In the Community: NYU Steinhardt’s Prison Theatre Initiative

This past semester, Nan Smithner and graduate students in Steinhardt’s Program in Educational Theatre, presented the play, Evolution, to inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility.  The original work, which incorporated dance, spoken word, and physical theatre, and focused on themes of change and forgiveness, was created in collaboration with Rehabilitation Through the Arts.  The play, which took 1 1/2 years to develop was performed for the entire prison population in a large gymnasium.

“My experience at Woodbourne Correctional Facility was emotional, overwhelming and joyful as I watched Evolution,” wrote an audience member.  You could feel a deep sense of pride from everyone involved in the production, from the sound guy to the slam poet to the lead and ensemble actors. The show was beautiful and humbling, and truly a remarkable piece on the human condition.”

Smithner notes that the workshops benefit the prisoners who are taught how to make, present, and evaluate theatre, as well as examine how drama operates as a collaborative tool, communicative resource, and community art form.  The Prison Theatre Initiative also gives faculty and graduate students an opportunity to lead workshops in drama in education, physical comedy, and theatre history in a prison setting.

“For me, as director, this chapter of the Prison Theatre Initiative represented the essence of community engaged theatre in that inmates were learning to collaborate, problem-solve, listen, and communicate through the creation of an ensemble theatre piece,” Smithner said.

The Steinhardt Prison Theatre Initiative was created in 2004 by faculty members Philip Taylor and Robert Landy.  Each semester a faculty member and several graduate students visits a prison twice a month to teach workshops or collaborate with inmates on a production.

(Photo:  Steinhardt student Delia Meyer, left, and Nan Smithner, right, teach clowning at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.)