“You want to do what?”
It was a refrain Kate Powers heard repeatedly as she began to knock on the (digital) doors of corrections facilities throughout Minnesota in early 2017, attempting to get a foot in the door for her Shakespeare-in-prison program, the Redeeming Time Project. That is, when she got an answer at all; most of the time her outreach emails to wardens received no reply. Her calls to state legislators did eventually lead to an introduction to the Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner, who sets policy for corrections facilities statewide, but that meeting proved to be a dead end.
Then, by chance, while attending a conference on restorative justice, she happened to sit down next to a program director and a case worker from a corrections facility 110 miles north of where she lived.
“Kate was so contagiously enthusiastic about this program—I’ve been in corrections for 27 years and I’d never heard of anything like it,” recalls Candy Adamczak, corrections program director at Minnesota Correctional Facility Moose Lake. “She talked about it being an experiential program that combined storytelling, cognitive skills, and connecting thoughts and feelings to actions, culminating in the kind of experience we want to provide to our incarcerated men. She made it relevant to the men’s existing circumstances and to their successful reentry into society. I’m sitting here thinking, are you kidding me? If this has been successful at Sing Sing, where Kate was a teaching artist for a decade, we have to give it a chance.”
Adamczak and her colleague, Laraine Mickelson, arranged a meeting to introduce Powers to the warden. “I’m not sure he understood exactly what we were proposing to do because he’d never seen a program like this,” Powers recalled, but he was intrigued enough by research studies she brought from Rehabilitation Through the Arts—the Purchase, N.Y.-based initiative that operates the Sing Sing program—on the impact of their theatre in prison program to offer the 16-week theatre program on a trial basis in the fall of 2017.
Moose Lake already had an active restorative justice program, and a group of inmates involved in that got Adamczak’s initial invites for Powers’s theatre venture. They included Jeff Gysbers, now a former inmate, who recalls he thought it “might be a good community-building project for us, but I didn’t have any idea what it would be like. I was a little nervous. It was way out of my comfort zone because I’m not an actor, and definitely not a Shakespeare guy.”
As the trial run kicked off, Adamczak and Mickelson jumped in as participants alongside the incarcerated men. “I felt vulnerable and scared, just like I knew the men were feeling,” recalls Adamczak. “It’s not the norm for staff to participate in programs alongside offenders, but I felt like we had to really walk the walk. It helped the men see another side of us as well—that we’re all human and have a character we have to put on while we’re inside just like they do. It was definitely enlightening for us and for them.”
At first, Adamczak confesses, the theatre games felt silly, but she soon saw a payoff. During a round of “Pass the Pig,” she watched as Powers and her co-facilitator, Travis Bedard, tied the game play to the “fast decision-making the men might need to do in their dorms. Every activity had a transferable learning to a real-life situation.”
Gysbers concurs, saying, “We were doing all these exercises, and we kept asking when we’d be getting to the acting part. But it was a ‘wax on, wax off’ type situation, where all of a sudden these seemingly dumb things started accounting for something.”
Adamczak discovered something else unexpected. “We heard the men say many times that they’re walking around in the prison acting every day, based on who they’re encountering. This was actually the first time they could stop acting and instead be vulnerable.” Gysbers even thinks of it as a kind of therapy, saying the work “peeled back the layers of the mask. I learned to be more accepting of myself and others. We encouraged and inspired each other along the way.”
Discussions of Shakespeare texts led to similar light-bulb moments, Adamczak recounts. “It was clear that was opening up some men’s minds to a new way of thinking.”
Also new was the buzz around the facility, Gysbers recalls. “Everyone was looking forward to it—that never happens.” Even the warden and other corrections officers were intrigued by the unusual program. “They would stop by our classroom on their rounds and stick around to watch the men rehearse,” recalls Adamczak. “They didn’t mind escorting Kate and Travis around the facility. I think they might have even wanted to participate, but that would have been outside the realm of the possible.”
Gysbers hadn’t seen his parents for roughly four years when he invited his dad to see him perform in a Shakespeare play at the end of the program. “You’re doing what? I have to come see that,” his dad told him. His parents made the long drive and his father, who “has a pretty low opinion of inmates,” was “amazed at the performance. The commissioner attended the performance too, and he sat down with my parents afterwards. My dad told the commissioner how impressed he was by the intelligence and skills of the guys in our group, and that it was even something he’d consider investing money in, just seeing how transformed we were.”
Gysbers rates the experience as the best prison program he’s experienced “by far,” and wonders why there’s not more funding for programs like it. Across the U.S., there are nearly half a million people awaiting trial, 2.3 million people incarcerated, and another 4.5 million on parole or probation, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Of those incarcerated in one of the 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, or 80 Indian Country jails, as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories, an infinitesimally small number have access to arts programming in their facility.
Indeed no one is quite sure just how small that number is. TCG’s Theatre Facts counted roughly 1,750 U.S. professional not-for-profit theatres in 2017; there are no hard numbers on how many are working with the incarcerated. We know that around 40 U.S.-based organizations or artists gathered for the 2018 Shakespeare in Prisons conference at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre last March, with many references to organizations around the country who weren’t in attendance. From that we might roughly estimate that a hundred or so organizations run theatre programs in correctional facilities (see listing).
Given that 85 percent of U.S. counties are home to some number of incarcerated individuals, it’s likely that most of our nation’s theatres are close to at least one correctional facility. In those facilities about two thirds of the incarcerated are people of color. As theatres work to diversify their audiences along lines of income and ethnicity, a growing percentage of those attendees will have a personal connection to mass incarceration, opening up new opportunities for relevance to communities. In short there seems to be great room and reason to expand this field of work.
Walking Through the Front Door
“You don’t forget your first time. I remember I was wearing this red shirt and I was sweating profusely. I didn’t even want to raise my arms because then they’d know how nervous I really was.”
Jecoina Vinson, first incarcerated at 18 years old, had been behind bars for 9 years before he performed a monologue for the first time. For the next 7 years, he served as a facilitator and mentor for a theatre program that had begun in secret at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in central New York state. A few months after his release in 2013, Vinson met Josie Whittlesey, who had also worked with Rehabilitation for the Arts, and became a board member of Drama Club, an organization providing theatre training and mentoring to incarcerated New York City youth at each step of their journey through the system: detention, placement, and aftercare.
Fear of public speaking is far from the only barrier holding participants back from joining theatre programs behind bars. Says Vinson, “There’s a stigma around the arts with the incarcerated populations we’re serving. I hear kids say, ‘The arts aren’t for me, they’re just using “white” language.’” Other kids “question the relevance of playing theatre games to being able to put food on the table when they get out, or are skeptical that they won’t be made fun of by their peers or the facilitators. It takes time to break down that stigma and convince them that theatre is a tool that will come in handy in so many aspects of their life, from job interviews to first dates.”
As a long-time facilitator with personal experience of incarceration, Vinson has a unique perspective on the many benefits of theatre programs. He rattled them off in quick succession:
A sense of identity. “I went in at 18 and had no identity outside of the prison system. It wasn’t until I got into theatre that I really knew who I was.”
Empathy. “It allowed me to see the guards as human when I could analyze them as characters and not just oppressors. I was inside 11 years before I spoke with a guard for the first time, and it was directly related to the theatre program. It helped the guards see us as human too. The administration relates to the guys totally differently after they see us perform.”
Ownership. “When you start to analyze character motivations, you can look at your own life with a new perspective: Maybe I did this because of my environment, or because an event set some course of action in motion. I had a much clearer sense of cause and consequence.”
Introspection. “I could investigate answers to questions about my values and learned to be empathetic to other people’s world view.”
Expression. “It gave me a forum to explore vulnerable emotions in a safe space, and to see other men express vulnerability. As a character, I can perform an emotion and not be seen as weak or soft by my peers. We were incarcerated at such a young age; prison is full of people who don’t really know what manhood is, they’re just performing what they think is masculinity.”
Camaraderie. “It gave me an incredibly deep and lasting bond with the men in the program. On the outside I can call any one of the men I performed with inside and know he’s going to do anything for me.”
Thinking. “It helped develop my process of reasoning and made me think so much more about the message I might be conveying to other people through my actions.”
Self-assurance. “From a really practical standpoint, it played a major role in my parole board hearing. I was a more confident speaker, for sure, but it also gave me something to talk about with the commissioners on the board. They were surprised I knew Shakespeare and could have a conversation with them about him. In my release summary, they highlighted that specifically.”
Vinson had vowed to himself that he would never return to prison, but realized that founding the Drama Club would mean he would have to go back inside, albeit under different circumstances.
“I was standing in front of Rikers Island and I wasn’t sure I could walk through those doors again,” he recalls. “I was tremendously scared; it felt like being on the outside was maybe just a dream, a dream I had many times on the inside. At any moment I might wake up and realize I was back in my cell for the rest of my life. But then Josie asked me, ‘What would a character do in this situation? Would they fold under pressure or step up?’ So I trusted the process and walked through the front doors of a prison for the first time. Theatre helped me learn to overcome obstacles and doubts and push through the struggle.”
Building Trust, Navigating Guidelines
While 90 percent of all incarcerated people are men, working with incarcerated women comes with unique challenges. Detroit Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in Prison program has had a Women’s Ensemble going strong for the past seven years. Program director Frannie Shepherd-Bates says she has to tread carefully, as “the vast majority of women who are incarcerated are survivors of some type of trauma. We have to be aware of potential triggers to their PTSD. We give nudges to the women, but participation is on their own terms. It takes a while to build trust with women.” Frequent interactions—twice-a-week workshops for 40 weeks out of the year—help build trust, but it’s not easy going.
“One of our facilitators always says that our process is ‘painfully collaborative,’” says Shepherd-Bates, “because no one makes unilateral decisions.” Within guidelines set by the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the Women’s Ensemble makes decisions over “which plays we work on, who gets recruited to participate, etc.”
One early leader who helped shape the Women’s Ensemble was Asia Johnson, who joined in the inaugural year. Recalls Johnson, “I was new to prison at the time and scared, but I really needed something positive in my life. A few of my friends were part of the ensemble and they had been talking about it for days, so I felt left out. The fact they were willing to get up at the crack of dawn and walk across the compound in a blizzard to get to class really spoke for itself. I thought I would join the program just to fill the time and hang out with my friends—I didn’t think I’d really get anything out of it.”
Johnson was quickly proven wrong, as the bonding and emotional outlet provided by the Women’s Ensemble became a turning point in her life. “On the inside, we’re not human beings; we are a last name, an inmate number, and a case number,” she says. “What our likes and dislikes are, our hopes and dreams—none of that matters. You’re just identified by the worst mistake of your life. When you get to Shakespeare, it’s like being free for two and a half hours. It’s like you’ve been holding your breath all week, and when you walk into the auditorium for rehearsal you can finally exhale.”
That’s not to say that participating in the Women’s Ensemble was a lark. Playing the female lead in Romeo and Juliet, Johnson confesses she was “having a hard time emotionally because it hit so close to home. People kept asking me if talking about love and suicide was too much; at times it was, but I didn’t give up.” Like Vinson, she found that thinking about a fictional character inevitably made her reflect on her “own behavior and motivations. Analyzing characters like Othello, who have committed heinous crimes but found redemption, helped me see past my own mistakes. At the end of the play, the world is right again and this beautiful story has emerged from ugly characters. There’s a sense of belonging that came from Shakespeare. I’ve never felt so supported, like my talent meant something. The past didn’t matter. I had a future.”
The experience also turned her into a theatre lover. She estimates she saw about two plays before being incarcerated at the age of 25, at least one of them on a “boring school field trip.” Since leaving prison last year, she’s been to no fewer than three plays. “Now I have this craving to see stories come to life, not just on the big screen but in intimate settings.” Another telling change: “Before, my life revolved around my boyfriend—if he didn’t like it, then I didn’t do it. Now I get to find out what Asia likes and what Asia wants out of life.”
Generating Support, Finding Evidence
Most corrections facilities offer a range of programming to inmates, from academic and vocational to recreational sports and religious services, as well as treatment and support groups. Most voluntary programs offered in correctional facilities are volunteer-supported or managed through contracts with the state government; individual corrections facilities don’t typically fund programs directly. Given how remotely located many prisons are, the time and transportation costs for artist-facilitators is the primary expense of these programs.
Unsurprisingly, difficulty raising money for this work was a major topic of conversations among the U.S.-based arts organizations represented at the 2018 Shakespeare in Prisons Conference held last March at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, whose attendees came from a wide range of theatre organizations. Organizations gathered there reported mixed success in seeking support from arts foundations, private family foundations, funders in the criminal justice field, corporate sponsors, and individual donors.
Encouragingly, though, there is a growing field of institutional funders investing in the intersection of arts and criminal justice. The California Arts Council has one of the largest commitments to providing arts in correctional facilities, with $8 million annually going to programs in all 35 California state adult correctional institutions. The William James Association is one of the most active foundations dedicated to supporting prison arts programs. The Agnes Gund Art for Justice Fund is one of the most ambitious, with the explicit goal of lowering mass incarceration. Most of the major arts funders have at some point supported specific theatre programs for people in the carceral system, even if few have dedicated programs or grantee cohorts. Even social justice funders such as the Amity Foundation have begun to support arts in incarceration projects.
Support from policymakers may also help open pocketbooks. The advice from Steve Emrick, community partnerships manager of San Quentin State Prison, for arts organizations is simple: Reach out to your representatives and get them involved if you want to keep these programs alive. “The Department of Corrections responds to legislation and legislators,” Emrick says. “If you have politicians who are supportive of your mission, we will be too.”
He currently oversees more than 3,000 volunteers from 70-plus voluntary programs at San Quentin, including Marin Shakespeare Company’s Shakespeare for Social Justice program for the past 15 years. He counts himself pleasantly surprised how popular the program has become. San Quentin prisoners perform four productions a year, and the prison’s 300-seat performance space fills to capacity nearly every time. “The program has a great reputation with the men; guys that get into the theatre program are respected,” Emrick notes. “We have a wait list of dozens of names who want to participate.” One new draw to the program is a policy established in 2017 that enables men to earn reductions in their sentence for participation in approved programs, including the Shakespeare for Justice class. Men who attend at least 208 hours of programming can earn a one-month reduction to their sentence each year.
After 30 years working in corrections, Steve has a wealth of advice for practitioners stepping through the gates of a corrections facility. “When you come to a prison, understand our primary concern is for safety and security. After we ensure everyone is safe, then our focus is on rehabilitation—that’s what you can offer us. Remember, every rule exists because something bad happened and we’re trying to keep you, and everyone else, safe.”
He encourages artist-facilitators (and anyone running a prison program) to be highly organized, adaptable to the last-minute changes the officers may need to make, patient with prison bureaucracy, and open to developing a relationship with the corrections staff. “Your success depends on this relationship,” he notes. “Check in with officers when you arrive; say hi to them, even if they never say hi back.” A pet peeve of his: “Don’t call the captain a ‘guard.’ Learn the titles, who the decision makers are, and what our acronyms mean.”
Indeed corrections facilities are a world apart from a typical rehearsal room, and so are the rules about what can be shared about the work going on inside—anonymity is usually requested, not only for the sake of the incarcerated but also for their families and other parties on the outside. As Emrick explains, “You can write about the program, but we have policies about what information you can release to the public, and there will be forms to fill out and approvals to get.” At times even reasonable restrictions like these can make documenting this work for fundraising efforts a challenge.
Gathering that information, though, has seldom been more crucial, as one of the most significant recent developments for corrections facilities and program managers like Emrick and Adamczak has been the push for “evidence-based” programs. These are intended to increase the impact of prison at or below existing costs, both as a component of criminal justice reform and an acknowledgement that corrections funding is rarely a popular line item in government budgets. And so Kathy Myers, reentry program coordinator for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, encourages artists and program leaders to “collect information on all participants and get the approvals to conduct pre- and post-tests with them. The two arguments to make are promoting more positive in-custody behavior and promoting a successful reentry into the community.”
Myers works for San Diego County Sheriff William Gore, who oversees one of the largest Sheriff’s departments in the nation, with more than 4,200 staff, and who has developed a close relationship with the Old Globe Theatre. That’s because he’s seen the benefits of theatre in prison firsthand. As he puts it, “If you don’t change the thinking that got them into jail to start with, you’re just going to end up with an offender who can read and write.” Incarcerated individuals are unlikely to make “dramatic changes in their life without new cognitive and behavioral skills.”
During a keynote speech at the Shakespeare in Prisons conference, Sheriff Gore said he often sees a sea of crossed arms when he speaks at community gatherings about the value of rehabilitation. His pitch to the skeptical: “I hear people say that we should put them in jail and throw away the key, but 95 percent of our state prisoners will eventually get out and return to our neighborhoods. Doesn’t it make sense to give them the ability to come back safely and with the skills to keep a job? It’s not an easy sell, but I start to see heads nodding.” Indeed, on average 626,000 people are released each year from prisons across the country and return to their communities, all with the opportunity to use what they’ve learned behind bars to transform their life—or not, depending on the programs they’ve had the benefit of.
The Sheriff’s own staff took some winning over as well. Says Sheriff Gore, “Our deputies had a little resistance to this type of programming in the beginning too, but now they’re really enthusiastic about it. Their job is no longer about just making sure someone doesn’t escape; that’s pretty boring after a while. Now they’re excited about interacting with these individuals on a daily basis and helping to turn around their lives.”
The Old Globe’s first interaction at one of Sheriff Gore’s facilities was a performance of Much Ado About Nothing in 2015. Gore remembers that “watching staff and inmates interact during intermission was one of the most rewarding days I’ve spent as sheriff. I watched these people be part of a life they’ve never had the chance to live and to imagine what’s possible when they get out of our facility.”
Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein reciprocates Sheriff Gore’s passion for this work.
“To think of the Globe as a provider of public value is to place it in a continuum with the entire history of the regional theatre movement in this country, which was conceived as a public service,” says Edelstein. “In a real sense we are akin to a library system or a healthcare system or even a public utility, all of which deliver necessary services to the community. When a theatre institution like the Globe becomes more interested in the people of our city, in every circumstance in which they live, then that institution begins to make new meaning for the community. It begins to contribute to the public good.
“That’s why we are working in prisons. The Globe would like to see every major American theatre commit itself to work with incarcerated populations, marginalized populations, disenfranchised populations.”
Adds Freedome Bradley-Ballentine, director of arts engagement at the Old Globe, “One of the biggest impacts I see day to day is that this programming builds positive social connections for people in an environment that is highly self-segregated by race. In our rehearsal room we see how theatre brings people together who would otherwise never interact.”
Along those lines, Bradley-Ballentine says it’s crucial that the Old Globe’s teaching artists “reflect the full diversity of San Diego,” and of the inmates at Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility and in the yards they work in at Centinela State Prison. “It can be a powerful moment for those men and women to see that we look like they do, because doing theatre is already foreign enough for them.”
It’s a two-way street, he notes. “Positive role models come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. But the most important thing we do to build a relationship is establish trust and authenticity. I walk onto the yard and I see people like my brother, the friends I grew up with, my next-door neighbor. As a 21st-century theatre company, you have to reflect your community and be relevant to the whole of society, including to those people behind bars.”
Planting Seeds for the Future
For those who choose to commit their organization to this work, Candy Adamczak recommends participating in the conferences that wardens attend, and/or asking for an audience with the commissioner of corrections for your state. It often takes the commissioner being supportive of an idea for it to gain consideration, after which each warden needs to feel compelled to bring it to their facility.
“I’ve learned that both top-down and grassroots approaches can work,” says Adamczak. “Plant seeds with case managers by attending their conferences too, and they can be your advocate inside. As a presenter you have to sell your idea with passion and integrity. You can’t just talk the talk; it has to come from the heart and be genuine.”
As a corrections program director, it was Adamczak’s role to identify program opportunities, shepherd proposals through a review process with the warden and executive team of her facility, and collaborate with the evidence-based review panel to evaluate the program’s cost-effectiveness in achieving certain outcomes.
But generating buy-in and funding aren’t the only hurdles for potential programs; so is physical real estate inside the prison. As Adamczak puts it, “The men are craving and begging for more programming, but there’s not enough time in the day for it and not enough space to hold all these activities. We have to make tough choices on which is the best program under a cost-benefit analysis.”
At Detroit Public Theatre, Shepherd-Bates and her team are working to rigorously measure the outcomes of their programs at both men’s and women’s correctional facilities in Michigan. While some theatre programs are focused on achieving reductions in recidivism rates, Detroit Public Theatre has moved in a different direction, in part because they also work with people serving life sentences without the chance of parole. There are around 50,000 people currently serving such sentences, and very few of them are allowed to participate in voluntary programming.
Explains Shepherd-Bates, “The environment in prison is so important to recovery. The typical negative culture inside can be more traumatizing than what they experienced on the outside. What we’ve decided to focus on instead is to measure the positive development of narrative identity—essentially, that participants find more positive ways of seeing and talking about themselves. They begin to see themselves as people who did terrible things and had terrible things happen to them, but they don’t have to be defined by those things. We’ve got hard evidence that shows this developmental change, and we’re hoping to see the research published next year.”
Evidence-based research on the value and impact of theatre programs in communities of all kinds can’t come soon enough. Jecoina Vinson, who spent 16 years in prison, says that “other than reciting a poem in elementary school, I don’t remember having any exposure to the performing arts before I was incarcerated; they didn’t have theatre in our schools. If we had invested more in theatre, we wouldn’t end up in prison. Theatre provides a way for people to feel like they have agency, that they can say, ‘yes and,’ to navigate their life in a humane way. You think about the challenges of prevention and rehabilitation and theatre is the answer for them. I truly believe more theatre equals less prison.”
Devon Smith is a writer based in Portland, Ore. She is the co-founder of Measure Creative, a digital strategy firm for progressive causes.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!