PCAP associate helps to create monologues on incarceration and coronavirus

Our own Project Coordinator Mary Heinen McPherson was interviewed by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen—who wrote The Exonerated. Shaka Shengor, a PCPA member, wrote one of the original monologues.
by Fernanda Pires, fpires@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—A University of Michigan graduate and PCAP associate co-created a new edition of The 24 Hour Plays: Viral Monologues that features actors from across television, film and Broadway giving voice to currently and formerly incarcerated people in the midst of the pandemic. 

In new monologues written, rehearsed and recorded in 24 hours, playwrights feature real stories told by them, their families and advocates.

Michigan alumna Leia Squillace is one of the creators of this edition of The 24 Hour Plays: Viral Monologues, which aims to amplify the firsthand experience and perspective of those impacted by incarceration. The play, entitled COVID & Incarceration, joins a movement advocating for justice through health. The monologues can be viewed on IGVT on Instagram and on Facebook.

Squillace, a 2017 graduate of the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, is a theatre director and arts activist based in Brooklyn whose work focuses on building and strengthening community and fostering radical humanization.

What is your connection with PCAP?

I started volunteering with PCAP while I was a student at the University of Michigan. I facilitated theatre and improv workshops at Cooper Street Correctional and Women's Huron Valley, where I had the privilege of working with the Sisters Within, the longest-running women’s theatre troupe in a Michigan prison. I also was given the opportunity to take the knowledge I gained from PCAP and apply it to teatro em comunidade (theatre in community) work in Rio de Janeiro with Professor Ashley Lucas.

Why the creation of The 24 Hour Plays, COVID & Incarceration edition?

When New York City went into shelter in place and COVID cases began to rapidly increase, we knew this would be a death sentence to those who are incarcerated and medically vulnerable. The Confined Art's founder, Isaac Scott, [with whom Squillace collaborates] had connections to the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign and we had all been hearing about the demands they were making of Gov. Andrew Cuomo to rapidly decarcerate and protect the elders and immunocompromised. We reached out to them and they agreed to partner with us on several arts-based projects aimed at raising awareness and calling for clemency.

We then partnered with the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which has unparalleled storytelling skills and vast theatre networks would be of use here. Next we decided to talk to the people we know who want to share their stories but are restricted from doing so, and hire professional actors to portray them to further amplify their voices.

We pitched the project idea to The 24 Hour Plays - a platform that specializes in making rapid, responsive theatre - and they jumped on board! That collaboration really gave the whole project the exoskeleton it needed. They provided us with a framework - pair playwrights with actors and have them write, rehearse, and perform a monologue in 24 hours - that we could then adapt to our specifications. We tacked on the additional conversation component for playwrights before the 24 hour clock starts, so that they can let their inspiration percolate. We also added the crucial advocacy component, which links each filmed monologue with a direct advocacy action step that will contribute to criminal justice reform efforts in the locations that the advocates live or are currently incarcerated.

How was the process of connecting major playwrights with formerly incarcerated people?  

The Confined Arts partnered with several other arts and advocacy organizations. The Broadway Advocacy Coalition and the 24 Hour Plays brought in award-winning writers, such as Lynn Nottage, DeRay McKesson, and Shaka Senghor, while the RAPP Campaign, TCA, and Zealo.us reached out to our networks across the country to identify a representative group of individuals who wanted to share their stories on a national platform.

It was a joint effort, we were able to pair currently and formerly incarcerated advocates with playwrights who we thought could support their stories best.

How were their interviews? 

They were incredible. We came up with a list of questions to guide the conversations but we have barely used them. One of the most cruel features of the criminal justice system is that it deliberately hides those who are incarcerated from the eyes and ears of the general public, and that's been exacerbated under the pandemic. I'm really honored that we can be a conduit to amplify the stories that are longing for more listening ears.

Any guidelines of the monologues creation? 

We have encouraged the playwrights to take creative license. Some have chosen to create "documentary theatre" pieces, meaning that they rearrange words, but they do not add anything that wasn't said in the conversation. Other playwrights are writing monologues that are fictionalized and inspired by the conversations they had. Our only guideline is that the playwrights stay authentic to the voice of the person they are representing, and that they check in with that individual to ensure the story depicts them the way they want to be represented.

Who is part of the play? Why were they chosen?

We are working with a cast of 14 skilled and passionate actors from across television, film, and Broadway. They chose us as much as we chose them! This process is unusual for most performers—incredibly condensed, self-filmed in their homes, and most importantly, based on the experience of someone on the front lines of the intersection between this pandemic and incarceration. We knew we couldn't throw actors into this task without acknowledging that they are being asked to be advocates as well as performers. We're lucky that so many people at the peak of the craft—Andre de Shields, Aja Naomi King, Madeline Brewer to name a few—responded enthusiastically.

What is the project goal?

The single goal of the project is decarceration. Social distancing is impossible in prisons and jails, and the virus is spreading at terrifying rates. In NYC Jails, the infection rate is 9.53% which is ludicrous compared to the 0.40% infection rate across the U.S. The only way to prevent thousands of people from dying is to cut down on the prison and jail populations. 

As a theatre director, you are using art as a tool to amplify voices of the incarcerated community facing this global pandemic. How efficient is it?

Data and reporting are essential to holding society accountable and keeping us informed, but nothing can convey significance and demand empathy the way that art can. When a performance is most effective, it can blur out every other noise, sight, and thought and place you deep inside the heart of what it wants to say to you. I hope through this project we can drown out the incessant noise of the uncertain world we're living in, just long enough to encourage those watching to take a single action to advocate for the health and safety of those who have very few opportunities to advocate for themselves.

Release Date: 05/14/2020
Tags: Prison Creative Arts Project