Monday, July 16, 2018

CYRANO BEHIND BARS: A Prison Theatre Program in New York Offers Hope for Inmate Redemption

by Jesse Wegman, The New York Times, July 15, 2018

Cyrano de Bergerac will be eligible for parole in 2022. For the time being, he is a vision in Gallic effrontery, pinballing around the stage in the gymnasium at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, N.Y.

The production of Edmond Rostand’s canonical 19th-century comedy, which enjoyed a well-attended two-day run early last month, was the work of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a 20-year-old organization that operates in prisons across New York State. The program introduces inmates to theater, dance, writing and other creative arts in the hope of teaching them life skills and improving their chances at success upon release.

Recent productions have included “Our Town,” “On the Waterfront” and “Of Mice and Men,” but the inmates at Fishkill, which sits just off the Hudson River a two-hour drive north of New York City, were eager for a few laughs. When they proposed “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the show’s director, Charlie Scatamacchia, was skeptical. “I thought, yeah, that’s not gonna happen,” he said. “It’s got multiple scene changes, costume changes. It’s got sword fighting. I doubted my ability to direct them, and their ability to pick up these skills in the time we had. I’ve never been happier to be proved so wrong.”

Behind the title character’s plastered-on proboscis and feathered chapeau is Rodney Spivey-Jones, a 35-year-old from Syracuse. Mr. Spivey-Jones, who had never acted before, first auditioned for the role of Le Bret, the play’s narrator. But Mr. Scatamacchia quickly realized that he was a good fit to play the lead — one of the most verbose roles in theater.

Mr. Spivey-Jones is no stranger to addressing a crowd — he helped form an inmate debate team at another prison that beat a team from Harvard in 2015. Still, he had not given any thought to playing Cyrano and didn’t understand how big the role was until he kept getting called back to read for it. As a writer of verse himself, he quickly found his affection for the soldier-poet with the “big-ass nose,” as the inmates’ lightly adapted script put it.

“I think Cyrano, the character, and not just the character but the entire play, it really speaks to how complicated we are as humans,” Mr. Spivey-Jones said. “The range of emotion that Cyrano experiences when he’s in front of an audience — he’s bigger than life.”

When the show went up, Mr. Spivey-Jones realized that he had memorized not only his own lines but every other character’s as well — a handy trick when a castmate ran into trouble, and he could provide a cue on the spot. “I didn’t realize that was something that I was doing until we were performing that play in front of an audience,” he said.

A bigger obstacle than memorization, it turned out, was getting swords inside the prison. Corrections officials nixed various materials, like a hard plastic foil. But a foam-core model that a friend of Mr. Scatamacchia’s found at a shop in Paris did the trick. Mr. Scatamacchia had arranged for a sword-fight choreographer to come in and train the men, but when his paperwork was rejected, Mr. Scatamacchia had to relay the lessons himself.

The cast of 13 men took the setbacks in stride, as people in prison learn to do with most things. Along with a professional actress, Kate Kenney, who played the role of Cyrano’s love interest, Roxane, the crew worked every week through the winter and spring to get the show into shape.

“We just sat in chairs and read the script,” said Mr. Scatamacchia, who is 63 and retired from the music-publishing industry. “‘What are you saying here?’ ‘What does this mean?’ I encouraged them to rewrite their dialogue in modern jargon. These guys are just talking to each other.” Both performances — one for the inmates and another for about 100 outsiders — were well received, despite the periodic interruption of a prison guard’s walkie-talkie. It wasn’t hard to imagine that some of the men were being applauded for the first time in their lives.

The program, which has about 400 alumni who were released from prison, is popular among both inmates and New York’s prison administrators, who have seen its philosophy pay off. Studies of prison-arts programs around the country, including R.T.A., have found that their participants are better behaved than other inmates, earned educational degrees earlier and in some cases are less likely to wind up back behind bars after release — all of which suggests that rehabilitation, which has recently begun to regain traction as a penal philosophy after decades of neglect, is a real and achievable goal.

R.T.A.’s productions aren’t meant to carry any deeper meaning, but in the case of “Cyrano” — about a man who must hide his true, uglier visage behind a more attractive face — it was difficult not to think about the inmates’ own predicament. Ms. Kenney said she thought many of her castmates “identified with the Cyrano character as someone who has so much to offer, all these talents and gifts — this sensitive, unique human being, but all people see when they look at him is his nose. A lot of them feel all anyone sees when they look at them is ‘inmate.’ I think people were seeing themselves in it.”

At the same time, she and the rest of the R.T.A. team are regularly reminded of how the outside world views their work. Mr. Spivey-Jones, for one, was convicted of second-degree murder. Mr. Scatamacchia remembers one man asking, “Do you spend as much time helping the families that were [expletive] up by these guys as you do helping these guys?”

He thinks about the question often, knowing there are people who have been gravely harmed by many of the men he works with, and who “want these men to rot inside for the rest of their lives.”

Mr. Scatamacchia is sympathetic to that emotion, but he pushes back gently: “I understand your pain and anger, but what’s to be gained by locking someone up and letting them rot? Because most people get out, and if we don’t invest time and energy into rehabilitating these people, they’re going to come out worse than they went in.”

After the second performance of “Cyrano” ended and the standing ovation died down, corrections officers led the audience through the large front door of the prison gym and back to the guards’ station, to be processed for release to the parking lot. The actors waited, then returned to their cells.

Jesse Wegman is a member of The Times editorial board, where he has written about the Supreme Court and national legal affairs since 2013.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

COMING SOON: Chicago Shakespeare Theater Presents "Shakespeare in the Criminal Justice System"


Shakespeare in the Criminal Justice System

September 24, 2016 at 11:00 am

"You can let go of so much that you keep bottled up in side because you can find creative ways of expressing it."
—Inmate and workshop participant
Across the world, Shakespeare offers individuals who are incarcerated much-needed opportunities for reflection and self-expression, emotional support and the opportunity to cultivate self-esteem and communication skills. This panel of theatre professionals moderated by Lisa Wagner Carollo, Artistic Director of Still Point Theatre Collective, will share stories from their work collaborating with inmates on Shakespeare-focused programming in prison communities. 
The panel will feature:
  • Itaria Marta, ensemble member of Foro Shakespeare, one of Mexico City’s most inventive theater companies world-reknowned for its social justice work and inventive spirit
  • Kate Powers, Shakespeare director and a facilitator with Rehabilitation Through The Arts at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY
  • Curt Tofteland, founder and producing director of Shakespeare Behind Bars, the oldest program of its kind in North America, serving incarcerated adults and youth using exclusively the work of Shakespeare
  • Agnes Wilcox, artistic director emerita of Prison Performing Arts, a 22-year old multi-disciplinary literacy and performing arts program serving incarcerated adults and young people throughout St. Louis

"Brave in a New World"

The Judy Dworin Performance Project will present excerpts of their upcoming premiere of “Brave in a New World” at 5 p.m. Saturday at the La Grua Center in Stonington, CT. A donation of $5 is suggested.

“Brave in a New World” is about the experiences of incarceration and the challenges of coming home from prison. It includes dance, narrative and song. The piece conjures up images of confinement and separation and the strength and courage of children affected by incarceration and the ones who have served their time. The work features women who have re-entered society from York Correctional Institution with the professional ensemble of the Judy Dworin Performance Project and the voices of children who have parents in prison.

La Grua Center is at 32 Water St., Stonington, CT and can be reached at (860) 535-2300.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Lockdown Puts New Twist on Prison Theater Interterm Class

 Hutchinson Correctional Facility, Kansas

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the News section of the Bethel College website on January 27, 2016.

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – When Professor of Communication Arts John McCabe-Juhnke put his former “pilot project” into Bethel College’s interterm curriculum, he knew his students would learn things that surprised them.

McCabe-Juhnke has been doing prison theater for more than a decade. In 2014, he and student volunteers spent January working with inmates at Hutchinson Correctional Facility (HCF) to produce Inside Story, a series of dramatic sketches based on true stories and student and inmate journals.

“The one thing you can count on when working in prison,” McCabe-Juhnke says, “is that there’s always going to be something.”

This time the “something” was HCF going on lockdown 2½ weeks in, following a series of inmate fights. None of the 10 men in the theater class was involved. But all visits were cancelled, and the “inside” performances of Inside Story, one for the prison population and one for the public with security clearance, were cancelled with them.

The campus performances of Inside Story will go on as scheduled, Feb. 5 and 6 at 7 p.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center on the Bethel campus.

Ticket prices are $6 for adults and $4 for senior citizens and non-Bethel students (Bethel students are free on Friday and pay $1 on Saturday). One dollar from every ticket sold will go to the Offender Victim Ministries of Newton’s Prison Ministries, which includes arts projects as well as the long-running prison visitation program M2.

Tickets are available at Thresher Shop on campus, open weekdays 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (phone 316-284-5205), or at the door, subject to availability.

There will be talk-back sessions after each performance, with the students reflecting on their interterm experience.

“This is the first time I’ve experienced lockdown of the whole prison,” McCabe-Juhnke says. “I have lost actors [because of their personal issues], or had guys unable to come because a section was on lockdown. There’s always something.”

The students are, of course, disappointed, he said.

“I had them, as an alternative assignment, write letters to the inmates. These are not to be sent – I’m not sure we’re even allowed to communicate with them. There are some really good letters expressing how it felt that ‘things were really starting to take off,’ and then got cancelled.”

Up to this point, the 11 students and 10 inmates have all been keeping journals, which they periodically exchanged with each other to read.

“Journal after [inmate] journal talked about how much they enjoyed the experience and what a privilege it was to be able to work with college students,” McCabe-Juhnke said.

“This [lockdown] will be included in the story we tell,” he continued. “The concept remains the same, allowing the audience to see the plays we worked at [with the inmates] and hear the context we worked in.

“The difference now – it won’t be how successful our performances were inside but how they got changed by circumstances.”

Inside Story will run around 70 minutes, and include four short sketches of about 10 minutes each, interspersed with material from the class, which they developed collaboratively until the lockdown.

For Bethel’s January interterm, students choose one class for intensive study for three to four weeks. Classes meet every day for three hours and often include field trips or even overseas study (this year in Europe and China).

The class offers either Cross-Cultural Learning or Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies credit, both General Education requirements.

“I signed up for this class for the cross-cultural credit,” says Allie Brown, senior business major from Hesston. “I definitely got that but really, what we are seeing and hearing while in prison, around men who are ‘other,’ it’s almost indescribable.

“BC and HCF students [were] combined and for two hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we [were] equals — I am no higher than an inmate and the HCF residents are no lower than a college student.”

Joshua Lewis, senior communication arts major from Rialto, California, and Abby Phillips, junior social work major from Maple Hill, both saw performances of Inside Story two years ago.

“I realized John was actually making it into a class, and I wanted to take another class with him,” Lewis says. “The way that production went two years ago, I felt like it had a lot of insight. With where I come from, I’ve seen both sides of the [incarceration] issue. It was good to see it made into something not just negative.”

“I knew a little bit about what to expect, but I still didn’t know what the men would be like,” Phillips says. “We have to write journals, so I wrote in one of mine: ‘We don’t see the guys named “Razor” and “Crusher,” and I’m OK with that. But it’s still a maximum-security prison.’

“In our training, they made it sound like the inmates would try and seduce us, which was really weird. I am not getting that from any of them. They’re guys who messed up somewhere along the line and now they’re paying for it.”

“Coming into this class I was scared, worried, nervous, whatever word you want to use,” Brown adds. “It’s hard to enter a new place when you don’t know what to expect. I expected our experience to be intimidating, and I hoped for kindness. I found both.”

“I’ve noticed that everyone cares about the guys at Hutch,” says Kaylie Penner, freshman from Moundridge. “We’re all invested in all of it, inmates included.

“I went in with the mindset that everyone is human and no one’s defined by where they live or by their worst act, that humanity is still there,” she continues. “I was kind of surprised how easy it was to stick with that, and that developing relationships [with the inmates] was a lot easier than I thought it would be.

“I still had questions I wanted to ask some of them,” she says a little sadly, “and now I won’t get to.”
“Something really surprising is how excited the inmates were for it,” Phillips says. “There are a couple who have been doing prison theater as long as John has been doing it, but there are a few others who said ‘I’ve never acted before, I’ve never done anything dramatic before, but I’m so ready for this. It’s not just another chance to be out of my cell.’”

“It [was] surprisingly easy to work with these men,” Brown adds, “and their dedication is impressive.”

She continues, “What have I learned? Well it’s not a new concept but rather reinforcement of an old one: We do not live in a black-and-white world. People aren’t good or bad. They are good and bad.
“I know that whatever these men did must have been horrible. I mean, they are in maximum-security prison, for a long time. However, they are still human beings who have shown goodness in our workshop. Bethel loves critical thinking – they foster a lot of that.”

“The plays give us vulnerability on both sides,” says Lewis. “For us [students], going into HCF, we [were] on their stomping grounds. Then they come into that room inside, where it [was] like our stomping grounds.

“[Theater gave] us a chance to work together. Without it, we’re all lost.”

“I’ve learned to be less judgmental,” Phillips says. “As a 20-year-old girl, that is so important. These guys are inmates but they’re so much more than that. They had lives before prison, even though I don’t know what those were and I don’t know what happened. They’re not ‘just an HCF inmate.’
“I’m trying to extend that to other people I meet.”

Most of the Bethel students in the class have little or no theater experience. One small upside to the cancellation of visits to HCF has been extra time to work on memorizing their parts and putting the campus performance of Inside Story together.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Second International Shakespeare in Prisons Conference:

January 25 - 27, 2016 


The Shakespeare in Prisons Network celebrates the transformative power of William Shakespeare's works in bridging the space between our shared humanity and the isolation typical of incarcerated individuals.  We accomplish this by building foundational skills vital to positive societal re-engagement: literacy, teamwork, self-confidence, purpose, and hope (Vision Statement).

Click here to go to the conference web page

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Jodi Jinks talks about the importance of connecting through performance at the TEDxOStateU 2015 event at the Oklahoma State University campus on April 10, 2015.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Introducing The Phoenix Players Theatre Group in Auburn, New York - founded by prisoners, for prisoners, in 2009. For a complete history, and a rich array of resources, check out their website.