Transforming the Prison Experience through Playback

About the Guest Blogger: Amanda Grazioli is a theatre artist and arts administrator who has collaborated on artistic endeavors with prisoners, unemployed adults, homeless and foster youth, and students of all ages. Holding a BA in Theater Arts from Boston College and master’s degrees in Arts Administration and Applied Drama and Theatre for the Young from Eastern Michigan University, she has recently relocated to her home state of Massachusetts and can be reached at


The Workshop Series

“Mr. Jensen*, you’re in! Think you can pick up Mr. Frost’s part in “See it Through?”

It is performance day at Woodland Center Correctional Facility (WCC) and one of the theatre group participants has been transferred to another prison just the day before. Luckily, the men in theatre group are well-trained in flexibility, so filling in as last-minute understudy for a piece of performed poetry, while a little nerve-wracking, is not a problem at all.

This moment is one that I recall from the most recent performance at WCC by inmate members of the facility’s theatre group organized by Dr. Anita Rich, director of 6Figures Playback Theatre Company at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). The theatre group uses dramatic play, poetry, Image Theatre and Playback Theatre to provide a creative outlet for participants. I have been fortunate to serve as a co-facilitator of this group, working with Dr. Rich and several other talented collaborators. WCC is an all-male, high security mental health prison – the only mental health facility in the state of Michigan.

Playback Theatre

Playback Theatre, an interactive form developed by Jonathan Fox in the 1970’s, is all about building community and celebrating stories. Audience members are invited to share a moment or story from their lives, and the actors “play it back” using metaphor, respect and artistry in both short and long forms. Playback performers use body and voice to dynamically recreate each story and are generally accompanied by a Playback musician.

The Transformations

We have seen incredible transformations in the men at WCC as a result of their participation in theatre group and their exposure to Playback, including:

 -A shift in the traditional prison dynamic…

We have witnessed the typically hierarchy being altered as a result of men from different social circles within the prison getting to know and understand one another better through their participation in the theatre group. Suddenly, instead of mocking or harassing there is a movement to protect and assist.

-Practice in risk-taking and adaptability…

We have witnessed men in the group overcoming stage fright and taking risks even when they might end up looking silly or making mistakes. It has also been amazing to see the level of flexibility and adaptability they demonstrate when we are faced with last minute performance adjustments in the ever-changing prison environment.

-An increased ability to outwardly display emotions…

Diane Kneffel, Music Therapist at WCC and our partner in this endeavor, commented about one theatre group class’s experience with Fluid Sculptures saying, “I was amazed at the amount of ‘affect’ the prisoners displayed – especially in fluid sculptures – since one of the symptoms of mental illness (psychotic disorders) is flat affect, [the] inability to show a range of emotion. They really expressed themselves well during that exercise. I may continue to use that in future activity therapy groups.”

-The opportunity to exhale…

Many of the men comment about how theatre group is a rare chance to laugh and let their guards down, a place where they do not feel as self-conscious or judged. Theatre group provides a community within the prison where everyone is on the same team.

-A chance to be viewed in a positive light…

After attending theatre group performances where the men perform original poetry, staged pieces written by poets like Langston Hughes and Edward Albert Guest, and Playback short forms, many staff members at the prison are very impressed. These showcases give the participants a chance to be viewed in a positive light by the officers, warden and therapists.

Tailoring the Playback Form

Because of the range of mental health challenges in our participant group, we have stuck primarily with short forms of Playback, teaching forms like Fluid Sculptures and Pairs and meshing these with other interactive theatre exercises. Additionally, we have not traditionally used musical accompaniment due to the logistical challenges of bringing instruments into the facility. When introducing the forms, it has helped to have some facilitators playing alongside the men. This helps us to model the forms and make participants feel safer when they are learning.

For example, a standard Fluid Sculpture involves four individuals creating a living collage of an emotion as each chooses and performs a repeated sound or word with an accompanying physicality. So when initially teaching this form, two participants and two facilitators create the Fluid Sculpture. We then reflect on each Fluid Sculpture, talking about the use of levels and planes, the expressiveness gained by making less literal choices for their repeated sound and motion, and ways to be aware of and in sync with their fellow performers. Eventually the group members become comfortable enough to perform without facilitators by their sides.

Learn More

To learn more about Playback Theatre visit the Playback North America (PNA) website or consider attending Making Life Visible,” the 2nd Annual PNA Conference, scheduled to be held at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC, October 5-8, 2012. Dr. Rich and I, along with other members of 6Figures, will be presenting a workshop session delving more deeply into the experience of adapting Playback for use in prison and the impact it has had on this largely invisible and marginalized population. Student discount rates and work exchange are available.

*All prisoner names have been changed in order to maintain privacy and abide with confidentiality requirements.


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