UMS

Faculty Spotlight: Theatre and Incarceration

Allie Taylor

By Allie Taylor

University of Michigan students in The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) had the opportunity to experience UMS performance, “Us/Them” in the Winter of 2018. Allison Taylor interviewed Ashley Lucas, the current director of PCAP and Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, to learn about the incorporation of “Us/Them” in the curriculum.

us them performers 

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) began in 1990 when Buzz Alexander, an English professor at the University of Michigan, had been doing work that incorporated theater and social change in his classes. He was approached by a student who wanted to do a theater workshop in a prison, and asked Alexander to accompany him. Alexander was so deeply moved and inspired by the experience in the prison that he began building a curriculum that essentially grew into what the Prison Creative Arts Project is today.

“This is our 28th year,” said Ashley Lucas, the current director of PCAP, and an Associate Professor of Theatre & Drama at SMTD and the Residential College. “We are now a curricular program and a student organization at the University of Michigan, so I, along with three or four other people, teach PCAP classes which train our students to facilitate arts workshops in prisons.”

Lucas has spent the last five years traveling the world and visiting prisons to see how other people approach theater in prison. Currently, she is working on an academic text entitled Prison Theatre in a Global Context that delves into the “why” behind theater in prison — what makes it so powerful? From where does this phenomenon stem?

“I’m trying to discover why people go through so much trouble to do theater in prison, because they absolutely do — it is happening all over the world, and has been for hundreds of years,” Lucas said. “Why is it so important to people? Why do people go to such extraordinary lengths to make this happen? What is it that people in prison get out of doing this kind of work?”

This semester, Lucas is teaching a PCAP class, “Theatre and Incarceration,” that has teamed up with UMS to incorporate two UMS productions, Us/Them and Nederlands Dance Theater. The class, which includes weekly visits to a number of prisons within the Michigan Department of Corrections, used their experiences with Us/Them and NDT to enhance and inspire the workshops and activities that are brought in to the visited prisons.

us them performers

“When Us/Them came up, and the gracious folks at UMS were kind enough to offer us tickets [through a Course Development Grant], I got really excited because Us/Them is a play with a very small cast, making an incredibly complex world out of very little, scenically,” Lucas explained.

When Lucas and her students visit the prisons, it is often difficult to find materials to use for their workshops; they must find ways to get maximal use and results out of whatever supplies they may have.

“They did some really cool stuff [in Us/Them], with the string and chalk on stage. We often have to use the same kinds of techniques and ideas in order to make a whole world out of improv when we’re performing in the prisons with incarcerated folks. For the most part, we can’t have props or costumes. I think Us/Them helped the students to conceptualize how to use things to create sentiment that becomes profoundly real. That was really mind-blowing for a lot of the students, particularly those who were not theater people. And even those who were theater people, I think, took a lot from seeing how much of a world you could create with such few people.”

“When I started talking to the folks at UMS about how my class could interact with the work that they were doing, NDT came up because they are a dance-theater company and they really create a whole world out of their bodies. We make a whole lot out of very little, and we do that with people who aren’t professionals, people who might be trying theater for the very first time, people who might never have seen a formal play in their lives, people who are wrapping their heads around the fact that live theater is not the same thing as television performed outside of the box. So to be able to contrast the experience we have in prison with a really highly professional performance that is created by people whose whole job it is to make this art form, is a very interesting contrast for me as a professor, for my students, and for people who are learning what theater is and can be in the world. I think things like Underground Railroad Game, Us/Them, and the edgier works that UMS presents help us learn, as we do in the prison, that there are many different ways in which the arts can be political and can convey something about social change.”

In addition to the arts workshops in the prisons, PCAP hosts one of the largest annual exhibitions of prisoner art in the world. Every year in March or April, the exhibition takes place in the Duderstadt Gallery on north campus for two weeks. This year, it ran from March 21st through April 4th.

us them performers

“That’s part of how we came to have this engagement with UMS,” Lucas explained. “ Part of what’s happening with our connection with UMS is an exchange program. For the last 5 years, I have taken students from the PCAP programs who have done theater workshops in US prisons to Brazil. Our students go into the prisons in Brazil and do theater with folks in prisons, favelas, and hospitals, with patients and staff. That program runs for three weeks every summer, and as part of the exchange, we invite the Brazilians here as well. While you all are having this wonderful event with the NDT, we are hosting guests that are coming here to perform in connection with that art exhibition. We will have four faculty and 10 students from two universities in Brazil here as well for a week — March 20-27.”

This year’s show is the largest show PCAP has ever done. “We’re displaying something like 658 works of art by over 500 artists, and we saw upwards of 3,000 pieces of art. The quality of the work being created is extraordinary, and you will never see an exhibition with a broader range of artistic media, or subject matter. You very seldom see a show with 500 artists in it who are all thinking about the world from very different perspectives. Because when you lock up as many thousands and thousands of people as the state of Michigan does, you’re bound to have a huge diversity of opinions and of viewpoints on the world, and that’s very much reflected in the work that we have in the exhibition.”

“This year, my heart is very full because one of my favorite artists is a man named Martin Vargas, who is one of only 5 people to have been in the show for all 23 years that we’ve had the exhibition, and he just came home a few weeks ago. He did 45 years in prison. And was in our art show for 23 of those years, and he’s going to get to see the show for the first time. It’s really, really exciting, and I’m so grateful he’s able, finally, to see the thing that he helped to make for more than two decades. That’s a profound gift for those of us who work in PCAP.”

Are you a U-M faculty member who would be interested in bringing your students to a UMS performance? $15 Classroom Tickets are available for students and faculty in courses that require attendance at a UMS performance. To learn more about how to work with UMS, email Campus Engagement Specialist at skfitz@umich.edu or check out our new guide How to Integrate a UMS Performance into Your Course.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allie Taylor is a junior at the University of Michigan, pursuing a degree in Violin Performance at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and Communication Studies from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. She is a Daily Arts Writer for The Michigan Daily and a Community and Engagement Intern with UMS.

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