ANN ARBOR—The power of theatre to transform lives brought graduate students from London to Ann Arbor once more. Four of them spent two months in a field placement with the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan. The transatlantic partnership happened for the sixth time in 10 years.
"PCAP is a great model for all of us, for all the world, because its belief that every single person is capable of creating art," said grad student Amy Grimes. "It is an easier way to start working with people inside [prisons]."
The group is from the University of London Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (CSSD) and is specializing in Drama and the Criminal Justice System in the MA Applied Theatre program.
This program is unique in Europe for offering a focus on using theater to benefit people affected by the justice system. During their time in Ann Arbor, the students facilitated theater workshops in three prisons in Michigan, visited a teen arts program, and led an in-service training for PCAP students.
"These students are the ones who will teach in their continent," said Mary Heinen McPherson, PCAP's Project Coordinator. "We taught them how we work with arts inside prisons here in Michigan, but we also learned a lot from them, who are very talented and a really highly skilled in improvisation."
According to the students, projects like PCAP, whose weekly workshops typically run 8-12 weeks, don't exist in England. “It is very irregular. We do theater workshops no longer than a week or two and they are issue based,” said Stefania Antonescu. “And there is a demand for spaces where people can be anyone through the lenses of their imagination, can be anywhere.”
The quartet also came to Michigan with a special task: create a theatre curriculum for veterans at Saginaw Correctional Facility. The prison has a special housing unit for veterans, the only one of its kind in the state.
The unit accommodates 240 men who have served the country. Most of them suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and have been incarcerated for many years, before the syndrome was recognized as a disease.
“This facility begs for long-term solutions and long-term workshops,” Heinen McPherson said. “Having the London students start this partnership was a perfect kick-off for long-term programming.”
The CSSD students developed storytelling workshops tailored for the veterans. Each session, participants mixed music, words, actions and improvisation. The goal was to create a play based on the veterans’ own ideas. "We provided a frame, a skeleton, and they put flesh on it," said Grimes.
"We thought about what activities would build upon what they already knew to help them develop stories. We taught important theatrical skills, so they could add their feelings on top of it. They engaged a lot and we got lots of laughter," Grimes added.
For CSSD student Valentina Rosati, the extreme situation inside prison makes the creation process and rehearsals special and fosters a strong connection among workshop participants. "[The workshop] is a place where people can hear each other because theater is about listening," she said. "And the imagination of another type of reality, listening to people with different point of views and a possibility to change were, and are, powerful and useful tools."
Heinen McPherson and the students described the performance as “riveting.” It was attended by staff, deputies and program officers of the facility, which showed real interest in seeing the veterans perform.
"What made the performance so compelling to watch was the men shared their own stories and lives, with all its struggles and joys with the audience," said Heinen McPherson. "You could see the respect, care and diligence they shared with each other in creating a stellar performance."
“It was amazing how they encouraged each other. They supported each other. They clapped. It was a very nice atmosphere,” said Grimes.
Now, PCAP students will carry on the project at Saginaw Correctional Facility. "We came to Michigan to learn about the American prison system and to start something PCAP can carry on. It is a perfect exchange," said Rosati.
This exchange program is just part of the CSSD students’ journey to work with the criminal system.
"My career goal is to work in prison reforms, to be able to change the setup of the system because rehabilitation and mental health is a huge problem in prisons. We are further damaging people in the system," said student Grace Broome. "I just want to be working with the prison system to bring something better. Since my other passion is theatre, it makes sense to bring them together."