Students cross cultures by going into prison
by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – January interterm at Bethel College is often the time when students opt for a cross-cultural experience – in Costa Rica, Mexico, Europe or Israel/Palestine, for example.
In interterm 2014, 10 Bethel students went to prison.
This school year, John McCabe-Juhnke, professor of communication arts, transitioned out of his long-time role as director of forensics and became director of theater.
“I’m very aware that students are wondering what it means for me to be in this role,” McCabe-Juhnke says.
“Doing theater in prison has been a passion of mine for a dozen years.” So as he tried to figure out “the best configuration for performance opportunities,” he decided to try to work that passion into a class offering. “Interterm is a good time to take advantage of for an intensive project,” he says.
The result was the Prison Theater Pilot Project, in which “we’ve been collaborating with a group of prison inmates on a theatrical production at Hutchinson Correctional Facility. This program is offered under the auspices Offender Victim Ministries [based in Newton],” McCabe-Juhnke says.
He’s calling the production Inside Story. It combines dramatic monologues from a project called MyAmerica from Center Stage in Baltimore, interviews from Dave Isay’s StoryCorps and journal entries from students and inmates into a documentary-style presentation that explores issues of cultural, community and individual identity as they are expressed in the stories people tell about their lives.
During the first three weeks of January, the students and McCabe-Juhnke traveled to HCF three times a week, spending two hours each time with the group of seven men. There were evening rehearsals in the two weeks leading up to the performances.
The first two of those were in the prison – one for inmates and one for community members. On Feb. 7 and 8, an adaptation of Inside Story will be on the Krehbiel Auditorium stage in Bethel’s Fine Arts Center, at 7:30 p.m. both evenings, with the students taking on some of the roles the inmates played inside HCF.
Ticket prices are $6 for adults and $4 for non-Bethel students and senior citizens (Bethel students get in free for Friday’s performance and pay $1 for Saturday’s). OVM will get a dollar from every ticket sale to help support its Prison Arts Project.
For many of the Bethel students, being a Prison Theater Pilot Project Participant, or PTP3, came on top of a for-credit interterm class.
“I knew it was going to be an eye-opening experience and an opportunity to gain a new perspective,” says Jesse Voth-Gaeddert, junior from Hesston. “I was a little unsure about whether I wanted to commit the time, though, since I was already going to be taking four hours of classes during interterm.
“But I decided I couldn’t turn away the opportunity to take part in a theater project with a diverse group of people in a new environment. Besides, all college students are super-busy anyway.”
“I wanted to do this project because I know that anything with John is an adventure,” says Katie Schmidt, junior from North Newton. “After hearing him pitch this idea to us and hearing how passionate he is about this type of story in particular, I wanted to be in on whatever strange adventure it would turn into.”
Schmidt is an experienced actor and has worked with McCabe-Juhnke as a director. For most of the students, however, this is their first time on stage.
Isaac Dunn, freshman from Fresno, Calif., had actually been in the prison before, since he began last fall as a volunteer for M2, OVM’s prison visitation program at HCF. However, he says, “I had never done theater before, so this seemed like the logical next step.”
The term “pilot project” means that McCabe-Juhnke hopes to make this collaborative theater venture (he got the idea after learning about a professional dance troupe that does something similar in a women’s prison) part of the theater curriculum.
“One of the primary reasons I wanted to involve students,” he says, “is because of the powerful experience of making theater with people who recognize the incredible privilege it is to perform. I think [one of the students’] journal hits the nail on the head, when he says it’s refreshing to work with people who really want to engage in the learning environment.
“Another reason is that the project is so central to what Bethel hopes to accomplish with its students. Our mission values ‘an ethic of service, deems concern for the powerless to be intrinsic to the Christian gospel and stresses peace-making and voluntary service.’”
Still another valuable piece is the cross-cultural learning component. McCabe-Juhnke points out that while the students “are learning a great deal about the culture of prison, the inmates are also curious about college culture.”
“The most important thing I have learned is that people are people,” Schmidt says. “I find that these men I have met in prison teach me about humanity and justice and stereotypes and choices every time I see them. I’m rethinking things because of these guys.
“They make me rethink that whole ‘There are two kinds of people...’ statement. But maybe there are only two kinds of people in this world: the people who are silly enough to believe there are actually two kinds of people, and the people who realize that is ridiculous, because there are a million variations on any given choice and human life is so much more complex than a two-slotted mailbox.”
“Prison really isn’t as scary of a place as it is made out to be and, believe it or not, there are actually a lot of really nice people who are in prison,” Voth-Gaeddert says. “If I would have met any of the inmates we have been working with outside of the prison, I would not have known that they were inmates.
“They are in there for not-so-nice reasons but, for most of them, the poor decisions that put them in prison were made [long ago] when they were young and in desperate situations. They are obviously not the people they once were.”
“I was struck by the privilege I’ve had, to have spent most of my life surrounded by people who made my safety, my security and my sense of well-being a priority,” McCabe-Juhnke says. “I imagine a majority of the men in prison have not had the same advantages.
“One of my mentors in prison arts programming, Elvera Voth, once said, ‘We’ve won in the lottery of life.’ Working with prison inmates reminds me of that truth again and again.”
“I had the opportunity to talk to my parents about my experience as a PTP3 so far,” says Luke Loganbill, junior from Moundridge. “My mom mentioned how excited and passionate I was about PTPP.
“I jokingly said that it seemed like ‘prison is changing me into a better person.’ After considering this, I think I spoke the truth. This is a new experience that is shaping me into a new person.”
In addition to Dunn, Loganbill, Schmidt and Voth-Gaeddert, the Prison Theater Pilot Project students are Bryce Hostetler, sophomore from Dodge City, Koki Lane, junior from Newton, Jacob Miller, freshman from Westmoreland, Emily Simpson, junior from Lebanon, Tenn., Issei Tsuji, sophomore from Chiba-shi, Japan, and Natalie Unruh, sophomore from Clay Center.
Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2013-14 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2013-14. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.