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Stages "tear down" razor fences in prisons across the globe, empower incarcerated artists

By Fernanda Pires

The Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design has created a new $25,000 prize to advance the project of one graduating senior.

The new book—Prison Theatre and the Global Crisis of Incarceration—explains why people make theater behind bars and how the arts transform their lives

Ten years of travels visiting and researching prisons around the world. University of Michigan associate professor Ashley Lucas spent the last decade immersed in learning and understanding the work and impact of prison theater companies in Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Uruguay, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and many in the United States.

All this travel to try to comprehend what theater can accomplish beyond entertainment in non-traditional settings and why people engage in performance practices in these challenging contexts.

“Why do people in prison make theater?,” Lucas asked. “Why does it become such a big deal for all people involved?”

Laura Hulsey as Ophelia and dancers in Ophelia’s death scene, Prison Performing Arts, Missouri, USA, Photo credit: Lisa Mandell.

Lucas answers these and many other questions through case studies and testimonials from incarcerated artists in her new book Prison Theatre and the Global Crisis of Incarceration, coming out September 3rd. Her writing offers a distinctive blend of storytelling, performance analysis, travelogue, and personal experience as the child of an incarcerated father.

“This book is one of the only books with a global scope talking about any form of prison artwork,” Lucas said. “I have been uniquely privileged to visit so many different countries, so many different theatre companies, and to see the full range of what people can do with theatre inside these facilities and why it matters to them.” 

I spoke with Lucas about her journey to put together this ten-chapter book, which deeply discusses a range of performance practices tied to incarceration. Lucas’s work looks at the ways in which arts practitioners and imprisoned people use theatre as a means to build communities, attain professional skills, create social change, and maintain hope.  

What is different about this book from the previous books about theater in prison?

Chester Gunter and Jeffrey Sanders as sheep, Open Hearts Open Minds in Oregon, USA, Photo credit: Claire Stock.

The biggest difference is that most of the people who write these books are people like me, people who run prison theater companies, people who have studied this work as scholars. And most of those books are written from the perspective of people like me saying, “This is why we thought it was a good idea to go inside prisons and make theater available to incarcerated people.” What I was really trying to find out as a researcher was, “Why do people in prison do theater?” I have been meeting a lot of people who were in prisons and saw theater as a vital part of their lives, as something that they really needed to get through the week, make a better life for themselves and the people around them in that prison, and connect with their families. All of these things were central to the core of who they saw themselves to be.

And did you get the answers you were looking for after this 10-year research journey?

Shawn Whitsett as Hamlet, Prison Performing Arts, Missouri, USA, Photo credit: Steve Tharp

Yes! Most of the time if you offer anything that sounds even vaguely fun in a prison, everybody wants to show up. If there are nice people, particularly people from the outside world, who don’t work for the prison, it is really exciting to get to see them. It is great to get to see people of the opposite gender. So if you’re in a women’s prison, and you haven’t seen men in a long time, that’s really exciting. If you’re in a men’s prison, and you haven’t seen women in a long time, that’s exciting. And then when you actually get to the theatre, it is so unlike anything else that happens in a prison.

Usually, [a program volunteer] comes inside a prison and says, “I know how you should be. I know how to make your life better. You need to quit drinking, quit using substances, learn how to manage your time, your life and your emotions.” In theater we come in and we say the opposite. We ask, “What matters to you?” “Here is a text that somebody else wrote,” “This character is a super flawed human being and that’s why they’re interesting,” “Is this person who’s interesting to you?” “What would you bring to interpret this really famous character differently than anybody else in the world has ever interpreted?” That’s the magic of theatre, that it’s always personal to the people who are making it and to the audiences receiving it.

So meeting new people can be a hook, but there is much more to it, correct?

Indeed. In prison, we’re not supposed to give people personal things. We’re supposed to flatten everybody out and make them wear the same thing. Make them eat the same thing, make them go through the same routine, tell them that they are not special. We also teach people to keep to themselves and not open their hearts, not open their minds, not share about who they are, and what they believe in the world. 

Bird puppets in Fractured Fables, William Head on Stage in British Columbia, Canada, Photo credit: Jam Hamidi.

The theater totally messes with you. Theater says, “Give me your soul and learn that it is safe to give of yourself emotionally, learn that it is safe to connect with other people, learn that it is safe to show us who you really are, we might fall in love with that person.” I’m not talking about romance. I’m just talking about life, we might see the beauty of your humanity if you let us in. 

In theater, we open up in remarkable ways, and then it’s not used against people for the most part. There were some times when things went wrong, but overwhelmingly the experiences that incarcerated people recounted to me were about being allowed to be something other than the worst thing they ever did. The world tends to presume that all that matters about an incarcerated person is why they’re in prison, and the theater gives people a new way to introduce themselves to others.

Once incarcerated people are hooked by theatre, what is their involvement like? 

Chester Gunter, Open Hearts Open Minds in Oregon, USA, Photo credit: Claire Stock.

It’s different for different people. For a lot of people, it gives them a discipline that also teaches a bunch of other things. The way we [usually] discipline bodies in prison is to say you have no choice. You will wake up at this time, you will go to this job. You will do this thing that we have made you do. In theater, you have to make a commitment. You have to be very self motivated to show up to the rehearsals and memorize your lines, and give of yourself emotionally and open up and take risks. Your level of commitment profoundly affects all the people around you. 

Whereas in everything else in prison, we say “You’re on your own.” Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it just for you. And when you’re in a play, the entire cast depends on you. If something happens to one of those cast members —they get shipped to a different prison, they get released, they have a medical problem, if they’re punished and not allowed to be a part of the play—the entire cast gets reoriented. They have to restructure to continue to take care of each other and the work of art they are creating. 

Aunt Andrea, Joe Opyd, and Momma Sharon, Open Hearts Open Minds in Oregon, USA, Photo credit: Claire Stock.

So you’re asking people who’ve been told to shut themselves off from everything, to all of a sudden make a commitment to it. An artistic community cannot function without the full participation of all of its members. And it makes people realize that their actions have an impact on others. That they have something to contribute, they matter in a good way and not just a punitive way. They’re capable. And they can have a real impact on shaping something that belongs to them, but also equally belongs to the other members of the theatre troupe, and to some extent to the audience, because the audience becomes an invested player in this whole exchange as well. All of those things become really high stakes. And it also gives them a way to connect with the people that they love and the outside world even if those people never get to see the play. 

Can everyone become an actor or actress? Is art for everybody?

Jeffrey Sanders with Chester Gunter’s granddaughter, Open Hearts Open Minds in Oregon, USA, Photo credit: Claire Stock.

I deeply believe that anybody in the world can participate in the arts and become an artist. We’re not all going to attain the highest levels of artistic achievement, but you can enter into the process. When you do, when you actually make a real commitment to make art, it’s scary.

Theater, for example, is super complex, and there’s a ton of new experience involved. It opens up your mind and your heart. It connects you to other people. It really revolutionizes your experience of the world no matter where you are. I think theater is good for all of us, not just people in prison. But people in prison are denied so many other things that it’s a great place to use as a site for realizing why theater can matter so much

Prison Theatre and the Global Crisis of Incarceration is published by Bloomsbury and will be released September 3, 2020. 

This story was first published in LSA Prison Creative Arts Project.


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