At Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York, a group of twenty inmates are in rehearsal for Starting Over, a play about the impact of incarceration on families. The group wrote and developed the work under the guidance of Arin Arbus, Theatre for a New Audience’s Associate Artistic Director and director of this season’s acclaimed production of Othello.
As a volunteer for Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), Arbus has spent the past two years working with this group at the all-male medium security prison. “I can create work in prison that I cannot create anywhere else,” she says of the experience. “It exists outside of a capitalist system, and yet it is within a highly charged political sphere.”
After directing the group in a production of Of Mice and Men in 2007, Arbus spent ten months working with the group to create Starting Over. The play was performed for fellow inmates and guests in the fall of 2008, and the group is currently remounting it for a tour to other prisons in the area. A film adaptation, which will be used as an educational tool in other facilities, is also in the works.
Last summer, the Theatre’s Education Associate, Carie Donnelson, joined Arbus as an RTA volunteer. She now facilitates workshops at Woodbourne and other facilities, where inmates study Shakespeare’s sonnets, plays, and parallel works. Her group at Fishkill Correctional Facility recently performed scenes from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing for terminally ill inmates. “Working with them is a mutual learning experience,” says Donnelson. “These men have taught me that words like ‘time’ and ‘freedom’ mean much more than their definitions. Shakespeare understood that too. Those words, and others, contain whole worlds of perception.”
In addition to theatre, RTA offers programs in modern dance, visual arts, physical comedy, and singing, in five facilities within New York State. Their goal is to use theatre arts to offer prisoners a safe and supportive rehabilitation structure in which to build skills, to develop leadership, community, and respect for self and for others, and to recognize a sense of achievement.
For more information on RTA, visit www.p-c-i.org/rta.php.