Prison University Project at TED Talks

From our friends from the Prison University Project, based at San Quentin.

Below is the link to a wonderful TED Talk by Damon Horowitz, PUP volunteer, about teaching philosophy at San Quentin. It’s just under 4 minutes long:

Prison University Project
Patten University at San Quentin, Director
Post Office Box 492
San Quentin, California 94964

Hamlet on Alcatraz Outreach

Anna Martine Whitehead and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department

While We Players rehearsed Hamlet over the demanding Alcatraz terrain, new and returning artists at the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department spent Summer 2010 building giant puppets and banners that address Hamlet’s themes – including isolation, redemption, and loss. Over the course of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet finds himself more and more alone within a court of panderers, backstabbers, adulterers, and murderers. He struggles with the moral question of how to avenge his father’s death, increasingly aware of the cycle of violence and limitations of reason. He becomes morose, and in the process loses not only his father, but his mother, a sense of family,  his love, and ultimately his own life.

These same themes of loss, isolation, and redemption are felt keenly by the 260,000 people incarcerated in California jails and prisons, and the over 446,000 California residents on probation, parole, or supervision. Setting the trend for the nation, incarceration has become an epidemic in California.

The artists who designed the work here are all on probation, parole, or supervision and a few have served time at San Quentin State Prison, directly across the Bay. They have experienced the loss of friends, family, childhood, social standing or a sense of self to violence, drugs, AIDS, and incarceration.

For those who repeatedly showed up to make artwork, several times a week for over twelve weeks, the manipulation of raw material into identifiable images of salvation and remembrance (ghosts, fists raised in the air, and crosses, among other things) was a critical step in their ongoing process of redemption and self-forgiveness. Their lived experience of these themes, as well as their commitment to the art of personal expression, informed We Players’ generative process.


Franky Alfaro
John F. Earle
James L. Ellis II
Michael Goodwin
LeRoy Hoggis
Alma Johnson
Allen, Alex, Alberto (Cuba), Mike, Oliver and Richard

Banner artists:

Lejhaun Bowden
Daniel Chesnutt
Darinell Collier
Rashawna Dixon
Mariana Duran
Lacresha Foster
Celina Gallardo
Trina Glover
Vinh Hoang
Pamela Watson
Shaun Webb
Keith Williams
Marcella M. Wiltz
Cornell, and Semaj (Doh)

……….Location: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco
……….Dates: January 29 – April 2, 2011 

Anna Martine Whitehead Artist Statement
I use video, puppets, sound, and movement to address disremembered histories. My history-telling performances are an extension of my investment in transformative performance traditions, my commitment to disidentificatory countermemory, and my penchant for retelling trauma as fantasy. I uncover the buried histories of space and identity formation to tell new stories of self-actualization. Working within thematic discourses of diaspora, memory, melancholia, and desire, my practice narrativizes those invisible and unwritten moments where hybrid identities and collective knowledges meet.

We Players to present excerpts of Hamlet at San Francisco Theatre Festival

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We Players will present selected excerpts from their production of Hamlet, which is currently in rehearsal as part of the San Francisco Theatre Festival. The performance is scheduled for Sunday, August 8th, 2010 at 2:10pm on the Stone Stage at Yerba Buena Gardens. All events associated with the SF Theatre Festival are presented free of charge.

We Players’ full production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet will open on October 2nd 2010 on Alcatraz Island. The production will be ambulatory and plans to use several of the buildings associated with the former prison, and much of the 22 acre island of Alcatraz, including spaces that are seldom visited by regular park visitors. The company is working in programmatic partnership with the National Park Service, and will present an island- wide, interactive production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which will open on October 2nd 2010, and will fully inhabit Alcatraz Island.

Alcatraz Island to host We Players’ performance of Hamlet in first ever artist-in-residence on the rock


Through a multi-year collaboration with the National Park Service, which is the first theater residency on Alcatraz, We Players will present performances and programs both on and off the island. Using both classical plays and contemporary writings, We Players’ events will stimulate awareness and conversation around the themes of incarceration, isolation, justice, and redemption.

We Players’ production of Hamlet by William Shakespeare will open on October 2nd 2010, and will fully inhabit The Rock. We Players’ designated audiences will have unprecedented opportunities to enter parts of the island ordinarily closed to visitors. In addition, the park’s regular visitors will encounter performance environments throughout the island that will enhance their experience of the space and its history and provoke contemplation of project themes.


In September 2009, We Players presented Ellen McLaughlin’s Iphigenia and Other Daughters on Alcatraz. Performances took place on the dock landing and used the amphitheater, as well as the multiple levels afforded by the balconies of the three-tiered Officers’ Building. The stage extended vertically to include views of the fantastic ruins of the former Warden’s Mansion, and the iconic lighthouse above. With Hamlet, the use of space will expand to include the entire island; carefully crafted staging, performance installations, special interpretation programs, and gallery spaces throughout the park will make the play a valuable and provocative contribution to the experience of all visitors. We Players’ theater residency on Alcatraz will culminate in Summer 2011, with interactive on-site installations, featuring collaborations between We Players and other local artists and activists.

We are thrilled about this opportunity to explore the island and its themes with both regular visitors and our audiences.

eat cake and read hamlet

heyden sailing scale

April 23, 2010

William S. turns 446.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark turns 387.
Join WE for a read through of HAMLET.
Friday 4.23
at OCSC (sailing school)
1 Spinnaker Way, Berkeley
We’ll read from the current working-cut. Help shape the final version, for performance on The Rock.
Various people will read various parts
(rsvp if you’d like a scene assignment)
it will be a working session
with birthday cake !


Another comment left on an envelope at the dinner party:


“While we know that prisons aren’t perfect, still remember that some people need to be in prison (or something like it). Some people “deserve” to be dealt with.”


Thank you for this – for bringing this into the conversation. Actually this has been coming up a lot for me – that my natural sympathy, and desire for understanding is not meant to excuse or justify crime. But how can we heal, how can there be rehabilitation without trying to understand what motivates crime/ violence in the first place?

I have been reading James Gilligan’s book: VIOLENCE.

Phew – check it out. Pretty intense, and really interesting how Mr. Gilligan has found in his 30 years of working with some of the most violent men in the nation – as an MD and psychiatrist – that Shakespeare and the Greeks provide some of the most useful information and archetypes for getting at an understanding of even the most horrendous crimes. But rather than turn this post into an exploration of Gilligan’s book – I return to my the quote above…


So I recognize that yes, I tend naturally to be sympathetic to the struggles and experiences of people in prison. The more I learn and expose myself to – the more painfully obvious appears the injustice of the justice system. A system that in many cases, works to break the spirit and souls of the prisoners, quite contrary to any sense of rehab. Why bother trying to understand why people commit crimes? I mean not just the MOMENT of the crime, but the larger social and cultural conditions urging someone, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, the pressures, confusions. Can you imagine only being remembered for the rest of forever as the one worst thing you ever did ? To have your whole self condensed into that one instance ? Okay so this trying to understand is not meant to gloss over the real horror of the crime committed, the suffering unleashed upon the victim and relations, not to justify or ignore the crime that put someone in prison, but trying to place it and understand it within a larger framework – that this could be a way to uncover solutions for healing and change.


And I’m finding that many effective programs exist – art, education, and meditation based programs that return a sense of Self, Strength, and Hope to a person – except these programs are getting slashed and burned.


I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to meet some of these artists / educators / activists working within the prison system and learn from them. We Players will strive to incorporate what we learn and gather into our performances.


The other part of WHY is this…

We all have one thing in common – we are Human Beings.

This is at the heart of the work in the theater. It’s a vehicle for better understanding myself, this being human, the layers, subtleties, complications, influences…Who Am I? How Must I Act?



i believe it is part of our job as artists is to remain open and curious and willing to feel. all of it.


and it’s all breaking my heart a little every day
it’s also strengthening that same muscle

On the Menu

At last…here are some of your comments from the February Feast

(and thank you for the lovely pictures on your envelopes too!)

“I noticed that Hamlet called Denmark a prison…You probably noticed this.”

We thought there was some kind of connection in there! 😉

“Invite ex-prisoners to come see the show” / “Will (former) prisoners be able to participate in the production?”

Yes! In fact we are exploring a number of ways for prisoners to be involved in this work. Including incorporating their poetry and artwork, and inviting some former prisoners to be involved as crew and performers.


“Local schools would love to see the energy of We Players!” / “Get local schools to come on field trip?”

We agree. Our thanks to Michele Haner, who will arrange for Ava to visit the French-American International High School and lead a discussion about site-specific theater, and using theater as a tool for social action. We plan to arrange student internships for the summer rehearsal and production period. We are hoping to team up with other teachers and existing outreach programs to incorporate work with at-risk youth.

Please let us know if there’s a teacher you think we should talk to!

“A haiku for We:

You are amazing

Your manifested beauty’s

Magnified by love

Keep it up.”

Thank you. We are buoyed up and strengthened by your support!

“How long by homing pigeon flight is a trip from Alcatraz to San Quentin?”

Very good question. Please let us know the answer. Although it may be more relevant to ask this of cormorants, gulls, egrets…other bird species that make their seasonal nesting home on Alcatraz.

“How are the prisons related?”

Amazing how few people are asking that question. Thank you. We will provide information through the project, and infuse our work on site with current stories and statistics to help make the connection between the two.

“Can we watch the play from a boat?”

Do you think we would leave out any detail?

“Will you reinstate the Alcatraz garden?”

Please check out:

The volunteer garden crew on the Rock is amazing. They are restoring the gardens throughout the island.

In November we ate figs from the trees as part of our harvest / fire ceremony.

“What prisoners were sent to Alcatraz and why?”

The so called “worst of the worst”. That is, if you went to prison, but then got in trouble there you could be sent to Alcatraz. Very few prisoners were sent to Alcatraz directly. It was, “reserved for those desperate and irredeemable types”.


“The insane are often incarcerated. Is Hamlet insane? Depressed? What about Ophelia? I’m excited to find out.”

Me too.

“Put Hamlet/We player info on the Alcatraz/Park Service website (including background on Shakespeare and the play itself)”
Despite our partnership with the park, we are running into fields of red tape on this one.

Please consider sending this request to the Park Service!

A story from Stanley Williams who was executed at San Quentin in 2006: A friend snuck a rose petal in to him on a visit to death row. Stanley took it from her, held it in his palm for a minute, then put it in his mouth…and swallowed it. He told her he though it might be his last and only chance to connect with the natural world and he wanted to experience it fully.

How can I support you without giving money? / I would like to be of service, even if I can’t give money.

There are so many aspects to this project. We welcome your support, your talents, your thoughts, your questions. Please write to and tell us what you’re interested in, what aspects of the project ignite you, and we will find a fit. YES. We want your help.

Can we tie race into the picture?

Yes please. This begs a longer response…perhaps a blog post unto itself…

More opportunities like this for fans and supporters to get together and get to know We Players better. Doesn’t have to be as lush as this one, even a pot-luck would do.

Salons / work-in-progress / conversations this spring. Stay tuned here.

I’ve left out most of the general praise and support of we comments – though we thank you truly – oh but here are a few anyway…

Take good care of yourselves throughout this process and KNOW that you are serving this community in a profound way.

I can’t wait to see the show! Your company is singular in making these spaces available through a trans-historical yet extremely current performance tradition. Bravo!

This has been magical.

I’ve never attended an event such as this. I have nothing to add or change.

More on the 2010 Season and We Players Rock Residency…

HAMLET is particularly suited to the island for many reasons. It is a story of a man in isolation wrestling with conscience and consciousness, and is fraught with themes of grief, madness, loss, revenge – all of which extend from the core project themes of isolation, incarceration, and justice. We hope that the play, centered around these issues, will act as a catalyst for conversation.

The root of this conversation is about FREEDOM.

What is it to be free? Is it something that can be granted or taken away?

Or is it something more fundamentally personal than that?

How must I act? To do or not to do?

The show will be built in such a way as to serve both the regular park visitors, with many elements occurring in public areas, as well as the designated audiences who we will guide through a carefully crafted route through the space.

We have already begun conversations artists and teachers who work with local justice advocacy groups, juvenile offenders and with people living in maximum security prisons. We are building partnerships, gathering research, collecting works of art – all of which will be central to the final stage of the residency, culminating in summer 2011.

The Players are a group of traveling actors within Hamlet – and in our production, the Players will be performing virtually non-stop in a public area. In addition to the classical text, they will perform a wide variety of other material which is intended to contextualize the themes…this text will include poetry and first hand materials by those people directly affected by the issues we are exploring – people in prison and their families. The Native American community has a deep connection with the island, and we are inviting their voice into the process as well.

Alcatraz has a magnetic draw. About 5000 people per day in the high season visit the fog enshrouded island in the San Francisco Bay. It is legendary both in the national landscape and within international awareness as well. Both We Players and the National Park Service are asking, “What experience are people having?”, “What are they coming away with?”. This project reflects a true partnership between We Players and the NPS as we join in the shared goal of stimulating more critical conversation of important current issues, issues that are entrenched in the multi-layered history of The Rock.

We feel a tremendous responsibility to those people whose lives are immediately affected by these issues. Please send us your thoughts, reading suggestions, direct us to organizations and individuals you think we should contact.

Write to:

Hamlet on the Rock!

O god, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space……
We Players proudly announce our 2010 production
Shakespeare’s HAMLET
to take place as an interactive, island-wide journey on the legendary
Alcatraz Island
this October/November
Stay tuned here for information about salon events, work-in-progress showings and discussions, and special gala performances on-site this summer.
This production is part of our three year residency on The Rock,
in collaboration with the National Park Service.
We are developing outreach programs and diverse on-site installations in conjunction with the production of Hamlet, to incorporate voices of under-served populations, such as people in prison and their families.
write to us at
with questions, suggestions, or to get involved.
an enterprise of great pith and moment
Join us!