Gratitude and Shakespeare

By Julian Glenn “Luke” Padgett, a member of the San Quentin Shakespeare Theatre Group
What is gratitude and where do we find it when the last thing you hear at night is the loud click of your cell door being locked? As a prisoner with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), I have trained my mind to be open to the smaller moments of life.  The smell of the ocean, a warm raining morning, and prayer: these help me get through all of this.  I have learned this is where the action of gratitude is born.  As a member of the San Quentin Shakespeare Theatre Group, I have seen many men come into our acting therapy class with defeated spirits.

Dead men walking, men who have been beaten down simply by their arduous years of incarceration. Individuals who believe their self worth is less than zero.  They enter not knowing what to expect, lost and unable to communicate their feelings in a manner that is healing and productive. Yet as time has gone by I also have witnessed growth in the character of these men.  I have shared the stage with Jonathan Wilson, a friend convicted under three strikes, who at times felt he would die in prison.

Yet because of proposition 36 he is now free and living a productive life.  I have been in rehearsals with men who came in unable to read but because of some invisible frequency that connected them to a scene in Shakespeare, they learned.  I personally have heard free people who, after seeing one of our shows, have commented that they now have a better understanding of Shakespeare after watching our group perform.

These are the small moments where I am reminded that there is hope. Moreover, through this hope I find my own space where gratitude exists.  Imagine if you will, being convicted of a serious felony, and the life you once knew is gone. You have been in prison so long that you have watched your family members die off, one, by one, by one.

From these natural events, you are left with one recurring principle. It is only you: you are now the last of your line left from your immediate family. Where can one find anything to be thankful for in this scenario? The challenge is not to look for it but to open yourself up to those small moments.

Prison has allowed me to slow down and earn my way back into society. To build a safer space for this shared human experience, one that I will appreciate and protect. However, it is my involvement in Marin Shakespeare's program at San Quentin that has helped me become a better communicator and listener. Because of this program, I feel like I am involved in my community. Shakespeare has not only given me the necessary tools for living a productive life, not just tools for surviving an un-productive existence.  Next year will be my 20th year as a prisoner in CDCR and seven of those years I have been acting with the Shakespeare program at San Quentin, and because of this program, I am a better man for it.

Watch this video of Luke talking about his experience as an actor of Shakespeare plays in San Quentin:

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This article appears in: 2013 Catalyst - Issue 20