Theatre Changing Lives: Incarcerated Men Rediscover Their Voices
The reaches of the theatre do not end at the playhouse. The University of Idaho distance Master of Fine Arts program allows students to study theatre around the globe.
Robert Caisley, chair of the Theatre Arts Department, started the program to reach students who could not learn in person in Moscow.
He was inspired to start the program from his work as a playwright. He traveled to theaters and met students who were interested in the U of I but were tied professionally to their current location. Caisley found a way to bring U of I theatre to the students while allowing them to continue their current professional projects.
“Unlike our on-campus program, many of our distance students have been in the professional field for years,” Caisley said “We are helping them hone their skills even further.”
Distance students learn alongside in-person students over video, creating a learning environment enriched by professional experiences and stories. The combination of traditional students and professional students creates a learning environment unique to U of I.
“The axis of learning has shifted instead of professors teaching vertically to students, our classrooms are a horizontal learning environment of sharing experiences and skills,” Caisley said. “We all learn together.”
One way the students share their knowledge is through Greenroom Chats. These presentations allow theater professionals to share their experiences with others.
At 1 p.m., Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, Kate Powers, a distance MFA student, will facilitate a Greenroom Chat with two returned citizens who are alumni of Rehabilitation Through the Arts.
Powers has worked as a facilitator with Rehabilitation Through the Arts at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in New York, and founded The Redeeming Time Project to work with men incarcerated in Minnesota prisons. In both of these programs, Powers and other teaching artists work with incarcerated individuals to explore acting, directing, text analysis, character study, clowning and puppetry. Rehabilitation Through the Arts has staged full productions in five different correctional facilities in New York state for more than 20 years.
Powers was inspired to start her program by Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars and former Artistic Director of Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. “This is theatre that is actually changing lives,” said Powers. “It is an honor to bear witness in the circle as the participants discover themselves.”
Through the theatre program, incarcerated individuals develop critical life skills that serve them in prison and help them think about the kinds of choices they want to make when they come home. While the national average recidivism rate is 68%, participants in prison performing arts programs across the country have a reoffend rate that is less than 5%, Powers said.
Often incarcerated individuals join the theatre program when they doubt their ability to participate in the GED and pre-college courses at their facilities.
Powers plans to continue working with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated citizens after graduating from U of I, striving to challenge stigma and create opportunities for self-expression, connection, equity and hope.
“These men have been told repeatedly, by teachers, guidance counselors, by the entire system, that they are stupid, they are thugs, they are garbage,” Powers said. “Many have internalized these dehumanizing messages and think that school is not for them. They come to the theatre class because it looks like we’re having a good time, laughing, jumping around. But performing in front of an incarcerated audience, working as part of a team, these activities help to build confidence. So many participants think, ‘If I can do this, what else might I accomplish?’”
Written by Katy Wicks, University Communications and Marketing
Posted November 2020