For the last five years, the Memphis-based Tennessee Shakespeare Company has done outreach with boys who are incarcerated at two facilities within the Shelby County Correctional system. Arts Midwest recently caught up with teaching artist Michal Khanlarian, now in his third year of working with incarcerated teenagers in the program funded by Shakespeare in American Communities. We talked about how art can help clarify emotions, the challenge of doing this work virtually due to COVID-19, and the power of creativity.
Khanlarian in Tennessee Shakespeare’s production of Julius Caesar. Photo courtesy of Tennessee Shakespeare.
“I’m there to give them love, give them respect, and be an ear. If I ever find myself thinking that I’m there to fix something, then I shouldn’t be there.”
- Michael Khanlarian
Tell us about your background, both as a creative and as an educator, and how you wound up at Tennessee Shakespeare Company.
I’ve been acting in some form or fashion since I was 19. I was very shy as a kid but I was always ready to go, even if I wasn’t very good at it in the beginning. I auditioned for Tennessee Shakespeare Company 14 years ago on a whim and became a founding company member. I had a little bit of experience with Shakespeare, but that wasn’t necessarily my main passion. I’ve been with them ever since. Through them, I was provided the opportunity to teach. I don’t necessarily consider myself a teacher. I’m more of a facilitator or a coach; I like those words better. I’ve worked in juvenile justice for the last three years as a lead teacher.
Our founding artistic director was approached by the chief counsel at the juvenile court. We’ve been coming into juvenile court or Hope Academy for the last seven years with the Romeo and Juliet Project. Now we’re three years into this current program.
I went to Chicago to do a workshop led by Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars and that was the extent of my experience [before teaching], except for doing workshops in the Romeo and Juliet project. I got to learn a lot from him in those few days. I was dropped into this program and took what I learned from Curt and went forward. It is a learn-as-I-go process.
[Working over Zoom] has been difficult. That continues to be a big learning curve. I am a person who thrives on the energy in the room, so I’ve had to rely on people like the program director for juveniles at juvenile court, to relay things back and forth. Sometimes I can’t hear the guys. So we have a three-way conversation and I’m not able to see how they react.
It’s been difficult, but at the same time, it teaches me a lot of patience and allows me to go slower. Every time I start a workshop, I’ll start with a check-in. How are you feeling today? Where are you emotionally? Where are you physically? That changes throughout the class. If they go from, “I don’t know how I’m feeling” to “I’m feeling trapped,” that is a positive net gain for me because at least they are now expressing exactly where they are. But it’s better when they go, “I am feeling sad” to “I am feeling energized.”
When March 2020 hit, we had a month left in our initial pilot program and we were leading towards performances [canceled because of COVID]. Then we got shut down. We had to wait until the fall to begin again [virtually].
How does the process evolve as you sense the energy shifting? Generally, what’s the structure been like?
We’re constantly bringing in new guys so we start with a check-in and then we talk about community values or guidelines. What is important to you to make a team work? How do you express yourself openly and what makes it safe for you to participate in this program?
They are not rules, they are values that we hold so everybody can participate safely in a place where they may not feel safe. If I’m doing something that makes them feel unsafe, I want to know that so they can have autonomy and express themselves. Once we get going, I let them lead the way.
For instance, [when reading “Othello”], we’ll go through some text and they will speak it and see what emotions come up, what they get from it, and then go through a synopsis. I ask, “What are things that you want to know?” And I write those questions down. To answer questions, I present texts that might be able to lead them to the answer they’re seeking, or it might lead to other questions, which is even better for me.
Shakespeare is so inflamed, it’s so passionate and it speaks to us on a level that I don’t think we even understand.
– Michael Khanlarian
After we went through the synopsis of “Othello,” one of the questions was “Why is Othello hiding his marriage?” I said, “To me, the answer could come from a couple of different places.” I started with Brabantio’s reaction to the marriage. How does he react to the fact that they’ve snuck off? We read the text as a choral group. They really latched onto that because it’s so energized and inflammatory. One of them said, “This is the hypest thing I’ve ever heard.” And then one [participant] read it while the rest hyped him up. Their energy was off the charts. I never thought that I would see a group of teenagers engaging with Brabantio in that way. I asked them if they could rewrite Brabantio’s response, and I’m going to see what they do with it.
You’re going to hear that today?
Yeah. I said, “There is no wrong answer. Whatever you come up with, I am interested in and you can do it in any genre. You can do it like a poem or a song. Whatever you want to do, I want to see it.”
How have you seen your role as an instructor evolve? Do you see yourself as a mentor?
I’m a learner. I’m curious. I come in with a curious mindset and I come in bringing my passion for the thing that we’re dealing with at the moment. I love the play “Othello.” I love Shakespeare. But I also don’t put it on a pedestal. It can be changed. It can be altered. We can do anything we want with it.
Khanlarian teaching virtually.
What is it about Shakespeare’s canon in general, and “Othello” in particular, that has made it a useful tool in this context?
I ask myself this question all the time. Sometimes I’m like, “I don’t know if it is.” But then they engage with it and get something out of it, even if it just changes their mood at that moment. I can’t say that I’ve impacted them in any way [long-term]. If I have, great, but [most importantly] I’ve impacted that moment.
Shakespeare gets to the core of who we are as humans. “Romeo and Juliet” speaks to teenagers dealing with love and the instinct to fight every person in front of them because they’ve been shunned or they’ve been called a name.
Ninety-nine percent of the guys [in the program] are African American. So with “Othello,” I want to present this character and his experience to them. They may not jump to that, and if they don’t, that’s fine with me, but I want to give them the opportunity to see themselves at least present in it, even though it is written by a white man.
Shakespeare is so inflamed, it’s so passionate and it speaks to us on a level that I don’t think we even understand. Most importantly, it seems foreign and therefore it is easier to say things [and realize you feel a certain way]. Why do I feel that way? I don’t know, but I’ve expressed something that I’ve never expressed before in my life. I am 20 years [into doing Shakespeare] and sometimes I’m still like, what is he talking about? I don’t know, but I feel it and it makes me feel great.
It’s not always Shakespeare [that we work with]. Sometimes I do poetry reading. I brought in Tupac the other day. I read a piece from “American Moor” by Keith Hamilton Cobb. I show up and we see where we go.
What is acting — what does it allow for in this environment?
Acting is a meditation. It’s about focus. You have to be in the moment and stay aware of where you are emotionally and where a character is emotionally. You’re both in and out of yourself at the same time.
Ensemble acting is about working as a unit, speaking up for yourself, speaking up for your partners. I’ve seen young men that could barely read early on take text because they found a connection to it and go, “How do you say this word? Can I say it a different way?” I respond, “Why don’t you try it the way it’s written down?” They’re like, “All right. I don’t really want to.” But then everybody says “You can do it.” Then they start taking other people’s texts and going, “I wanna do this piece.” That community bond and that feeling of being able to say something in another person’s words is addictive.
Are goals such as reducing recidivism rates or reducing facility violence ever in your head, or are you focused more on, like you were saying, being in the moment, seeing a shift daily, and those kinds of less measurable things?
I’ve asked myself this question numerous times: Am I the person to be in this room? Should I be in this room? Maybe I’m the wrong person. And then I think to myself, I am the person that is here, so I have to make the most of it. When I think about recidivism and [facility] violence, I would love nothing more than to think that I could have the power [to impact those things], but I can’t focus on that or make that my goal, because then I’m not in the moment.
I’m there to give them love, give them respect, and be an ear. If I ever find myself thinking that I’m there to fix something, then I shouldn’t be there.
Officer Coleman in Jail East picked out the guys that he thought would work best in this program. He’s like, “I just want you to try your best,” and he’s always encouraging them. If I get the adults [on board], I can get the kids. I think a performance would be a tangible win for the program and the kids and the facilities. But that’s probably not going to happen until COVID is over.
Has doing this program helped you understand what creativity is, or what being creative can do for people?
Doing this program and teaching kids I have found patience and [do not] worry about results. I am not concerned about something being good. Because what does “good” mean? I try to remove my ideas about what this play should be, what this play can be, and follow wherever their minds take them. Hopefully, it instills in them a lifelong love of something. Creativity sparks an interest, sparks a love. Everybody’s creative but not everybody has the opportunity to express themselves.
It’s not about the result. It’s not about providing hope. It is about being there, listening, and them feeling safe enough to express whatever they want. When I’m rushing and trying to get to the result instead of being in the moment, they check me. Even when we’re talking about values — trust to me might be different from what trust is to them. So how do we come to a unified idea of what trust is? It’s all about communication and allowing them to be autonomous in their communication.
They will say “I want to feel supported,” “I want to feel valued,” “I want to be heard,” “I want to work in a team,” “I want to be part of something,” “I want to feel loved,” “I want respect,” “I want to be able to feel like a kid,” “I want to have fun.” And that’s where it starts; it always starts with fun.
Tennessee Shakespeare is a Shakespeare in American Communities grantee.
Shakespeare in American Communities is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.