, and somebody seemed really pleasantly surprised to know him."
Hodges agreed to read a part. Cox gave him the role of Prince Malcolm, the third-largest part in the show. After a rehearsal, Hodges looked around to make sure there was nobody left in the auditorium, then said, "I told the guys I was coming because I wanted to do tech, but this is what I really wanted to do."
Hodges has lived most of his life in institutions, starting when he was labeled a juvenile delinquent as a teenager. He was 19 when he committed his first nonjuvenile offense, and he has been in and out of prison on parole violations ever since. He estimates that he has spent just seven or eight of the last 30 years in the free world.
His latest commitment came after a 46-month run on the outside, before reoffending. "A stint of success," he says.
"It was a stabbing," Hodges says. "It was someone I'd known for 25 years. I'd done time with him. I let him stay with me because he was down on his luck. And two weeks later, I ended up stabbing him seven times. It's ..." Hodges pauses.
"It's a sad story. It started out as an act of charity and ended up something very traumatic. I still cringe when I think about it."
Hodges says he misses his wife, Tina, whose name is tattooed across his neck. He works enough to send some of his meager wages home to her. He's also in the prison's dog-fostering program. His charge: a cranky Chihuahua named T-Bone.
"Everybody here says that no two personalities have ever been more appropriately matched," Hodges says. "He's more of a growler than a biter, but he's lit into me a couple of times. I've had to learn how to live with him, and he's had to learn how to live with me. Sometimes he sleeps with me. Sometimes, when he's being real temperamental, he goes into his kennel and stares disdainfully at me."
Hodges and his fellow inmates know that, on the outside, there are those who take issue with the idea of convicts being provided services like the Shakespeare in Prison program. Some of these men are unlikely to see what's beyond Lansing's walls, but many more, like Hodges, have an "out" date.
"Any change you hope to make in society, you first have to make here," Hodges says. "You can't live here and be one thing and profess that you want to be something different in society, because it doesn't work that way."
The two performances of Macbeth — a Friday and a Saturday night — were attended by medium-security inmates, Lansing Correctional staff and volunteers of Arts in Prison. Lansing's officials wouldn't allow the cast members' families to see the play, citing security risks, so Arts in Prison arranged for a videographer to record a show so the inmates could have copies.
When Hodges first showed up at rehearsals, he had serious doubts, he says. Guys were still reading from their scripts, trampling over each other's lines, missing entrances.
"But all the sudden," Hodges says, "it all came together, and everyone was throwing their scripts down. And now, here we are.
"I think we're doing a believable rendition of Shakespeare, and that's pretty damn cool, no matter how you look at it."