Prison Theater: Performing New Lives

This review was originally posted on January 12th, 2011 by Lois Holzman, Director of the East Side Institute here.

“We have a play to perform. We are accountable to one another. In programs that culminate with performances for prison audiences, and (especially) public audiences, there is an opportunity for prisoners to display and celebrate the culmination of their weeks or months of hard work. They can show themselves to themselves in the mirror of the audience, as people of value, as people who can make a contribution.” Jonathan Shailor

At the end of last year, I got a phone call from Jonathan Shailor, associate professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Jonathan had participated in an early Performing the World conference I organized and we’d been in touch very infrequently since then. He called to tell me about a new book he had edited: Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre, and to see whether the East Side Institute was interested in having an event to promote it. (We are. It will take place on March 18. Check the Institute’s website for details.)

I don’t think very often or very concretely about prison life. I imagine most people don’t. We know the horrific statistics, but not the people. Unless we ourselves or friends, colleagues or relatives work in or have served a prison sentence, our forays “inside” come through film and TV. Since I’ve read Jonathan’s book, its imprisoned men and women and the theatre artist-activists who work with them have become part of my life. I think about them, remember their stories, the roles they played on mostly make shift stages, and the ways they spoke of the impact. Jonathan’s book includes chapters on sixteen different prison theatre projects in the US, and each one is a good read. There’s honesty in this book and no polemic. I recommend it!

To learn more about prison theatre programs, check out the PrisonTheatre Consortium blog.

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