Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Theater Opens Our Eyes
by Agnes Wilcox, artistic director of Prison Performing Arts in St. Louis, Mo.

December 18, 2012

If you want to prepare inmates to rejoin society, create a prison theater program.

Gary Kempker, former Missouri director of corrections, wrote about prison theater:

“It teaches offenders that there is something bigger than their individual wants and needs. It reminds them that they are part of a community that requires them to be responsible and accountable for their behavior and acts. It is teaching the lessons of life to those who have failed those lessons in the past.”
Over the past 20 years, I have seen how theatrical productions provide an excellent environment in which to learn and practice skills that prepare people for success in life and work – among them commitment, self-control, discipline, self-worth and teamwork. In Missouri, the recidivism rate for men and women who have been involved in prison theater programs is less than one-third of the state’s overall rate.

Inmate actors develop verbal, reading and listening skills that lead to greater academic proficiency. If larger roles in a play are given to those who read well, an actor can be motivated to improve his or her literacy skills.
Theatrical productions impart skills that prepare people for life and work, like commitment, discipline, self-worth and teamwork.
Inmate actors develop empathy. They learn to embody, articulate and understand the perspectives and experiences of others, often very different from themselves.

Many men and women are in prison because they have limited problem-solving skills. Their lives have been chaotic, and they have not been able to create a structure for that chaos. Literature, with its use of language and with its study of character and circumstance, helps them see and articulate the process of cause and effect in human lives, sometimes their own.

Actions and their consequences are clear to any actor who spends a semester exploring the role of Hamlet.

This commentary was originally published in The New York Times, 12-18-12

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