by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – When Professor of Communication Arts John McCabe-Juhnke put his former “pilot project” into Bethel College’s interterm curriculum, he knew his students would learn things that surprised them.
McCabe-Juhnke has been doing prison theater for more than a decade. In 2014, he and student volunteers spent January working with inmates at Hutchinson Correctional Facility (HCF) to produce Inside Story, a series of dramatic sketches based on true stories and student and inmate journals.
“The one thing you can count on when working in prison,” McCabe-Juhnke says, “is that there’s always going to be something.”
This time the “something” was HCF going on lockdown 2½ weeks in, following a series of inmate fights. None of the 10 men in the theater class was involved. But all visits were cancelled, and the “inside” performances of Inside Story, one for the prison population and one for the public with security clearance, were cancelled with them.
The campus performances of Inside Story will go on as scheduled, Feb. 5 and 6 at 7 p.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center on the Bethel campus.
Ticket prices are $6 for adults and $4 for senior citizens and non-Bethel students (Bethel students are free on Friday and pay $1 on Saturday). One dollar from every ticket sold will go to the Offender Victim Ministries of Newton’s Prison Ministries, which includes arts projects as well as the long-running prison visitation program M2.
Tickets are available at Thresher Shop on campus, open weekdays 8 a.m.–5 p.m. (phone 316-284-5205), or at the door, subject to availability.
There will be talk-back sessions after each performance, with the students reflecting on their interterm experience.
“This is the first time I’ve experienced lockdown of the whole prison,” McCabe-Juhnke says. “I have lost actors [because of their personal issues], or had guys unable to come because a section was on lockdown. There’s always something.”
The students are, of course, disappointed, he said.
“I had them, as an alternative assignment, write letters to the inmates. These are not to be sent – I’m not sure we’re even allowed to communicate with them. There are some really good letters expressing how it felt that ‘things were really starting to take off,’ and then got cancelled.”
Up to this point, the 11 students and 10 inmates have all been keeping journals, which they periodically exchanged with each other to read.
“Journal after [inmate] journal talked about how much they enjoyed the experience and what a privilege it was to be able to work with college students,” McCabe-Juhnke said.
“This [lockdown] will be included in the story we tell,” he continued. “The concept remains the same, allowing the audience to see the plays we worked at [with the inmates] and hear the context we worked in.
“The difference now – it won’t be how successful our performances were inside but how they got changed by circumstances.”
Inside Story will run around 70 minutes, and include four short sketches of about 10 minutes each, interspersed with material from the class, which they developed collaboratively until the lockdown.
For Bethel’s January interterm, students choose one class for intensive study for three to four weeks. Classes meet every day for three hours and often include field trips or even overseas study (this year in Europe and China).
The class offers either Cross-Cultural Learning or Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies credit, both General Education requirements.
“I signed up for this class for the cross-cultural credit,” says Allie Brown, senior business major from Hesston. “I definitely got that but really, what we are seeing and hearing while in prison, around men who are ‘other,’ it’s almost indescribable.
“BC and HCF students [were] combined and for two hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we [were] equals — I am no higher than an inmate and the HCF residents are no lower than a college student.”
Joshua Lewis, senior communication arts major from Rialto, California, and Abby Phillips, junior social work major from Maple Hill, both saw performances of Inside Story two years ago.
“I realized John was actually making it into a class, and I wanted to take another class with him,” Lewis says. “The way that production went two years ago, I felt like it had a lot of insight. With where I come from, I’ve seen both sides of the [incarceration] issue. It was good to see it made into something not just negative.”
“I knew a little bit about what to expect, but I still didn’t know what the men would be like,” Phillips says. “We have to write journals, so I wrote in one of mine: ‘We don’t see the guys named “Razor” and “Crusher,” and I’m OK with that. But it’s still a maximum-security prison.’
“In our training, they made it sound like the inmates would try and seduce us, which was really weird. I am not getting that from any of them. They’re guys who messed up somewhere along the line and now they’re paying for it.”
“Coming into this class I was scared, worried, nervous, whatever word you want to use,” Brown adds. “It’s hard to enter a new place when you don’t know what to expect. I expected our experience to be intimidating, and I hoped for kindness. I found both.”
“I’ve noticed that everyone cares about the guys at Hutch,” says Kaylie Penner, freshman from Moundridge. “We’re all invested in all of it, inmates included.
“I went in with the mindset that everyone is human and no one’s defined by where they live or by their worst act, that humanity is still there,” she continues. “I was kind of surprised how easy it was to stick with that, and that developing relationships [with the inmates] was a lot easier than I thought it would be.
“I still had questions I wanted to ask some of them,” she says a little sadly, “and now I won’t get to.”
“Something really surprising is how excited the inmates were for it,” Phillips says. “There are a couple who have been doing prison theater as long as John has been doing it, but there are a few others who said ‘I’ve never acted before, I’ve never done anything dramatic before, but I’m so ready for this. It’s not just another chance to be out of my cell.’”
“It [was] surprisingly easy to work with these men,” Brown adds, “and their dedication is impressive.”
She continues, “What have I learned? Well it’s not a new concept but rather reinforcement of an old one: We do not live in a black-and-white world. People aren’t good or bad. They are good and bad.
“I know that whatever these men did must have been horrible. I mean, they are in maximum-security prison, for a long time. However, they are still human beings who have shown goodness in our workshop. Bethel loves critical thinking – they foster a lot of that.”
“The plays give us vulnerability on both sides,” says Lewis. “For us [students], going into HCF, we [were] on their stomping grounds. Then they come into that room inside, where it [was] like our stomping grounds.
“[Theater gave] us a chance to work together. Without it, we’re all lost.”
“I’ve learned to be less judgmental,” Phillips says. “As a 20-year-old girl, that is so important. These guys are inmates but they’re so much more than that. They had lives before prison, even though I don’t know what those were and I don’t know what happened. They’re not ‘just an HCF inmate.’
“I’m trying to extend that to other people I meet.”
Most of the Bethel students in the class have little or no theater experience. One small upside to the cancellation of visits to HCF has been extra time to work on memorizing their parts and putting the campus performance of Inside Story together.
Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2015–16 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 2015–16. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.
Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu.