Prologue

In the short play The Unintended Video by Dale Griffiths Stamos, Clarissa, a privileged young woman vacationing in Seattle, returns to a park to apologize to a stranger. The day before, she had taken a video of the man feeding birds. When she later viewed the video on the larger screen of the television in her hotel, she saw in the midst of the beautiful swarm of birds, the man’s grotesquely scarred face looking back at her in anger (220-221). Dogged by feelings of shame and embarrassment, she seeks him out to express her regrets. I first read Stamos’ play as I was preparing to teach a new course at Bethel College. Offered during interterm1 2016, Prison Theater Project brought together students from Bethel College and inmates at Hutchinson Correctional Facility (HCF) to collaborate on a performance that would be staged at both institutions. Because the dialogue in The Unintended Video reveals uncomfortable truths about privilege and marginalization in contemporary society, I was struck by its relevance to issues students were likely to encounter in prison. I added it to the mix of 10-minute plays the class would consider for performance. 

I decided to use 10-minute plays for this project for a number of reasons. Staging a single longer work limits flexibility in casting. Working with multiple casts allows a director to use actors from one play as substitutes for others in the event that someone drops out of the performance. Fifteen years of producing plays in prison has taught me that inmates are more prone to drop out of productions than college students. Sometimes inmates are transferred to other facilities, put into segregation, or just give up on the project. My primary reason for using short plays, however, was that I wanted to create a sort of hybrid performance – one that combined elements of both fictive theater and documentary theater. Participants would have the fun of portraying fictional characters. At the same time, they would craft a narrative that would document the real-life context – people, place, events – in which the plays were staged. To that end, inmates and students were required to journal about the experience of working together; they understood that anything written in a journal was fair game for inclusion the documentary portion of the performance. The final product was titled Inside Story.

Prison Theater Project, or PTP, was an ambitious undertaking for a 3½-week intensive course. The course description in the syllabus states, “Working together to explore narratives on multiple levels (personal, fictive, dramatic, and institutional), students and inmates learn about the disparate communities and cultures they represent and gain insight into social (in)justice in the state prison system.” If students started interterm thinking a theater class would be walk in the park, they ended the month understanding the harsh demands of studying, creating, reworking, rehearsing, revising, and performing prison theater. Just as Clarissa could not foresee the consequences of documenting on video the sight of a man feeding birds in a park, students could not have anticipated how “corrections” would become both premise and practice as we prepared to document in theater our prison experiences. The process of writing this article is perhaps another act “correction” – my attempt to reinterpret events in order to clarify what the class meant to me. 

In The Unintended Video, Clarissa’s motivation for returning to the park is to correct a mistake. She fears that recording the man’s scarred face on her home video has deeply insulted him and wants to make things right. In my case, the motivation to develop PTP stems from a belief that the values theater teaches – collaboration, empathy, emotional expression, commitment to a shared goal – offer a corrective to the practices of control and punishment in the state prison system. Having witnessed first-hand the power of theater to restore a sense of dignity to men in prison, I was eager to share a prison theater experience with my students.

On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, 11 Bethel College students met with 10  inmates at HCF. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the course met on campus (without the inmates). We spent the first few sessions at HCF getting acquainted, clarifying the objectives for PTP, and performing initial readings of the six plays we were considering. By the beginning of the second week, we had selected four titles and determined two cast lists for each play – one list with a mix of inmates and students who would perform Inside Story at HCF and another with Bethel students only, who would perform the on-campus version of the show. Sessions at the prison often bordered on chaotic when four groups, divided according to play titles, worked simultaneously in different corners of one large room. Sometimes chaos gave way to focused conversation as we considered together which journal excerpts to use in the narrative portion of the script. 

Student journals reveal their feelings about those first sessions at HCF. Jariah writes, “My first day ever visiting a prison was an interesting one. I was filled with nervous energy, and anxiety and excitement practically throughout the whole visit.” Allie states, “Never in my wildest dreams, or nightmares, have I ever considered myself seeing the inside of a prison. It’s a surreal experience…. We read an article to help prepare us but nothing could have prepared me for this….” Abby reveals a typical concern new for new prison volunteers, “I am dying to know what they are all in for…. But of course you don’t want to be the guy to ask, you know. No one wants to be that guy. But the inmates have to know that we want to know. Right? Like, we’re so curious!” 

Curiosity, fascination, and anxiety are typical feelings in what Randall Wright calls the “tourist” stage of travelling to prison (26). With repeated visits to the prison, we developed more complicated understandings of the place and the people. In our second meeting with the men at HCF, I read the student journal excerpts quoted above. In response, several men talked about how it felt to be labeled as a criminal, convict, or inmate – to be known only by their crimes. Conversations like these were key to establishing a sense of trust in the group. In addition to writing, reading and discussing journals, participants were rehearsing and discussing plays. It was a messy process at times, but it fostered a rich environment for self-discovery and self-reflection as students and inmates lived into the various roles – old and new – in which they were cast. Soon the student tourists became something more like sojourners or settlers in this new space that was not quite classroom and not quite prison. 

Any attempt to document the experience of Prison Theater Project in writing, speaking, or acting inevitably fails to characterize the intricate interplay between texts, identities, ideologies, and environments. The task of documentarians is to survey their collection of materials, and then to select, edit, and organize them into credible narratives that tell versions of the truth. This particular version of the events of January 2016 now turns to a more specific focus – a description of Inside Story as it was performed on the Krehbiel Auditorium stage at Bethel College.  

First Acts

The performance begins with a brief explanation of PTP and a roll call of sorts, introducing the participants in the project. The journal excerpts and short plays are woven together by a narrative thread (drafted by me and revised with input from the students) describing the stages in the relationship developed between students and inmates during interterm. To document participants’ feelings about our first session at HCF, the students first speak for themselves by performing excerpts from their own journals, including those quoted above. Then the actors don blue work shirts, the typical “costume” of incarceration, and perform excerpts from inmates’ journals. One inmate says, “I really don’t know how to take this experience. It’s different from putting on…plays in school where you’ve known people for months. The idea seems to have a deeper purpose, maybe to see how people’s perception of character is affiliated at first sight.”  Another states, “Today was my first day of the HCF prison arts class. I was nervous to say the least…. I haven’t been around what prison calls ‘outside people’ for 4 years. You feel out of the loop after a while. I’m looking at 20 years to life and don’t want the volunteers to look at me different for something the justice system says you did.” A third speaks in more dramatic terms: “Apprehension is (still) a large part of the mindset of these students…. Coming from a middle-class upbringing, this prison setting must be a complete shock. Now they find themselves in a closed room w/ murderers, rapists, child molesters, thieves, beaters, & abusers of the innocent & weak. Only one guard is keeping them from acts, one can only imagine. All for the sake of a semester grade on their transcript, or, for an elective towards their major.”

The blue shirts come off and the first play is introduced, The Guest of Honor by Richard Strand, a humorous play about the anxieties of meeting someone for the first time. The characters Lynn and Jason go out of their way to convince Karen that their friend David, who’s coming to dinner, is  just a regular guy. The more assurances they offer, the more anxious Karen becomes. 

Having addressed the beginning stages of the relationship, the performance then shows how the students from Bethel and men at HCF began to grow more comfortable with each other. Journal excerpts reveal how participants negotiated empathy and difference as they gradually learned to know more about each other. Abby, who has epilepsy, talks about learning that one of the inmates also has the disease.

It’s not, by any means, rare disease, but it is exceedingly rare to come up in conversation. When you have a disease, like epilepsy, … it is so nice to know that another person is going through your struggle and knows how you feel. I know that all the training was like “DON’T GET CLOSE TO THE INMATES.” But I felt incredibly close to this other human who goes through the same things every single day as me. How can I not?

Jariah is more wary. He says, “I think one of the biggest challenges for myself is not getting too comfortable. I’m trying to find that balance where I’m open but not forget exactly where I’m at or who I’m with. We’ve been reminded several times that we’re not on a college campus and that’s something I’ve had to keep telling myself.”

An inmate muses about students’ attitudes towards him: “I didn’t know how the students would feel about me…. They, of course, had their preconceived notions…about inmates and prison like everyone else. I was determined to be transparent, open, honest, truly myself in order to not only shed some light and hope. But also to let them know that there is good to be found here.”

One man notes that students have “a lot of anxiety and some trepidations … in regards to entering a prison setting and working with prisoners.” He goes on, “Makes you wonder how comical it would seem if the students realized how much anxiety the prisoners feel in working with the students. Until we come to know each other better, we see nothing but the distances that separate us, and not whatever commonalities we may share.”

Performers testify to the distance between prison and college. An inmate describes prison life.

In here, one is constantly bombarded with the resulting products of… dysfunction: [people are] angry, hateful, malicious, greedy, deceitful, insolent, violent, unloving, untrustworthy, impatient, arrogant assholes! It's unavoidable. Simply lying in your bunk you hear people glorifying their criminal experiences, arguing with one another, hatefully yelling at officers, and all too often getting in fights. All that negative energy can be very draining, very depressing…. 

Later in the show, Erik talks about commonalities students share with inmates: “Yes, these men have made mistakes, but for that two hour session…none of that matters. [I] look around the room and see everyone joking, smiling, and helping each other, not a person in there being judged for where he/she came from or…what he/she did to get in there. [We’re] just students enjoying [ourselves] and collaborating with other students.” The audience hears several students echo this theme: Inmates are just like us.

Other plays are inserted into the narrative. Seeing the Light by Robert McKay pokes fun at government employees who debate whether they should inconvenience themselves by notifying authorities that a warning light is on. The play resonates with the students’ ambivalence about the effectiveness of security officers in the state prison system. Then a serious play is introduced, 187 by José Rivera. Speaking as narrator, Jay tells the audience the play highlights the “the problem of making assumptions about people based on the categories we place them in.” In the play, John flirts with a coworker, Alejandra, an attractive Latina he’s noticed at the factory. He praises her Argentinian features, telling her she has a “Sophia Loren kinda quality” (170). When she rebuffs him, John’s flirtation turns to a vitriolic threat of deportation.

The play concludes, and the actors, Josh and Anabel, explain that 187 shows how some people, like prisons, use power to keep others in their place. Then the audience hears the following line sequence.

Erik: Working on plays with these guys, it was easy to forget about the experiences they were having in prison when we weren’t there. 

Jariah: And it was difficult to remember that the reason they were in prison is because they committed crimes.

Allie: It was difficult to think about victims of those crimes. But we have to think about them, and acknowledge that they deserve justice. 

Josh: Our class talked about justice. How it’s defined. How it’s best achieved.

Anabel: How to recognize and honor the needs of victims, offenders, and their communities.

Josh: We read a book about that talked about how other theater directors are working in prisons, using dance, original plays, and Shakespeare to address issues of criminal justice. 

Erik: One director talked about using Shakespeare’s criminal plays to get men in solitary confinement to confront their criminal behaviors.

Greg: Our class was just one little piece of a big network of people who are thinking about justice questions. Questions we don’t yet know how to answer.

The audience may interpret these lines as a necessary corrective to the simplistic view that “inmates are just like us.” (Because the course professor found little evidence in student journals to articulate a more complex view, he took advantage of his power as the creator of the narrative thread and wrote more complexity into the script. I believe the narrative is true, though I wonder whether the students own the truth they speak.)

The performance transitions to the final play, The Unintended Video. The man in the park, Samuel, rails against Clarissa for thinking she could make things better by surrendering the offensive video to him. He says, “Do you know what it’s like to have a video camera aimed at your face lady? At this face? It’s like being pinned under a fucking microscope and there’s nothing to do about it?” (221). He exposes the naiveté of Clarissa’s apology, which is borne out of her privilege. “You bleeding hearts are all the same. You think you can put a toe in the sea of suffering, wiggle it about, and say, I’m with you, Brother!” (223). In the grand finale of Samuel’s verbal assault, he tells Clarissa, “Go pick up the life you left … because, face it, nothing ever really sad or violent or cruel pierces that well-intentioned, well-insulated life you lead! So why don’t you just call this an unfortunate little incident and get the hell out of my space!” (223). Clarissa acknowledges her mistake. Defeated, she turns to leave. Then Samuel softens a bit and asks, “[W]hat made you come?” He explains, “Most people they…well, the might think about coming. They’d maybe have a few days of guilt, but hell, they wouldn’t actually come, you see what I mean?” In response, Clarissa explains, 

All last night I couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing the way you had looked at me, on the video…. And I was the cause of it. That rage! That’s what frightened me. Don’t you see? I can’t bear adding to it. To the horribleness of the world…. But then, I did what I did to you. Without awareness, completely accidentally. And it struck me. It’s inescapable! There’s no way not to add to it! … I don’t understand! I’m not on this earth to hurt people, I can’t believe any of us are. (225)

Clarissa drops down on the park bench next to Samuel, and they share a silent moment of mutual insight.  Then she gets up and begins to walk away. Samuel says, “Maybe….” She stops and turns to face him as he delivers the final line. “It ain’t all bad out there, Clarissa … Hell, you came back, didn’t you?” (225). As the lights change, Erik, who played Samuel, steps forward and voices an entry from his journal: “The underlying message is that [Clarissa] did come back, and she didn’t just see the person on the park bench as ‘a freak’ she came back to talk to him just [we] do every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We come back into HCF even though society labels them as ‘bad guy’ or ‘criminals’ us Bethel students don’t see that, all we see is people like you and me.” There it is again: they’re just like us.

The performance transitions to a reflection on the final days of the project.

Jariah: We knew our relationships with these guys would end when the class was over. Volunteers are expected to communicate with inmates only within the parameters of the program they volunteer for.

Allie: Knowing that makes Kyle’s journal entry from the first week of class difficult to read. 

Jay: “Today is the second day of this drama program and all I can think about is, shit in three more weeks you people, the people we are supposed to become ‘friends’ with and have ‘empathy’ towards will be gone and moving on with your lives most likely forgetting all about us. Maybe even this program.”2

Kaitlyn: But we didn’t have three more weeks. In the middle of our third week we got the news that the prison was on lockdown. Inmates told some of us on Wednesday that the prison was on high alert because of a series of fights inside. 

….

Jay: Friday John got an e-mail from prison:

Anabel: Due to the HCF CU lockdown status, “Drama workshop callout for today, Friday, Jan. 22,  is cancelled and Monday is questionable at this time.”

Kaitlyn: Over the weekend the situation at HCF deteriorated, and when we got to class Monday, John told us the lockdown would remain in place for the rest of the week.

Erik: We would not be going back to HCF. 

Abby: No performances at the prison. 

Josh: “We just did all this planning and arranging for the way things would be done and bam! Just like that. No more.”

Jay: Our relationship with the HCF theater guys was over.

Intermission

The lockdown was lifted after interterm ended. We missed the opportunity to present Inside Story at HCF. No performance, no applause, no curtain call, no celebration, and no closure. Another correction was needed – the final week of interterm had to be revised. No daily rehearsals at prison. Instead we spent our time in the classroom and the auditorium focusing our efforts on creating the best possible performance for the campus community. 

I adapted the journal requirements for the final week of class. In lieu of the reflections they wrote after every session at the prison, they were to write a letter to the inmates. I asked students to describe what PTP had meant to them. They could address their letters to specific inmates or to the entire group. Because of restrictions on volunteers communicating with inmates, the letters would likely never be sent. Writing them was simply a way to get a sense of closure on our experiences at HCF.

Excerpts from the letters were a centerpiece of the last part of Inside Story

Final Acts

As Jariah says, “John asked us to write a letter to the inmates as our final journal assignment,” the actors change position to form a tableau suggesting students in their private spaces. One by one, they take a letter out of their pockets and begin to read. Every letter express deep appreciation for the relationships developed through PTP. The final three excerpts are particularly poignant.

Jay: “I just would like to say I am really sorry for not taking the very limited time we had seriously in the beginning. I really did have a change of heart and most of it was from you guys. Seeing how much you guys loved to see us each time and were always ready for what we had to do for the day showed how you all took it seriously and it wouldn’t be right for me to be there just because I had too.”

Kaitlyn: “I contemplated the idea of whether what we were doing was actually positive or not. Many of you commented on the idea of us leaving. Looking at it now, I have a better idea of how shitty that must really make you men feel. I feel that John and us students had every intention of making this a positive production. However, things just took a crazy turn for the worse…. I feel like I’ve let you men down in some way, and I’m sorry. I understand that what happened is out of my control and I suppose that I’m apologizing because I feel bad for getting to know you all and then just leaving. For that, I am truly sorry.”

Jariah: “We’re all supposed to build a relationship with the intended goal in mind, and then what? It’s over and it just goes back to how it was. It certainly was bitter-sweet. I can’t promise that you won’t drift away from our thoughts…but I can say that this experience will never be forgotten. It has helped many of us to understand ourselves and the world and, for myself, relationships…. I hope to take advantage of the opportunities that each of you miss out on to strengthen the relationships around me. I say these things not to rub it in your face but to show that this experience, as short as it was, was for something. That it made a difference.”

When Jariah finishes reading his letter, the audience hears an echo of the opening lines of the show.

Erik: In January 2016, a new year began, a new term started, and a new course was born.

Jay: Prison Theater Project.

There’s a slight pause before Abby says, “We know what it meant to us. What did it mean to them?” Allie answers, “We can only guess by listening to voices from inside: Brian, Donail, and Kyle.” As she speaks the inmates’ names, Greg, Josh, and Kaitlyn put on blue shirts and step into place as rest of the actors move upstage into the shadows.

Greg speaks for Brian. “I want to give [this project] my best effort, most importantly because I am grateful to them, John and all of his students, for giving us so much of their valuable time, because time truly is priceless.” Josh voices Donail. “Matthew 24:40. ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ What you guys do for us, the feelings of worth that’s received from this experience, can’t be surpassed.” Greg and Josh, still in prison blues, walk upstage and join the others. There is enough light for the audience to see a farewell scene between “inmates” and “students.” They shake hands, pat backs or bump fists, and the “students” disappear upstage left and right. 

Kaitlyn steps to center stage as Kyle, looks longingly at the audience and says, “Really I just Don’t Want To Be Forgotten… Do you?” A slight pause. A wistful smile. “Until Next Time.” Brian and Donail come downstage and tap Kyle on the shoulder. Their looks say it’s time to go back to the cell house. The three turn and walk upstage slowly as the lights fade to black.

Epilogue

Clarissa’s “unintended video” has unintended consequences. She insults a stranger, botches her apology, and faces the ugliness of her suburban-housewife privilege. It’s an open question whether anything changes for her and Samuel when she resumes her life in L.A. and leaves him to his birds. I wonder how collaborating on Inside Story might have changed the participants in PTP. Testimonies in student journals suggest PTP was for many of them a transformative experience. Still, a nagging question remains. Did we make things better for the men at HCF? I wonder whether this documentary project was akin to shoving a video camera at the inmates’ faces. Perhaps we took advantage of them in some way – wiggling our toes in their “sea of suffering” just long enough to get interesting “footage” for the performance. Was two-and-a-half weeks of collaborating with the men at HCF enough time for any of us to say with integrity, “I’m with you, brother” (Stamos 223)?

Kyle’s voice still rings in my ears. “[I]n three more weeks you people…will be gone and moving on with your lives most likely forgetting all about us. Maybe even this program.” I believe our intentions were good. We sought to understand a population society is afraid to look at. Men in prison are living truth of Samuel’s statement, “Funny thing happens when people are afraid to look at you. Makes you invisible” (Stamos 224). I believe our performance made visible the lives of the men inside HCF by telling their stories to an outside audience. I want to believe our actions served as a correction to “the horribleness of the world” (225).

Ten weeks after the performance of “Inside Story,” seven students and I returned to prison. The Pastoral Care Department at HCF had arranged for an evening callout,3 ordered refreshments, and sent printed invitations to the inmates requesting their presence at a viewing of the DVD recording of Inside Story. Seven men joined us for the event. Surprised and delighted by our return to HCF, the men greeted us with warmth and enthusiasm. They watched the video with an eager delight that was almost childlike. When the DVD concluded, several men congratulated us on our performance. One man said, “I can’t believe what you guys did with our words!” He had tears in his eyes. In this moment, the intended video truly seemed to make things better.

Sometimes our actions – whether spontaneous or carefully considered – result in consequences we could never have anticipated. A decision to film a video, take a class, teach a text, joke with a friend, or speak to a stranger can change the course of our lives and the lives of others. I am unable to say with any certainty whether students met the objectives outlined the course syllabus for Prison Theater Project. I find hope in Jariah’s assessment that “this experience, as short as it was, was for something. That it made a difference.”  The calculus of determining how our actions affect human relationships for good or ill is complex, even inscrutable. But we dare not hesitate to act, to speak, to invest and reinvest in the lives of others. When we refuse to see the outcasts among us – fail to tell their stories – we not only keep them invisible, we also isolate ourselves in prisons of mistrust and fear.