Podcast: Dramatic Problem Solving with Steven T. Hawkins

Steven Hawkins, author of new book Dramatic Problem Solving: Drama-Based Group Exercises for Conflict Transformation, speaks to This is Wisdom – Radio about his background in theatre and how he came to develop his creative approaches to problem solving within education. He talks about how the Dramatic Problem Solving approach has brought personal and community change to some of the poorest people in Costa Rica as well as corporate board rooms.

You can listen to the podcast here, or go to This is Wisdom – Radio for more details. You can also find out more about Steven’s work on his blog: http://www.dramaticproblemsolving.blogspot.co.uk/


Reflections from the celebration of ‘Ritual Theatre’

Claire Schrader speaking about ritual theatre in society

On 29th June 2012 Claire Schrader hosted a celebration of Ritual Theatre: The Power of Dramatic Ritual in Personal Development Groups and Clinical Practice.

The evening involved presentations and performance from the book’s contributors, including pioneer dramatherapist Dr. Sue Jennings.

Claire Schrader says: “It was my intention with this event not just to launch the book but to honour the spirit of ritual theatre – the spirit that is in ritual theatre – and a topic that is very close to my heart. I am grateful for all those that rallied round to support this event – which was truly a co-collaboration.”

See photos from the event and read Claire’s reflections here:


And watch a video of Claire’s introductory speech here:

How to use Dramatic Play to teach kids to ‘learn by doing’ – An interview with Carol Woodard and Carri Milch

Encouraging imaginative play in the classroom is an effective way to teach young children how to think creatively and interact socially – vital parts of their cognitive, social, and emotional development.

In this interview, educators Carol Woodard and Carri Milch introduce their new book, Make-Believe Play and Story-Based Drama in Early Childhood, which presents engaging and practical ways to use drama to enable young children to develop creative thinking and literacy skills while planning together, making decisions, giving and receiving feedback and working toward a common goal. Download a sample activity »

What made you go into education, and how did the book come about?

We have always enjoyed working with young children and are continually intrigued by their development and innovative techniques that support learning. Over the years, we have gained experience by teaching in public, private, and demonstration schools, at the college level here and overseas, and by writing and consulting for schools, agencies, and business. More recently, however, we have been disturbed by the teacher directed instruction and scripted materials being introduced in early childhood classrooms, and decided to try to do something about it by focusing on pretend play which does not always receive the attention it deserves.

Why is engaging children in drama and pretend play such an effective way of supporting their development?

Pretending has an important role in early childhood development. Through make-believe play and story-dramatization, children expand their thinking by using imagination to connect reality (what is) with a variety of stimulating alternate possibilities (what could be). In this process, the child develops cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically especially when interacting with more knowledgeable adults and peers in a safe and supportive environment. The young child is also naturally drawn to pretending and finds it an engaging and delightful adventure.

What skills does dramatic play help children acquire?

Dramatic play is a type of pretending in which young children assume pretend roles within a theme like the grocery store, and improvise and control their own actions and conversations. Such play provides countless opportunities to develop skills such as critical thinking, prediction, problem-solving, self-discipline, cooperation, self-confidence, and empathy towards others, while also advancing language and literacy.

How does the book reflect your general philosophy about education?

We firmly believe that young children learn by doing and being involved in actual experiences which they help design, develop, and guide, and parents need to understand how children learn and be encouraged to become partners in the undertaking. We also feel that learning should be an interesting, challenging, and satisfying experience that contributes to a child’s overall development and a teacher’s professional fulfillment.

Can you talk about the storybook component in the book and why was it important to include this?

Dramatizing a story is still another type of pretending in which young children need to thoroughly know a story in order to act it out. For this reason, we suggest a three step approach to story learning which includes picture reading a storybook with the children. Realizing that teachers can be hesitant about beginning to use story dramatization, we wanted to provide a complete package which would introduce dramatizing and provide a storybook especially designed for this purpose. Our storybook is quite lovely and well suited to dramatization as it combines action and suspense with simple, colorful illustrations which are easy to follow and later improvise. Such a package offers children and teachers the ease and confidence to become involved in this rewarding experience.

What do you hope teachers and others working with young children will take away from this book?

We hope the book will enable teachers to skillfully integrate dramatic play, everyday drama activities, and story dramatization in their programs and help children learn by doing while building a sound foundation for future success in school.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

The rebirth of Ritual Theatre as a potent healing force – An Interview with Claire Schrader

Claire Schrader is director of Making Moves, a personal development company that offers ritual theatre workshops and programmes. She has been involved in personal development work for over 25 years and has also trained as a core process shamanic practitioner. She has an established background in theatre having worked as a playwright, a performer and a teacher in UK drama schools.

Here, Claire writes in depth about her new book, Ritual Theatre: The Power of Dramatic Ritual in Personal Development Groups and Clinical Practice, what ritual theatre has meant to her personally, and why modern society may need this ancient practice now more than ever.

You’ve had a very interesting career. Can you talk about the path that led you to writing this new collected volume on ritual theatre?

I had my first awakening in the theatre. It was the first place where I first felt truly alive at a time when I was really lost. My first career was in nursing and I was square peg in a round hole. It was the theatre that brought me alive. Steve Mitchell refers to Petruska Clarkson concept of “physis”, the life force – it is a botanic term meaning the force in nature that enables a plant to grow. The ritual aspects of theatre was stimulating this life force in me which was enabling me like a seed to reach up from that dark place and find the light. It set the course of my life.

It wasn’t until much later when I started acting that I began to experience this life force in a more real way and it became a place of serious healing for me. At the time I had bucket loads of repressed emotions and I was sick of living my life on the sidelines. Performing liberated me – it was safe place for me to express emotions that were deeply buried me and gradually a completely “new me” began to emerge.

I went into the theatre professionally and for a while it was a very empowering experience. I was growing and developing at a fast rate, but then just as my career was taking off I got cast as the lead in a production at the Edinburgh Festival. In the rehearsal process the director took me into a very dark place – except it wasn’t acting. It was a kind of psychodrama without the healing element. He didn’t know the damage he was doing and I was in a terrible state for years afterwards – seriously depressed, and all the acting opportunities I had crumbled away.

So I started to write. I thought I could do a better job than the play that had brought me so much grief, and it became another kind of healing journey for me. I was delving into my unconscious and mythic elements started creeping in. It became a piece of ritual theatre – even though I didn’t know what ritual theatre was then. It was a natural expression for me, which came through in all my plays.

When I trained in dramatherapy, all these elements came together. I experienced ritual theatre as a potent healing force, and I wished I had known about it when I was going through my dark time. I would have got over it so much quicker. So when I qualified and started running public groups and workshops for people like me who wanted a more creative way to heal, I found myself turning to ritual theatre – because it was so effective. I became more and more interested in Joseph Campbell’s work, I worked with Malidoma Somé, I trained in shamanism, read loads of Jungian authors – and all these began to get into the work. I was amazed at the healing that was achieved for people through offering them a safe space and permission to visit those dark archetypal places so that they could find the stillness that lies at the “eye of the storm”.

And so after fifteen years of doing this I began to feel that it was important to document these discoveries and share them with others. And since there was no core text on ritual theatre, I brought together leading ritual theatre exponents such as Sue Jennings, Steve Mitchell, and Roger Grainger, along with newer voices. I was meeting US dramatherapists who were doing important work whilst I was out in America and so I saw the opportunity to bring US and UK dramatherapists together in the one book. When I met Saphira Linden, who had been producing ritual theatre performances since the seventies, I was inspired by what she had achieved and so was delighted to include two chapters on two of these productions, which demonstrates the power of ritual theatre on a very big scale.

So this is how I came to edit a book on ritual theatre. Looking back on it now, it feels like the most natural things for me to do. A kind of destiny – something I was meant to do and my life would have been the poorer without it.

Can you talk about the book, and its underlying thesis?

Ritual theatre is one of the most ancient form of healing that is still practiced in tribal societies today. As Sue Jennings points out, from earliest times ancient people healed themselves and explored what they couldn’t understand about the world through dramatic ritual. The book is saying that this is still relevant today, in fact it’s never been more important. The faster our world becomes, the further advances we make in science and technology, the more we need to return to our essential roots. Malidoma Somé says it very forcefully: “the Western Machine Technology is the spirit of death made to look like life”. He says we need to return to our spiritual roots and this is achieved most effectively through ritual. So it’s no surprise that in this modern age people are returning to ritual and to tribalism and this is being expressed most potently in youth culture.

So the book is about how ritual theatre can be expressed in a contemporary way that fits in with the way our lives are. People are hungering for this because the technological age is making us more and more disconnected, more in our heads and this is producing tremendous suffering under the labels of stress, fatigue and health problems. Ritual theatre along with the Arts Therapies counteract this. So the book includes ways in which ritual theatre is being brought into hospitals, institutions and work with marginal groups as well as to the general public.

You have formulated a personal development application of dramatherapy – myth-a-drama – and personal development is a key strand in the book. Why does ritual theatre lend itself so well to working with groups seeking personal development, as well as to traditional clinical practice?

When I started working in the personal development field, I assumed like many dramatherapists I could just take what I had learned in training, which included some very powerful processes, and offer it to clients. But I discovered that these clients had completely different needs and expectations. They were emotionally robust, they had done other kinds of healing work, they could deal with catharsis (many were therapists) and they wanted to go deep and break out of the patterns that had kept them locked away. So this required a completely different approach and boundaries, and it took me some years to formulate this which I discuss in the book. It was interesting to discover that Steve Mitchell (Chapter 8: “Pathfinder Studio’s Quest for Self Cultivation through the ‘Rituals’ of Theatre Making”) was reaching very similar conclusions.

In the ancient forms of ritual theatre, this was a place where our ancestors could completely let go, often going into trance, surrendering themselves to the ritual process. This was when medicine and spirituality were undifferentiated. This is why ritual theatre lends itself to working with more robust clients, because we are able to work with ritual theatre closer to its essential form, whilst maintaining certain boundaries – so that people can go back into their lives and operate normally. Ritual theatre enables clients to work deeply and cathartically and to emerge safely – this is normally in longer workshops and groups rather than in the classic psychotherapy group framework.

It is a lot harder bringing ritual theatre into clinical practice for the reasons that Debra Colkett outlines (Chapter 15: “Connecting with the Divine Feminine – Ritual Theatre in a Forensic Psychiatric Setting”). It is generally not understood by either managers or clients, and so it needs serious adaptation and re-framing in order for it to work within the contexts of those institutions, which has been achieved brilliantly by dramatherapists all over the world working with many different populations. Because Sue Jennings came from an anthropological background there has always been an element of ritual theatre in dramatherapy – and so this book is bringing us back to those roots even though the culture of many clinical settings pull us away from that. Sue Jennings, Steve Mitchell, Roger Grainger, Debra Colkett, Thalia Valeta all write about their clinical work using ritual theatre.

I have always seen dramatherapy as having a much wider context – as not just limited to people who need “treatment” which is the literal definition of therapy – but as a natural part of life, as it is in tribal societies and as it was expressed by our ancestors. If you look at the old druid ceremonies they had elements of ritual theatre and they were ways for everyone in the community to deal with the psychological challenges of life which rhymed with the seasons. The personal development application of dramatherapy is important at this time as it offers real potential for the growth of dramatherapy, just at a time when there are changes going on in the NHS which are seriously threatening the arts therapies.

Are there any misconceptions about this topic and, if so, how can the book help bring clarity?

For a start, when I say to people I’ve edited a book about ritual theatre, they say “what’s that?” Even my clients say that and when I tell them that’s what they’ve been doing, immediately the penny drops. They understand what it is. When they discover that this is one of the most ancient forms of healing then they are immediately intrigued. For many people the word ritual theatre sounds rather heavy and frightening. Whilst gradually ritual is being seen in a more positive context – there’s been enormous sensationalism in the press around ritual killings, satanic rituals, etc. Unfortunately this is what sticks in people’s minds, particularly the minds of the most vulnerable people which is why it is so hard to bring ritual theatre into many clinical settings. So I hope the book will help to educate people on what ritual theatre really is and will remove some of the damaging misconceptions and how it can be used for healing and growth.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

For the general reader who finds themselves intrigued or attracted to the idea of ritual theatre, my hope is that they discover what it is and why it is so important in society today. I hope that they will be inspired and excited by what ritual theatre is and will want to find a way of bringing more ritual theatre into their lives, their communities, and their organisations. The beauty about ritual theatre is that anyone can do it – and like Saphira Linden’s pageant, The Cosmic Celebration, it can involve thousands of people. I also hope it will inspire dramatherapists to bring more rituaI theatre into their work and will encourage them to “think big”. I hope too it will have an impact on the theatrical profession as I believe, along with James Roose Evans and others, that ritual theatre is coming back. It’s coming back into theatre, since there’s more and more theatre companies developing ritual theatre performances. And I hope too it will spread to communities, schools and to the public at large.

The book is also important in that it pays tribute to the work of Paul Rebillot (Chapter 7: “Paul Rebillot’s Modern Day Rites of Passage” by Steve Mitchell), who died last year and has made a huge impact on the practice of ritual theatre in dramatherapy. Steve Mitchell who worked with Rebillot extensively is most qualified to describe his work and how he has adapted it through his Pathfinder Projects and his clinical practice. There are two key chapters by Sue Jennings, a chapter on the ritual theatre aspects of psychodrama, and an unusual chapter by Gary Raucher investigating the metapsychology of ritual. Some chapters are more academic, some chapters describe in a lot of detail how ritual theatre works, but many of the chapters are very moving – and so I hope that the reader, if nothing else takes away how very moving it is both to work with and experience ritual theatre. So I hope it is a book that both the general reader and the specialist can enjoy and find valuable.

See the complete Table of Contents

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

JKP Authors Andrew Nelson and Cindy Schneider share Autism-Theatre Techniques with specialists from Hong Kong

By Andrew Nelson, author of Foundation Role Plays for Autism: Role Plays for Working with Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Parents, Peers, Teachers, and Other Professionals

Fellow JKP author Cindy Schneider (Acting Antics: A Theatrical Approach to Teaching Social Understanding to Kids and Teens with Asperger Syndrome) and I have been colleagues and friends for over three years now. We met at the Autism Society of America (ASA) Conference in 2008 and immediately began collaborating on national autism-theatre projects along with other specialists from around the world.

Very early on in our friendship and collaboration we identified a mutual interest in training other autism-theatre practitioners in a “summer institute” style workshop. We wanted to offer thorough training in the theories and techniques used by autism-theatre artists and educators, and to give participants hands-on experience applying new skills with actors on the autism spectrum. This summer, in late July, our dream was realized.

One year ago, a mutual friend of ours contacted me about autism-theatre training for a group of autism specialists from Hong Kong. Mandu James YC Cheung and his wife, Dr. Eva Lai, had previously collaborated with Cindy and me on a project called “Actors in Action” at the ASA Conference. Mandu and Eva asked if I could arrange for a group of six autism professionals from the Caritas organization to come study somewhere in the US. I immediately contacted Cindy and plans were soon underway.

Our new friends from Hong Kong arrived on a Friday afternoon and we immediately dove into an intensive autism-theatre training.

For three days Cindy, myself, and our new partner Chris Nealy demonstrated a variety of activities from books and from our work over the years.

One of my favorite theatrical tools is the mask. Masks can be used in a wide variety of ways to teach emotion recognition, body awareness, emotional expression, subtle social cues and postures, etc. This particular set of masks was designed and created for me by my friend Doug Berky, an actor and mask maker from Indiana. In the photo (below) we are conducting a role play and using masks to depict the emotions often seen in bullying situations, and how different outcomes can change the mask from happy to sad, etc.

We also began to help the trainees develop an action plan for when they returned to Hong Kong. The trainees then spent three and a half days in the field observing many of Cindy’s ongoing “Acting Antics” programs in a variety of settings around her home base in Pennsylvania. They were also given the opportunity to work directly with actors on the spectrum, implementing new techniques learned in the previous days’ trainings.

By the end of the seven day intensive, we group of trainers had developed a very lovely friendship with our six new friends from Hong Kong. We laughed together and spent time discussing how the experience was going to be put into action in their communities.

Overall, I believed we learned as much as trainers as they did as trainees. We were especially honoured when the participants presented us with original art created by artists with developmental disabilities in Hong Kong (pictured left).

Cindy, Chris and myself hope to stay in close contact with our friends to learn about their experiences in the months to come. We also hope to be able to offer similar experiences to others with an interest in autism and theatre in the future.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011

Shakespeare behind bars: An Interview with Curt Tofteland, contributor to ‘Performing New Lives’

Here, Jonathan Shailor interviews Curt Tofteland, one of the contributing authors to his book, Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre, which draws together some of the most original and innovative programs in contemporary prison theatre.

Curt is the founder and producing director of Shakespeare Behind Bars, an educational program that has been serving incarcerated adults and youth in Kentucky (USA) for over 16 years. He is the author of Chapter 13: The Keeper of the Keys.

Jonathan: Shakespeare Behind Bars has received widespread attention, most notably through the award-winning documentary that premiered at Sundance in 2005. I should also mention that when I began my own program in Wisconsin, The Shakespeare Prison Project, you were my mentor, and you continue to serve in that role for me, as I know you do for many others. What brought you to this work initially? And why have you stuck with it for all these years?

Curt: Thank you for your generosity in assigning the title of mentor to me. I am honored.

The role of mentor is an important ingredient in the Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) transformational process. Long-standing SBB members evolve into our circle elders. They embody the role of mentor, not only for the newest members of our SBB circle, but also for the general population of the prison yard who come in contact with our circle elders.

I came to my work with the incarcerated via a program called Books Behind Bars (BBB) founded by Dr. Curtis Bergstrand, a sociology professor at Bellarmine University. In 1993, I partnered with Dr. Bergstrand to bring the works of William Shakespeare into the reading list of the BBB program. My partner in the institution was Dr. Julie Barto, a psychologist with the Kentucky Department of Corrections. Dr. Barto worked at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, KY. It was through Dr. Barto that I found my way into prison to embark upon my journey into the work of a prison arts practioner.

In 1995, Dr. Barto became my correctional staff supervisor in order to allow me consistent access into the prison and the opportunity to work with a group of eleven BBB participants who wanted to develop a deeper relationship with the Shakespeare component of the BBB program. These eleven explorers developed such an insatiable passion for Shakespeare, that we spun off the BBB program to become our own entity – Shakespeare Behind Bars. The new SBB members didn’t abandon the BBB program. They continued their participation with the program until it departed Luther Luckett for a new host institution, the Kentucky State Reformatory.

The Shakespeare Behind Bars program is a restorative circle of reconciliation. We believe deeply in the power of a human being to transform themselves from who they were when they committed their crime to who they wish to become. Each participant takes responsibility for the well-being of all who sit in our circle.

My personal passion for continuing this work with the incarcerated is driven by my bearing witness to the transformational awakening of the empathic humanity within inmates who were unaware of the innate goodness that dwelt within them, awaiting discovery.

Jonathan: What is your chapter about, and why did you choose this focus?

Curt: When I was invited to participate with prison arts practioner colleagues writing about their work with participants, I decided to take a different approach to my chapter. I chose to write about the relationship the prison arts practioner must have with the administration, particularly the warden, of the correctional institution. With the appointment of a new warden – or for that matter, a new commissioner of the department of corrections or a new justice and public safety cabinet secretary or a new governor – comes the increased threat of extinction for certain programs that do not fit into the new official’s view of what the word ‘corrections’ means. Those of us who are prison arts practioners believe in the power of programs to change human behavior. But not everyone in the corrections industry holds that same belief. Witness your own successful The Shakespeare Prison Project, nothing but rave reviews and success, yet when you lost your correctional advocate, the warden removed your program.

Since founding our program in 1995, Shakespeare Behind Bars has survived five wardens and two interim wardens, three commissioners of the department of corrections, five justice and public safety cabinet secretaries, and five governors. For my chapter, I decided to interview three of our previous wardens to document their view of our SBB program and to offer advice to other prison arts practioners who wanted their program to survive the slings and arrows of changes within the correctional personnel.

Jonathan: The word is out that you are now beginning a new chapter of Shakespeare Behind Bars at Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon Heights, Michigan (USA). In what ways is this facility similar to Luther Luckett Correctional Facility in LaGrange, Kentucky? In what ways is it different? Will your approach to the work follow the same model that you have used in the past–or will you be doing something different?

Curt: I haven’t worked at Brooks long enough to make a detailed comparison. The two facilities are similar in that both correctional institutions house approximately 1200 medium security adult male inmates.

When I created the Shakespeare Behind Bars program in 1995, I viewed the opportunity as a laboratory where I could explore the transformational power of art, theatre, and the works of William Shakespeare with incarcerated human beings. Other than making my personal commitment to give ten years of my life to this work – if the correctional institution allowed me – I did not have a master plan. As we moved forward in time, I developed and adapted the SBB program to the needs of the participants. Although well developed today, SBB was and continues to be a process driven rather than a product driven program.

Fifteen years after founding the Shakespeare Behind Bars program in Kentucky, we have developed a solid model that can and has been replicated at other correctional institutions throughout the country – San Quentin State Prison in California, Great Meadows Correctional Facility in New York, Two Rivers Correctional Complex in Oregon, and Jonathan, as you attest to, your own program in the Racine Correctional Institution in Wisconsin.

My plan for the new Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Michigan is to follow the same developmental process I did when I created the SBB program in Kentucky. I do not want to burden the new SBB program with the past success of our original SBB program. Our first steps will include the establishment of a circle of trust with the inmates, followed by the beginning of our journey inward to discover our authentic selves. We will use theatre as our vehicle for this explorative journey. We will begin with the works of William Shakespeare. At some point, I would like to add Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. I have always been enamored of that play and fascinated by the historical success it had in the 1957 San Francisco Actors Workshop production in San Quentin State Prison that inspired a group of inmates to start the still-active San Quentin Drama Workshop.

Jonathan: What have been some of the more recent developments in the rest of the SBB organization?

Curt: In September 2008, I retired after 20 years of service as the producing artistic director of Kentucky Shakespeare Festival and moved to Western Michigan where my wife is Director of Theatre and a theatre professor at Hope College. I wanted to concentrate my full-time creative energies on my work with the incarcerated. I have used my time for writing and publishing essays about the transformational power of art, theatre, and Shakespeare within correctional institutions; conducting mini-residencies at college campuses around the country – where I screen the Shakespeare Behind Bars Documentary, facilitate a post screening talk-back with the audience, teach master classes, and visit classrooms; speaking engagements; consulting work with artists & correctional administrators who are interested in establishing prison arts programs within correctional facilities; and consulting work with organizations interested in working with both pre-incarceration and post-incarceration programs.

Following my departure from Kentucky, the Shakespeare Behind Bars program continued under the artistic leadership of my colleague Matt Wallace. I continued my involvement as the founder and producing director of the organization.

In September, 2010, Shakespeare Behind Bars received a 501c3 not-for-profit corporate status thus making it an independent organization approved to raise funds from corporations, businesses, foundations, government agencies, and individuals to support the work with the incarcerated. With more funding, we are seeking to expand our work in more correctional facilities, including juveniles, males, and females. We are creating programming for post-incarcerated inmates. And we are creating programming to help stem the flow of juveniles into the labyrinth of incarceration.

Additionally, I am incorporating my fifteen years of work with the incarcerated into reconciliation and restorative circle work with victims and offenders.

Jonathan: Who do you hope will read this book? What do you hope they will take away from it?

Curt: I think the primary readers of our book include artists who have a passion for the work of a prison arts practioner and the administration and staff of correctional institutions who are interested in establishing arts programming in their facilities. I think the secondary readers of our book include academics in the disciplines of Theatre, Communication, English, Religion, Sociology, Psychology, and Criminal Justice who are teaching about the power of the arts to transform human behavior.

Jonathan: Where can people go to find more information about your work?

For more info about Curt and the Shakespeare Behind Bars program, visit www.shakespearebehindbars.org or find us on Facebook.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

Rehabilitation Through the Arts at Sing Sing: An Interview with Brent Buell, contributor to ‘Performing New Lives’

Here, Jonathan Shailor interviews Brent Buell, one of the contributing authors to his book, Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre, which draws together some of the most original and innovative programs in contemporary prison theatre.

Brent is well-established New York City actor, writer, director, producer, filmmaker and social activist, and is the author of Chapter 3: Rehabilitation Through the Arts at Sing Sing: Drama in the Big House.

Jonathan: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become involved in prison theatre? What has this experience meant to you?

Brent: A friend of mine was teaching GED (General Education Diploma) courses at Riker’s Island (a huge New York City prison) and his enthusiasm was infectious. I was hoping to find a way to use my acting and theater background in a prison setting. Then by chance I met Dr. Lorraine Moller and she told me about a prison theater program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility (located in New York State) called Rehabilitation Through the Arts. I met with the program director, Katherine Vockins, did my volunteer orientation, and the rest as they say is history.

Dancing pirates from Brent Buell’s "Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code". (L–R) Patrick Griffin, Za’id Ali, Patrick Gadson, Lisa Marie Byrne (RTA volunteer), Mosi Eagle, Tyrone Johnson, Joseph Thomas. Photo: Brent Buell.

I love theater. I think that it is one of the most powerful forces for social change that exists. For ten years I’ve witnessed how magnificently theater—just theater, no therapy, no sociodrama, no psychological agendas—can touch and renew the human spirit. It’s the greatest single gift my art has given me. I am sure that other approaches have their place, but for me the process of theater is all that is needed to touch and begin to transform anyone.

We all spend much of our lives building up defenses against an unfriendly world, an uncomprehending universe. That surely is true of the men I met and taught in prison. They were like me. They were tough guys hoping that someone somewhere could reach that almost-forgotten part of them, break it loose, set it free and let them feel human again. After all, to portray a character is to find that character’s heart—and in the process to find your own. To direct a play is to think what would bring the best out of an actor—and in the process to find the satisfaction of hoping for other people to be better through knowing you. To study a play is to find the arc, the direction, the meaning of a story—and in the process to see that your own life has an arc, and that the direction is in your own hands.

My hours in prison were the ultimate validation that I was right to choose theater for my profession.

Jonathan: Tell us about your chapter in Performing New Lives – what is it about, and why did you choose this focus?

Brent: Rehabilitation Through the Arts is the theater program that functions at Sing Sing and a number of other facilities (in addition to Sing Sing, I also worked with RTA at Woodbourne, Greenhaven, and Fishkill Correctional Facilities). Thanks to Warner Brothers movies, Sing Sing became known as “The Big House.” It’s the place about which the phrase “up the river” was coined. It has housed some of America’s most “famous” prisoners. It is the location of the infamous Death House where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and 612 other people were executed in the electric chair that was grimly nicknamed “Old Sparky.” So, to point to drama in that big house—drama of a wonderful, positive and life-changing kind—seemed the right choice of title.

My focus was personal. It was about my experience as a volunteer and how while watching theater change others, I myself was changed.

Jonathan: Can you tell us about your latest production, and how it relates to your commitment to the arts and activism?

Brent: Yes, I’m directing and co-producing “unFRAMED,” a one-man play written and performed by Iyaba Ibo Mandingo. It is about Iyaba’s journey from an idyllic childhood in Antigua to life as an outsider—an undocumented immigrant—in the United States. It is about love, race, family and politics—all told through a mixture of stories and Mr. Mandingo’s amazing poetry. It culminates with the true account of how, after 9/11, Iyaba was arrested and scheduled for deportation because of his political poetry—poetry which, I am proud to say, is in the show. In the course of the show he also paints a self-portrait!

My relation with the show is directly tied to my work in prison. It’s such a good story I’ll relate it quickly here. The first production I worked on inside Sing Sing was a stage adaptation of Richard Stratton’s film, “Slam”, about a young slam poet who is incarcerated in the Washington D.C. county jail. The producer brought in one of the nation’s top slam poets to teach the leading man (a prisoner) how to do true slamming. Well, that top poet was Iyaba Ibo Mandingo. The first thing he did was his poem “41 Times” about the murder of Amadou Diallo by the New York City police. I was moved to my center by the poem and doubly so because I was very involved in the protests of that murder. When we were leaving the prison that night Iyaba turned to me and said, “One day I’m going to write a play about my life, and you are going to direct it.” Nearly ten years later he called me and said, “Remember the play I told you about that night at Sing Sing? It’s ready. Come up to Harlem and see it.” I did, and our journey began.

We did an industry performance last June at Playwrights Horizons, and TONY Award-winning Broadway producer Jane Dubin was in the audience, loved the play, and has optioned it for a New York production. We are currently on an out-of-town tour and plan to be in Manhattan by the end of the year.

I see the purpose of this show as a parallel journey with my work inside prisons. Its message is so direct, so hopeful, and so in tune with life in America at this moment. It educates audiences on the currency of subjects that many of us would like to think are in the past. The very popular myth that we are in a “post-racial society” is one of them. We are including talkbacks and presentations for young people—and because of Iyaba’s extraordinary ability to speak to the issues that so concern them, I know that this show will stop some young people from having a life of incarceration. It’s that powerful.

Jonathan: Who do you hope will read the book and your chapter? What do you hope they will take away from it?

Brent: While I hope that Performing New Lives has wide circulation with people who have an interest in prison theater, I have even a larger hope that it will be read by people who have had nothing to do with corrections or incarceration. The misconceptions of who we have locked up in our nation’s prisons are mammoth. It’s so easy to think of men behind bars as “them,” and quickly assume that a violent, animalistic nature is pervasive. Our book will put the lie to that easy, corrupt notion.

The chapters in this book by my colleagues are the real story. People behind bars are just like us. Many have made terrible mistakes, done terrible things—but they are still human beings, struggling to maintain that humanity inside a system that is designed to erase one’s humanity. Because they exist in that atmosphere, because they endure strip searches, endless orders, deafening noise, lack of privacy, and numbing boredom—I have found that there is a level of self-questioning inside prisons that is unusually high. I am always pleased that as I’d come in and greet the men in the program that the first questions weren’t “How about them Mets?” or some other sports or small-talk subject. The questions were about life, about meaning, about thought. I remember one man who had taught himself to read while in prison. I saw him with a book one day and asked what he was reading. “This guy Hegel,” he said, “I’m studying him in relation to the development of religious ideas here and in Africa over the last two-hundred years.” What’s not to love about an answer like that?

Discovery. That’s what this book is about. The reader will discover himself or herself in a world that they have largely imagined through the lens of movies and TV as a zoo where daily life consists of murder plots. They will discover a world of people learning, growing and changing through the education that begins with theater.

Once a person finds that theatrical literature is a gateway to places and ideas that were never a part of growing-up life (most prisoners have never seen a live stage play), the desire to learn more is the inevitable follow-up. I watched men who had spurned education decide to enroll in a GED program, then matriculate to college, and then go on to get their Master’s degrees. Wow. That’s what’s in the pages of Performing New Lives. Step right up and buy this book!

While I’m on the subject of this book, I’d like to say something about my co-authors. You, Jonathan, enabled us to form an online community that gave us the chance to meet one another even though we were spread across the country. What a privilege! I so respect each of the contributors to this book because they are doing some of the most beautiful, life-changing work that anyone could undertake. And they are doing it without an agenda. That is what has affected me so much. They are doing it because they love the people they serve and know that lives can be turned around and made whole. The lack of ego and competitiveness has particularly impressed me, and I have come to love these artists—even though I have yet to meet most of them in person. Even via email you know when your life has come into contact with honest treasure. Thank you so much for being a means of this happening.

For more info about Brent and his upcoming projects, visit www.BrentBuell.com. To learn more about unFRAMED, visit www.unFRAMEDthePlay.com.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

Salvation through Shakespeare: An Interview with Laura Bates, contributor to ‘Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre’

Here, Jonathan Shailor interviews Dr Laura Bates, one of the contributing authors to his book, Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre, which draws together some of the most original and innovative programs in contemporary prison theatre.

Laura is founder of Shakespeare in Shackles, the first-ever Shakespeare program in solitary confinement, and is the author of Chapter 2: ‘”To Know My Deed”: Finding Salvation Through Shakespeare’.

Laura Bates sits among eight prisoners in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), four on each side of the hallway, each prisoner locked into a separate cell. Shakespearean discussions take place with prisoners speaking through the opened slots in their doors. © 2009 Jon Mac Media.


Jonathan: In Performing New Lives, you document some of your inspired (and inspiring) work as a prison theatre facilitator. How did you come to this work? And what keeps you coming back?

Laura: I was already an active theatre practitioner in Chicago, a playwright and theatre editor for Chicago Magazine, when I was introduced to John Bergman, founder of the Geese Theatre Company in London prisons. After observing his work, I was inspired to embark on my own theatre work in prison, beginning in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, through the PACE Institute. The program I created in Chicago was a drama group, in which prisoners wrote and performed their own plays. Some years later, when I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, specializing in Shakespeare studies, I returned to Cook County Jail to offer a workshop on Romeo and Juliet. That was when I discovered the impact that these 400-year-old texts could have with contemporary readers in prison of all places! Today, more than 25 years after my first prison workshop, I remain committed to the conviction that theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular, can change the lives of incarcerated individuals. In so doing, it can have a tremendous impact on society in general.

Jonathan: What is your chapter about, and why did you choose this particular focus?

Laura: When I was invited to contribute a chapter to this important anthology, I knew that I wanted to focus on one prisoner whose life was not just changed but literally saved by Shakespeare. Additionally, I wanted to present his story in his own words. The first half of the chapter presents an overview of my work in prison, while the second half of the chapter is created from our conversations, edited in collaboration with Larry. It relates his transformational journey through the works of Shakespeare, using his analysis of the characters to provide a self-analysis that was truly life-altering. As one example, we focus on the character of Macbeth, examining some parallels between that character and Larry’s early criminal experiences. While some of those parallels are disturbing, the chapter concludes with the celebration of Larry’s “salvation through Shakespeare.”

Jonathan: Larry developed an impressive body of work under your tutelage. Can you give us an update on his progress?

Laura: Although he is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, with his request for permission to present an appeal having been recently denied, and although he has been transferred out of Wabash Valley and into another segregation unit, he is alive and well. Eight years after his initial introduction to Shakespeare, his enthusiasm for this work remains unabated. Indeed, it continues to be the rock that has kept him positive and focused through these setbacks. He has recently completed reading ALL of the 38 plays of Shakespeare, and has written an introduction and study guide to each play, which I am currently compiling into a “Guide to the Complete Works of Shakespeare.” I’d also like to emphasize that, although I did provide an introduction to Shakespeare to a prisoner who had no prior knowledge of the Bard, more credit is due to Larry’s own perseverance and hard work, than to my “tutelage.”

Jonathan: What are some of the most recent developments in your work? Where do you see it going in the future?

Laura: Although my program has two components, in segregation and in general population, the primary focus has always been in segregation. Currently, my main goal is to create a series of handbooks for incarcerated readers that can be disseminated statewide, and beyond. As mentioned above, I am currently compiling Larry’s writings on all of Shakespeare’s plays in a “Guide to the Complete Works of Shakespeare” that I believe can change lives inside and outside of prison, as it has changed Larry’s life. While the primary audience for this Guide is segregated prisoners, the thought-provoking questions that Larry raises are applicable to all readers, in and out of prison. In fact, I use Larry’s materials in my on-campus Shakespeare courses, undergraduate introductory courses as well as those at the graduate level, with great results. Students, in and out of prison, really appreciate the down-to-earth approach that Larry takes, making comparisons to popular culture, incorporating humor, all while raising some extraordinarily sophisticated questions.

In my own teaching, I find that students’ (and, especially, prisoners’) own assumption that Shakespeare is too difficult for them is the greatest hurdle to overcome, and Larry’s workbooks overcome that hurdle. Always, my primary audience is segregated prisoners, because they have no other educational opportunity precisely at the time that it is most needed. The long-term segregation unit at Wabash Valley houses 288 prisoners, most of whom will spend years in isolation. Each year, the Shakespeare program receives nearly 50 requests to participate in the program, but I can meet with no more than a maximum of 8 at a time due to the physical constraints of the segregated unit. Therefore, my goal this year is to try to facilitate individual work from as many segregated prisoners as possible, using the workbooks designed for them. If we can at least provide an introduction to Shakespeare to 50 isolated prisoners, I think we will have accomplished something meaningful.

As always, the first play that we will be working with is Macbeth, a relatively short and highly dramatic text that addresses a number of important issues for prisoners, such as the role of external influences and personal responsibility. In addition to the workbooks created in collaboration with Larry, I have worked with several graduates of our program in segregation who now serve as group leaders, facilitating our introductory sessions with new readers. One of these is Leon Benson, also featured in my Performing New Lives chapter.

Jonathan: Who do you hope will read this book? What do you hope they will take away from it?

Laura: The collection of essays on prison theatre that are assembled in this anthology should be of interest to a wide variety of readers: theatre practitioners, correctional educators, prison administrators, and prisoners themselves. I would hope that each of these diverse constituencies could take away from it the conviction that theatre can indeed change lives. As our title  “Performing New Lives” suggests, every one of the essays provides a powerful testimonial to that assertion.

Jonathan: Where can readers go to find further information about your work?

Laura: Indiana State University and Wabash Valley Correctional Facility recently collaborated to create an excellent five-minute video introduction to my program.

The program has also been featured in two episodes of MSNBC’s prison documentary series Lockup, and in the news broadcast, ‘Inmates use Shakespeare in a Unique Way’.

Laura Bates received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago (1998) specializing in Shakespeare studies. She is Associate Professor of English at Indiana State University and has taught Shakespeare courses in a number of correctional facilities through Indiana State University’s Correctional Education Program, for which she designed the four-year bachelor’s degree curriculum with an emphasis on humanities. In 2003, she created Shakespeare in Shackles, the first-ever Shakespeare program in solitary confinement, in the supermax segregation unit at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. Working in collaboration with prisoner Larry Newton—who is currently serving his twelfth year in isolation—she has created a series of Shakespeare handbooks for segregated prisoners. The purpose of this program and these workbooks is to use the plays of Shakespeare to help prisoners examine, and change, their criminal behaviors.

Jonathan Shailor is an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He has been facilitating the “theatre of empowerment” in prisons, schools and other settings for over 15 years, and is the founder and director of The Shakespeare Prison Project, which originated at Racine Correctional Institution in 2004.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

Video: Watch the Book Trailer for ‘Performing New Lives’ by Jonathan Shailor

This moving video about the new JKP book, Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre, was made by author Jonathan Shailor, and chronicles the uplifting and profound experiences of leading prison theatre directors and practitioners discussed at length in the book.

Learn more about Performing New Lives.

Jonathan Shailor Jonathan Shailor is an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He has been facilitating the “theatre of empowerment” in prisons, schools and other settings for over 15 years, and is the founder and director of The Shakespeare Prison Project, which originated at Racine Correctional Institution in 2004. Inmates who participate in the project engage in a nine-month process of training, rehearsal and reflection that culminates in multiple performances of a Shakespeare play before prison and public audiences.

Read an interview with Jonathan Shailor about the book.

JKP author Jonathan Shailor on the benefits of prison theatre and his new book ‘Performing New Lives’

Jonathan Shailor is an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in the U.S., and is the founder and director of The Shakespeare Prison Project.

Here he answers some questions about his new book, Performing New Lives, which draws together some of the most original and innovative programs in contemporary prison theatre.

This is an amazing collection of ideas and practice. How did this book come together?

Theatre has always been a lifeline for me – a place where it’s safe to roam wildly, to explore new avenues of self-expression, to connect with other people, to learn more about the world, and to create something meaningful. Theatre is a refuge that restores and animates the individual soul, and the community. When I became a college professor and had the opportunity to teach at a local prison, I chose to teach theatre, so that I could offer that lifeline to men who were sorely in need of one. I worked (mostly as a volunteer) at Racine Correctional Institution, a men’s medium security prison in Sturtevant, Wisconsin (USA), from 1995 to 2008. For most of that time, I facilitated classes in the Theatre of Empowerment: performance as a vehicle for personal development. Then, in 2003, my lifelong interest in Shakespeare was revitalized by some new acting opportunities. I also became aware of a prison production of Hamlet, directed by Agnes Wilcox in Missouri. After some encouragement from Agnes, I decided to produce King Lear at the prison, using the nine-month rehearsal and production model established by Curt Tofteland with his Shakespeare Behind Bars program in Kentucky. Curt was a great supporter and advisor for me that first year. The year of Lear marked the beginning of my Shakespeare Prison Project, which continued in subsequent years with productions of Othello, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar.

In 2007, I attended the first-ever national conference on Arts in Corrections in Philadelphia, and it was there that I put out my call for book chapters on prison theatre. Several of the contributors are people who were supporters or collaborators during my years with The Shakespeare Prison Project, and others were people I had never heard of, but who were doing amazing work. My intention has been to create a community of prison theatre facilitators, including (but certainly not limited to) those who contributed to the book.

Read interviews with contributors Curt Tofteland, Brent Buell and Laura Bates.

What is prison theatre, what are its goals, and why does it work?

Prison theatre is any kind of performance work done by incarcerated individuals, whether on their own initiative, or with the help of an outside facilitator. Prisoners can be involved in some or all aspects of production (acting, directing, music and sound, scene and costume design, properties, publicity, programs), although mainly they are involved as actors. The material they perform ranges from classical works to contemporary pieces, and to original works developed from their own life experiences.

While there is some variation in the principles and practices followed by prison theatre artists, all seem to agree that the primary value of their work is in creating opportunities for prisoners to develop greater empathy, social responsibility, self-awareness, self-discipline, self-esteem – and what is sometimes referred to as “moral imagination.”

Prison theatre works because it provides a sanctuary apart from the harsh prison environment, where it is safer to be vulnerable, to self-disclose, and to experiment with new ways of expressing oneself and relating to other people. There is both support, and structure. 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.

One young man in my program, Peter (not his real name) robbed a pizza parlor when he was 19. Because he wielded a knife and duct-taped two employees to chairs, he was convicted on multiple counts. When I met him he was in the seventh year of his 30-year sentence for those convictions. When he committed his crime, one might say that Peter had acted the role of the “angry young man.” In prison, he seemed to me and to the staff that knew him, like a sensitive, intelligent and even promising young man who was in danger of becoming a lost soul. The Shakespeare Prison Project gave him an opportunity to perform in a play for the first time in his life. He played the role of Ferdinand in The Tempest, and he helped to compose and perform original music for the play. At the public performance, his mother and sisters wept openly. His seven-year-old daughter, who had never seen him before without his prison uniform, now saw him dressed like royalty. She gave her father a big hug at the end of the performance, and exclaimed, “My Daddy is a prince!”

What challenges do you face in implementing prison theatre programs? Are inmates generally receptive to the idea? What about correctional professionals and the wider world?

There are challenges in gaining access to a prison, in developing relationships with prison staff and administrators, in negotiating the prison culture, and in building a sustainable program that is responsive to the needs of the institution. There are challenges in maintaining appropriate boundaries between facilitators and inmates. There are challenges in responding to conflicts that can develop between inmates, and between prisoners and staff. All of the contributors to the book address at least some challenges, showing us what worked and what didn’t work in their particular setting.

There is always a group of inmates that shows immediate interest, and then as a program becomes established, that interest generally grows. When I introduced my Shakespeare program, 80 prisoners came to the initial presentation, 40 asked for more information about the program, and 20 were deemed eligible to participate. About 100 inmates attended each of our performances that first year, and in the years that followed, they kept coming. And there was always a fresh crop of actors wanting to join the program.

Many prison educators (though not all) understand the value of a theatre program, and when they hear of already established programs, they often look for ways to start something where they are. Prison officers (guards) have a range of responses, from indifference to interest, bemusement, and disgust. Wardens vary widely in their responses, and for obvious reasons, their support (or lack of support) can have a tremendous effect on a program. My last warden told me that quite frankly, he didn’t “get” Shakespeare. He claimed that his only exposure to Shakespeare’s works prior to the inmate performances was an episode of the TV comedy Gilligan’s Island, in which the castaways attempted a performance of Hamlet.

As for the wider world, there are generally three responses: people either immediately see the value of prison theatre, and are genuinely moved by the efforts of facilitators and inmates, or they are skeptical of the benefits, or they are angry, believing that prisoners are somehow being pampered.

How does prison theatre benefit ex-inmates once they have been released from prison?

Prison theatre can help inmates to develop self-confidence, empathy, and a greater sense of responsibility and accountability to others. The anecdotal and statistical evidence is overwhelming: prisoners who participate in theatre and in other educational programming always show a lower rate of recidivism than the general prison population. Since 95% of all prison inmates return to society, we all benefit when they have opportunities to preserve and cultivate their own humanity during their time behind bars.

Find out more about the ‘Performing New Lives’ U.S. Book Tour!

Visit www.prisontheatreconsortium.blogspot.com for ongoing postings from the book tour, updates on contributors to the book, and information on prison arts more generally.

Learn more about Jonathan’s Shakespeare Prison Project.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.