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Bringing the Voices of the Incarcerated into the Limelight

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Educational and Applied Theatre alum Ashley Hamilton (MA ’13, PhD ’17) is putting her Steinhardt experience with verbatim performance to work in Colorado prisons, changing the lives of the incarcerated and shedding light on stereotypes about the American criminal justice system.

 

Hamilton, assistant professor of theatre at the University of Denver, is co-founder and executive director of the DU Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI), a robust program that brings arts-based, educational, and therapeutic programming into Colorado prisons.

One of DU PAI’s latest innovative projects is If Light Closed Its Eyes, a live theatre event combining true-life stories from people involved in or impacted by the criminal justice system with music, dance, and visual art, performed inside a maximum-security prison.

 “When I was at NYU, I was lit up by verbatim performance thanks to Joe Salvatore, who became my mentor,” says Hamilton. “I loved the idea of interviews as source material for the arts, and my PhD was on ethnographic theater with incarcerated women. I’ve always enjoyed using people’s stories to create an arts-based practice.”

 

A Pioneering Project

If Light Closed Its Eyes is the culmination of three years of work for Hamilton, her team, and 61 men incarcerated at the Sterling Correctional Facility, working together both in person and virtually to create and perform a piece based on real stories.

“First, we introduced the concept of interview-based theatre to the men, and we opened up the question of what we wanted the performance to be about,” says Hamilton. “Together, we landed on the criminal justice system and our shared humanity.”

The process continued with the incarcerated men conducting interviews with others. Salvatore, founder and director of Steinhardt’s Verbatim Performance Lab, and several of his doctoral students were brought on board to assist with training six of the incarcerated men via Zoom to conduct interviews with currently and previously incarcerated individuals; Department of Corrections administrators, officers, and leaders; lawyers; victims; and victims’ family members.

 “This two-and-a-half-year project highlighted the complexity of the system in a beautiful and hard way. It was an intense two-hour performance, and I think that people who came to see their own stories were deeply moved and changed. It was very cathartic and it revealed the system to us all in a whole new way.”

Joe Salvatore, Clinical Professor of Educational Theatre

“Ashley is truly extraordinary; I’ve been at NYU for twenty years, and she is hands down the most impactful graduate student I’ve encountered,” says Salvatore. “Working on this project, the humanity I experienced in a maximum-security prison was unbelievable. This collaboration left a huge impact on me that has translated into the way I think about teaching.”

Doctoral students in the Educational Theatre program, Lauren Gorelov and Ryan Howland, collaborated virtually with the incarcerated men on interview transcription, script writing, and verbatim performance coaching before meeting them in person the day of the performance.

“The men were so gracious – in our coaching sessions, they would say ‘we’re not actors,’ but they became actors,” says Gorelov, an artist, director, and former high school drama teacher based in New York City. “The experience was mutually beneficial – they were so interested in the art form, and they really helped us gain some perspective on their lives.”

 

A Performance for the Public in a Maximum-Security Prison

After a year of rehearsals, If Light Closed Its Eyes was presented live on July 20 and 21, 2022, inside Sterling Correctional Facility for members of the prison community. On July 22, 150 members of the public – including the team from VPL – were cleared to enter the prison and watch the live performance, which took place inside the three-story cell block. 

Everything in the performance, from the pre-show art and dance presentation called the Hall of Humanity to the costumes and the lighting, was created by people within the prison community, including incarcerated men and prison staff and officials. The executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections even played himself in the piece.

“The final performance is unlike anything I have seen before and was absolutely impactful, but I believe the major impact was in process,” says Salvatore. “This two-and-a-half-year project highlighted the complexity of the system in a beautiful and hard way. It was an intense two-hour performance, and I think that people who came to see their own stories were deeply moved and changed. It was very cathartic and it revealed the system to us all in a whole new way.”

The performance concluded with a twenty-minute talkback in which the performers and the audience could discuss their feelings and perspectives. Audience members included victims’ families, local policymakers, and previously incarcerated men – one of whom was incarcerated in a cell on that very block for twenty-five years.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt as empowered as an arts-based researcher than I have working with verbatim performance; it’s an incredibly useful form for disrupting biases,” says Howland, who was a high school drama teacher in Connecticut before pursuing his EdD in Educational Theatre at Steinhardt. “This work with DU PAI has created a world that gives these men creative purpose, which certainly has an impact on the outside world, but I think the most impact is on themselves.”

“I feel honored to be in this position to make this kind of work that is also my passion and my hobby,” says Hamilton. “Using those incredible interviews and what we learned together can help us continue to impact the prison system in a lot of positive ways.”

Learn more about DU PAI and its other impactful work, including an award-winning podcast, the first statewide radio station by and for incarcerated people, and Chained Voices, an annual professional art show for incarcerated artists since 2016.

This article is the first in a series about decriminalization and decarceration at NYU Steinhardt. 

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