Prison Workshop Class Builds Confidence and Individuality

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May 21, 2009 — It is widely accepted that the creative process has the power to heal and instill hope. A group of University of Virginia students learned that the power to build confidence and individuality travels both ways, as they led residents of the Culpeper Juvenile Correctional Center in a series of workshops during the spring semester.

Assistant professor of drama Betsy Rudelich Tucker taught the Prison Theater Workshop class. She structured the senior seminar to challenge students "to realize the strength of the knowledge they had accumulated and to pass it on," she said.

Over the years, Tucker has taken drama classes into prisons to give performances. This was the first time students worked with correctional facility residents as coaches and directors.

Drama and history major Lee Kelly took the class because she said she "liked the idea of doing theater that benefited someone else."

"It was a completely different experience. Usually the emphasis is on us," drama major Julia Debo said. "The focus was what we can do for these residents."

Creating awareness of juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice was one goal Tucker embraced as she planned the class. Another was to help the students leading the workshops become aware of the humanity of the facility's young residents, who range in age from 18 to 20 years.

"It was an exercise in bridging racial, gender and class divides," Tucker said.

"The residents were regular people, not hardened criminals. They were like the guys who sat in the back of my high school class," Debo said.

Tucker said she was surprised by the depth of their "commitment and attention to the residents. They really cared about these guys."

For the first two weeks of the semester, Tucker's 12 students learned about established prison drama programs, such as Shakespeare Behind Bars and drama therapy programs, as well as other models of prison theater workshops as they prepared for the weekly sessions with the residents. Throughout the semester they also read about prison juvenile justice. The U.Va. students worked in groups of three or four, with each group assigned five or six residents.

It was an opportunity for the students to apply a variety of forms of theater and learn how to work with the different personalities in the room.

It proved to be an empowering experience and a lesson in leadership skills for her students, Tucker said. "They had to figure out strategies that used each other's strengths to move things forward."

They incorporated this new knowledge with all they had learned in drama and other classes to develop three workshops, each based on a theme. The first centered on working with the residents to put on a one-act play, which Tucker helped them structure. The second focused on staging poetry and bringing abstract ideas into action. For the third workshop, one group worked on Shakespeare, another about comedy and the other practiced step-dancing routines, which in performance bridged the comedic and Shakespeare pieces.

"I learned about what drama can do for other people, even if they do not consider themselves artists," Debo said. "I saw that all the work I had been doing over the last three-and-a-half years was positive and tangible to society."

For English and drama major Victoria Hanabury, the class provided an opportunity to prepare for teaching. She will join Teach for America in New York City in the fall.

She likened the experience to being on stage. "You do not know what to expect at any moment," she said.

Not only did the students need a plan for each workshop, they also needed a back-up plan, Tucker said, since they never knew if they would work with the same group of residents each time.

Kelly praised the residents' willingness "to work and move outside their comfort zones. They were very appreciative the whole time."

Barbara Amos, the program coordinator at Culpeper Juvenile Correctional Center, said that the U.Va. students provided a welcome complement to the residents' educational goals, as some are working toward their GEDs or taking college courses. On a non-academic level, it was a positive influence in their process of re-entering society.

Over the four months the U.Va. students conducted the workshops, they "instilled some confidence in our residents that this is not the bottom line for them," Amos said.

That sentiment was echoed by Barry R. Green, director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, who met with the U.Va. students at the end of the semester. The workshops "give the residents a different world perspective that these kids do not see. Having a different kind of kid come in and interact with them is invaluable. These kids need the interaction," he said. The hope is that the experience will help them deal with a world they may not be comfortable with when they leave, he added.

Hanabury summed up the experience: The goal was to create "a safe space for them and let them know that someone was on their side and make them feel valued and motivated. I hope there will be someone everyday who will tell these guys they are worthwhile."

Tucker has received an Academic and Community Engagement Course Expansion Grant to study other arts programs with an eye toward establishing the course as a permanent offering in the Drama Department and to collaborate with other departments and open it to a larger student population.