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Arizona Prison Theater

Project  Ponders Hard Time

Script Writing: Grounded by Julie Rada.

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ASU Graduate Student Julie Rada Works With A Group Of First Time Offenders And The Result Is A Self-Scripted Work That Uses Dreams To Help Inmates Realize Brighter Tomorrows

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By Chris Braswell
Modern Times Magazine

May 25, 2014 — An ASU graduate student's work is exploring a part of society that is often, by design, forgotten.

Within the walls of the Cook Unit at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Eyman, in Florence, Ariz., a project directed and produced by master’s student Julie Rada trained and built a theatrical ensemble, generated its script among the prisoners themselves, then rehearsed and performed it in front of as many people as possible.

The Cook Unit is a medium security facility that houses men convicted of sex offenses.

The production took place on April 11, although because of restricted attendance at the facility, Rada offered a follow-up workshop on May 14 at the Nelson Fine Arts Center in Tempe. The actual production took place before some other prisoners, prison staff, and ASU personnel.

Rada opened a recent workshop among artists, scholars, family members, and colleagues, as well as those who have been incarcerated or who have had loved ones incarcerated with a contemplative group breathing exercise.

It would be easy to oversimplify her project and efforts here, however, the axiomatic philosophical message is fairly simple and clear cut.

At the workshop, she outlined her 193-page master of fine arts thesis, Collective Crossroads: A New Work Devised at Eyman State Prison, and her motive, “basically, the human rights problem of mass incarceration in the United States, and why I feel motivated to intervene on some level,” Rada said.

Rada's thesis organizes the project into four perspectives: the macro-level of “Us and Them: (In)Justice, Indifference, Interventions;” the meso-level of “Structures and Spaces: Spaces of Possibility, the Ethical Factor, the Social Factor, the Artistic factor;” the micro level of “All of Us Are Students, All of Us Are Teachers;” and the meta-level of “A Reflection on Reflecting and More Questions.”

Her overarching and ongoing purpose is to explore and understand, “human indifference and the small interventions we can make in this broken world,” she said. At the meta level, for example, this is accomplished “through our work ethic and artistic expression by writing ourselves into history and the culture.”

The project began with 25 prisoner participants, and eventually Rada's staff of prisoners was down to 20. All but three of the prisoners in her workshop were incarcerated for first-time offenses, she noted. From mid-January 2014 to the production date, Rada drove 60 miles to Florence, Ariz., to rehearse on Wednesday and Friday afternoons from 3:15 to 5:30 p.m.

The characters were created by the prisoners, to include a character called "demon," a narrator called “everyman,” and a little girl with a cleft palate. The working titles of the end result is Grounded: It's Breathtaking or It's Not A Statement (from the Ashes).

Rada read an entry from her journal dated March 14, which told of tears, deep introspection, and soul connection exercises among the prisoners she was working with. She told of her experience with the protocols of the institution, and the general depth and sensitivity of emotional landscape among the prisoners.

“These collaborators could easily be treated like animals or objects at any time, and it is heartbreaking for me,” Rada said. “There is so much sadness, grief, and loss, and yet so much resiliency.”

As anyone who has ever been involved in theater can understand, a director is in a very powerful position with respect to her or his emotional perspective of the players, by design, in order to effectively capitalize upon the medium, and to facilitate the kind of intimate collaboration that is required for a dramatic production. The nature of the location and the players in this project only served to further illumine that dynamic, she said.

At the workshop, Rada talked about the strong response of her necessary sensitivities as a director and a generally compassionate person, regarding the prisoners suffering and their ongoing, long-term psychological response to serving hard time in prison. It is a complex array of emotions, Rada said, because at the same time she is also mindful of the people in her life who have been victimized by convicts such as the prisoners.

So, one of the capital functions of theater arts, among a given community, is to facilitate an environment where emotional and psychological complexity is invoked in order to be collaboratively objectified for the purpose of forensic analysis, dialog, and growth among the community that includes the players and the audience.

This circumstances of this project were certainly no exception.

“I am grateful that I am feeling an increased tolerance for complexity,” Rada said.

Throughout Arizona and the country, there are various programs which work with incarcerated populations. The ASU English department has a program teaching and performing Shakespeare with minimum security prisoners at Florence, and there are many such Shakespeare-in-prison programs throughout the United States.

The theme of the production was dreams, with an open interpretation of the term, including for example sleeping dreams, waking dreams, and childhood dreams. At last week's workshop, an excerpt of the Cook Unit production was performed by some of Rada's colleagues.

“I've had so many dreams, yet I never had a dream of being in prison,” one character said. “Now I only dream of getting out.”

As she wraps up her master's degree, the director hopes now to focus on a theater program through a federal correctional institution in Phoenix this summer. Her longer term goals include the facilitation of dramatic monologue for prisoners who are in solitary confinement situations.

Chris Braswell is the managing editor of Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at cgbraswell@moderntimesmagazine.com.
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