Prison Theatre: Directly changing lives through art!

Over the summer I went on a road trip of the northwest, starting in California and ending up in Seattle. As I would do on any road trip, I brought music and new stumpers for the ever popular “20 questions” game. However, my friend that I was with came much better prepared. He brought over 100 episodes of This American Life, a radio show based out of Chicago that tells stories from all over America. What a great discovery!! My favorite show by far was that entitled Act V documenting a 2002 performance of Hamlet done by Prison Performing Arts. This Missouri based theatre company, goes to prisons (both female and male wards) and creates performances with the inmates acting, and sometimes even re-writing the pieces. The documentary of the prisoner’s production of Hamlet was incredibly moving, and made it clear to me why we need theatre in the larger community by seeing why it is important in this micro-community. It is evident that theatre provides these prisoners with much needed community, pride, self-respect, and a vehicle for their voices to be heard. Theatre gives these prisoners something to be proud of. It makes them productive and creative human beings, as opposed to cattle herded through the prison system. Theatre connects them with the human experience, and with their prison-mates in the audience.
Many of these men had never read Shakespeare and yet they immediately connected to the text because of their familiarity with its themes. What average actor has personal experience with such high stakes of murder, betrayal, and haunting guilt? These prisoners are more personally connected with the text, which makes their performance vibrant, emotional, and fascinating.
Art can change lives, and this episode of This American Life refueled my belief in this statement. After doing some more research, I found out about The Medea Project, a prison theatre company that works solely with women. They founded their company because they recognized, “issues that were specific to female inmates, such as guilt, depression, and self-loathing, which arose in response to feelings of failure in the face of community. These issues directly contribute to recidivism among female offenders. Based on this observation, Jones founded THE MEDEA PROJECT: THEATER FOR INCARCERATED WOMEN to explore whether an arts-based approach could help reduce the numbers of women returning to jail.” (from their website, linked above, in the about us section) I don’t know that these feelings are specific to women, as it seemed many of the men interviewed from the Prison Performing arts Project had similar feelings, however, there is no doubt in my mind that theatre is profoundly changing the lives of all involved in these projects; the inmate actors, inmate audiences, and those non-inmates facilitating the process. This idea reminds me of theatre in ancient Greece, when the majority of the community were present at each show, and the play dealt with immediately relevant political, moral, and spiritual issues. I urge you all to do more research on Prison Theatre!! This looks like an interesting book for some more reading: Performing new lives: prison theatre
By Jonathan Shailor, Evelyn Ploumis-Devick

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