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Theater 31.3 (2001) 55-61

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Notes From Inside
Forum Theater in Maximum Security

Tim Mitchell

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When you step into a prison you immediately notice the obvious constraints--the walls, the gates, the cells, and the regimentation of the lines and of the inmate count. There are also the less visible: the inmates' loss of privacy and control, isolation from friends and family, and the increasingly long sentences. Prisons differ from one another: high-tech centralized surveillance controls harsh new facilities while keys jangling on big rings lock up the cells of old plantation-style prisons; thick concrete and frosted windows demarcate the boundaries of a supermax while the walls of tent cities wobble in the wind. But dehumanization pervades them all. This affects the inmates the most, but it also spreads to guards and their families, administrators, and the communities that host the facilities.

For eight years I have worked in such environments through education programs in theater sponsored by two universities, Georgetown and Cornell. From 1992 to 1997 I worked in the maximum security blocks of Lorton (the Washington, D.C., prison in Virginia, now slated to close); recently, I have been working in the Louis Gossett Jr. Youth Residential Center in upstate New York. I have learned from the men I met, and I hope they have learned from me, as we have together engaged in a process of discovery that has led to some key theoretical and practical insights into theater and social change. Yet for the men inside, for me, and for the [End Page 55] undergraduate volunteers who joined me, a tough question always looms over our endeavors: as Patricia O'Connor, the director and founder of the Friends of Lorton program at Georgetown asked the men in one of my for-credit drama courses there, "What kind of change can you know about in a place like this?"

I'd like to chronicle one change--which seems both modest and monumental--effected through Augusto Boal's Forum Theater techniques at Lorton in the summer of 1997, and through it to point to some tentative conclusions about the promise of such theater practice.

Working with community liaison Elvin Johnson, a former Lorton inmate who helped found the higher education program with Georgetown in the maximum security cellblock there, we planned to explore themes of fatherhood and family that summer by arranging to have family members bussed in from D.C. for a final interactive Forum Theater performance. Unfortunately, a change in city government and a new warden forced us to cancel these plans. Instead, each participant was allowed to bring guests from the block for the final performance, and several administrators attended as well. Here is one of the scenarios, based on actual life experiences, performed in the forum:

A man returns to his wife and his teenage son with a strong desire to reconnect with his family and to be a good husband and father. One way to get off to a good start, he thinks, would be to hold a special family dinner on his first weekend home. He imagines what it will be like--taking his long-empty place at the table and seeing his family around him again. When he returns home he tells his wife about the [End Page 56] plan and she agrees to cook something special. But just before dinner, as he sits on the couch watching TV, his son comes into the room and announces that he is going out. "Where?" asks the man. "To be with my friends," replies the son. The father explains that he cannot go out because they have planned a special family meal. The boy begins to argue: "You've been in prison my whole life and now you want to tell me what to do? You can't tell me what to do. I'm going!" He stomps out of the house to meet his friends. The man yells after him to no avail. It is clear that no one knows who those friends are, where the boy is going...