Actors Andre Nelson and Aishe Keita play Polonius and Ophelia in 'Hamlet.'
Actors Andre Nelson and Aishe Keita play Polonius and Ophelia in 'Hamlet.'

Freehold Theatre Lab has spent more than a decade working to make performances and workshops accessible to people from all walks of life, and that includes those currently incarcerated in prisons around Washington state.

“We’ve been doing this for about 14 years now,” said Freehold director Robin Lynn Smith. “We started fairly sparsely in 2003.”

Work within Washington prisons started with the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor in 2005, through Freehold’s Engaged Theatre program.

“We were invited back in after we did ‘The Tempest’ at the women’s center,” Smith said, and Freehold now also works with self-selected populations that write their own scripts. “We’ve been doing residencies there for, I think, six years, and performing there since 2005.”

This summer Freehold is producing a shortened adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which will be performed at the Monroe Correctional Complex July 12-13.

“This is not going to be your sit-and-talk Shakespeare,” Smith said. “There will be a lot of talking, but it will be a lot more physical exuberance.”

Engaged Theatre is about creating performances that resonate with the underserved audiences Freehold reaches, which often means soliciting feedback on how actors can adapt their characters for a more rich experience.

Smith recalled sharing Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths,” about a group of impoverished Russians, with a group of homeless men in New York.

“And they taught us so much about the story, and so we invited them and had them watch the opening,” she said. “We cannot lie when they’re in the audience. We can’t be phony. It’s their lives we’re telling.”

Smith said she’s excited about the production of “Hamlet,” and how the shortened performance is being adapted.

“He was born into a set of circumstances that he didn’t ask for,” she said of Hamlet. “That doesn’t mean he didn’t make mistakes.”

The same holds true for men and women incarcerated in the prisons where they perform, she said, many growing up with various economic challenges and struggles.

“I think our story is going to focus on Hamlet’s journey to bring his humanity forward in a better way,” Smith said. “… I do think there’s deliverance at the end of this play, and that doesn’t mean that everyone lives.”

Freehold began working with designers and cutting down the play in the fall, with rehearsals starting in June. Smith said it’s important to the organization that its productions be cast across genders and ethnicities.

“I believe we need to hold a mirror up to the world we live in and people we play for,” she said.

Without the typical lighting and other accouterments found in a typical theater setting, Smith said Freehold deals with the limits of a prison environment through sound, music and rhythm.

Freehold Theatre Lab’s “Hamlet” will run 8 p.m. July 20-31 at Seattle University’s Lee Center for the Arts, 901 12th Ave. All performances ask patrons to pay what they can.