An inmate’s mug shot appeared on the screen as the Shakespearean soliloquy “To be or not to be” played in the background. As the mug shot faded, the soliloquy’s performer came into view, revealing the man in the mug shot acting on stage before an audience.
The video — showing a member of the Phoenix Players Theatre Group, an inmate-led initiative at the maximum Security Auburn Correctional Facility — was meant to challenge the viewers’ ideas of prisoners, according to Prof. Bruce Levitt, performing and media arts.
Levitt, who received Cornell’s 2016 Engaged Scholar Prize, discussed his work with PPTG at a lecture in the Physical Sciences Building Friday.
Levitt said his work with inmates has centered around using the performing arts as a “transformative process” for both the prisoners and audience members and in order to humanize people who have been cast aside by most of society.
“The group uses theater techniques to create artistic and therapeutic space in which a transformative journey is initiated, leading to personal and social redemption,” he said.
Throughout the talk, Levitt showed excerpts from a documentary on PPTG, in which members of the group discussed what the program meant to them.
“Everything that I’ve learned, trust me, I will definitely carry with me, and I will definitely try to apply it,” one inmate said in a clip. “It’s a spiritual, like, self-rehabilitation. I love that part about it — it’s more therapeutic, you know.”
For many inmates, the program provides an outlet, enabling them to understand emotions and events that they would have difficulty processing otherwise, according to Levitt.
“It’s really hard … because I want to shut down so much … and I don’t want to come back,” another inmate said in a video. “I just want to say thank you for creating this space and letting me a part of it to let me be able to say that I’m sorry. I want so much to be able to heal and to somehow bring light into the world after bringing so much darkness.”
PPTG is led by the inmates, who created the program’s intense application process themselves and are extremely invested in their work, according to Levitt. He stressed that the program is a “collaborative process,” and that the facilitator’s’ role is only to guide the inmates’ efforts.
Sandra Folasewa Oyeneyin ’14 — who spent six months working with PPTG as an undergraduate — said the program gave her the opportunity to combine her background in theater with community engagement.
“I was really fortunate enough to be a part of PPTG, to be able to just be there with the men and be able to witness the kinds of powers the arts has on people,” she said. “It adds so much to what you’re learning in class.”
Both Levitt and the inmates agreed with Oyeneyin about the power of theater to expand their knowledge of “what it means to be human.”
“We seek not to make every man in this prison a professional dramatist, but to reconnect us to society, our communities, and our families by learning through drama how to love … to reach into the depths of our beings and bring forth our humanity,” one inmate said.