Broadway actors discover transformative power of theatre in prison

19 August 2011

Broadway luminaries Sherie Rene Scott and Dick Scanlan are RTA's (Rehabilitation through the Arts, New York) newest volunteers. Along with volunteer Sean Fischer, they have donated their considerable talents to guide the prisoner participants on a powerful theatrical journey.

The workshop, Theatricalising the Personal Narrative, took place over several months in Woodbourne Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison in Sullivan County in the United States. It culminated with a presentation of monologues performed by prisoners for invited prisoners and outside guests.

Some pieces were light but most were wrenching, dealing with confusion, loss and remorse – a child torn from his mother, a brutal incident in the prison yard, a 14-year-old girl caught in the crossfire.

Audience members were moved by the men’s talent, as well as their courage to speak so deeply and honestly about their lives.

Transformative experience

RTA focuses on the transformative power of the arts among prisoners. “However,” Sherie says, “we sometimes forget how important the transformative experience is for volunteers.”

She came “face to face with her own preconceived ideas that she was not even aware of” – a common experience among volunteers as they recognise the humanity they see behind prison walls. This is often a life-changing revelation.

How did they learn about RTA and decide to work with the organisation? Dick Scanlan’s friend was involved with the programme and was going into a prison on a weekly basis to teach the men about comedy.

“It was transformational for her,” Dick says. “We thought we’d go – once! We were asked to teach a class, which was a very big deal. Even though it felt to be out of our realm of experience, men had been waiting decades to tell something of their story for just five minutes.

“It was more than we anticipated. We were clear we were not making a therapeutic offering. We were producing, honing and sharpening the theatrical expression of their stories. 

A theatrical journey

“They understood that distinction. It allowed them to go to deeper places and our goal wasn’t to understand their lives through it. It was a theatrical journey, a personal narratives workshop. They came up with the name.

“We focussed the work and formation of a really great three to five-minute story, detached enough that they could expose things …

“The level of commitment and bravery that the prisoner artists took on … other writers and actors would take years to go to the places they were able to go to. It was pure creativity …

“When you go into prisons, you choke on the despair the moment you walk into the facility. Then you get led to the room where you work with the prisoners in the bowels of the prison.

“The guards would stay out because the prisoners couldn’t work with them there.   We’d start working and within five minutes there was so much oxygen and joy and energy, even if the person was going through a very painful piece.”

Dazzling language

Dick says the men were very articulate and had a relationship to language that was idiosyncratic, specific and dazzling.

“To have that language and to be able to work with performer writers who understand how liberty can be expressed through language … If you are in control of how you articulate your experience of yourself, you are seen, you are free even though you are behind bars.

“I was respected because I was a human being.  I was shocked every day by the innate respect for one another and how we spoke to each other. The standard of prisoner communication was much higher than in any other environment.

“One thing I felt it’s important to say.  We didn’t go into the prison with an agenda or intention politically. We went in without realising how many prejudices we had.  We had no time to prepare. We got ourselves in there so fast.

“I came face to face with pre-conceived ideas I didn’t know I had.  That’s why it was such a shocking experience in a good way … to realise what’s really possible to happen in these places.”


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