Applied Theatre in Prisons

RTA Performance at Bedford Hills Maximum Security Prison for Women (Ashley Hamilton – 1st row, center; Clare Hammoor – 2nd row, far right); Photo courtesy of RTA

By Ashley Hamilton

“When I am doing this work, creating art, for just a little while I get to forget that I am in prison” (Bedford Hills Maximum Security Prison Devising Theatre Participant). My work found me, before I found it. My first introduction to working in the prison system, using the arts as a rehabilitative tool, came prior to even starting my master’s degree in Educational Theatre (EDTC) at NYU, long before I understood what the field of “applied theatre” was. Through a serendipitous chain of events, I secured my first teaching artist gig using writing and theatre inside the New York City juvenile jail system. I had no real training, but I felt deeply drawn to the work of being inside of the walls with folks who were yearning for expression, I knew even then that something transformative was occurring.

As you may know, the Educational Theatre program has a long standing, collaborative relationship with Rehabilitation through the Arts (RTA) – an organization that uses arts practices in various New York State Prisons in order to work toward the rehabilitation of incarcerated folks. In the first year of the PhD program, I had the opportunity to assist Dr. Nancy Smithner in teaching a Physical Theatre class, along with master’s student Melissa Sonia (now an alumni) at Bedford Hills Maximum Security Prison for Women. Soon after, I had the opportunity to co-teach a six-month long Devising Theatre course, alongside Clare Hammoor (an EDTC alumni) at Bedford Hills. Clare and I created the class to explore various socially minded themes through movement and writing. Then, after a particularly salient theme emerged from our exploration, we continued on to write a play through a physical and writing based devising process. The class culminated with a performance of the mounted play for the remaining prison population. After months of writing, devising, and rehearsing we had created a play about the contradictions of womanhood inside prison walls. The play interrogated themes of body image, beauty, motherhood, self-sustainment, sexuality and gender.

The women wrote from raw and deep places, clearly craving an opportunity to tell their stories. Throughout the course, Clare and I found ourselves constantly reflecting on several themes but specifically; our roles as facilitators, boundaries, the role of therapy in applied theatre, and emotional safety and wellness. The deeper we went into the work, the more questions and contradictions emerged. The women’s final performance was met with compassion and grace by the prison population as they echoed that they shared very similar experiences and deeply appreciated the vulnerability of their peers. And, Clare and I walked away from that experience stretched emotionally, mentally, and physically, but with so many more questions than when we began.

RTA Performance at Bedford Hills Maximum Security Prison for Women; Photo courtesy of RTA

Currently, Clare and I are co-facilitating a “Life Skills through Acting” class at Fishkill Correctional Facility for Men, a very different yet just as complex experience. We are only a few weeks into the class, and I am already finding that my questions, thoughts and general reflective practice is just as prevalent, but is more centered on questions of gender and aesthetic distance. I am fascinated by the immediate difference I have found in working with men versus women, and by the way I find myself (as a white, cis-gendered woman) performing gender and race in this hyper-masculine, racialized space.