June 21st, 2022
Bethel’s Prison Theater Project returned as a summer term course, with two students and John McCabe-Juhnke, professor emeritus of communication arts, collaborating with seven inmates.
The men are at Hutchinson Correctional Facility’s medium-security East Unit, where the performance, titled Inside Story, took place June 30 and July 1.
Over the course of three weeks, meeting three days a week at the unit, the students and inmates prepared four one-act plays, structured on a framework that class participants (students and inmates alike) created through daily journaling.
Much more than a theater course, Prison Theater Project is a cross-cultural experience for students and inmates, McCabe-Juhnke says.
“Both groups learn about the disparate communities and cultures they represent,” he says. “Students gain insight into the roles, rituals, rules and relationships that make up the state prison system.”
In close to 20 years of doing theater in prison, McCabe-Juhnke has seen students and inmates alike “discover much about themselves and others” through participation in the Prison Theater Project.
The two current Bethel students are Rachel Geyer, a senior from Oxford, Iowa, and Emily Guldner, a junior from Independence, Mo.
Both are theater minors, for which Prison Theater Project is required, so Bethel called McCabe-Juhnke out of retirement to lead the class.
Besides needing the class to complete the minor, Guldner says, “Being a theater person, you just want to put on a show. And you can put on a show anywhere, but you don’t often get to do it in a prison – most people never do.
“I will also get to know people from a very different walk of life than mine, and we can work together to reach a common goal of putting on this show. It’s a chance to connect with people in a unique way.”
Geyer agreed. “I’m looking forward to learning about a culture I wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said. “And it’s in a space where this has been tried and been successful before.”
Although it’s just the two of them as students, Geyer and Guldner felt good going in because they had already worked together on Bethel theater productions and were familiar and comfortable with each other’s styles, they said.
They also agreed that one of their favorite things so far is seeing how eager the seven men have been to jump into the project.
“It’s great to see people that excited to put on [a performance],” Guldner said. “Sometimes in theater you work with people who don’t really want to be there – they auditioned because they felt like they had to, maybe for a [school requirement]. These guys are giving it their all.”
“It’s rare to see this thirst for the experience,” Geyer said.
“It has been so much fun,” Guldner said. “I would totally do it again.
“It’s not about us in the best way possible, which makes it even more enjoyable. It will be a proud moment when we get to the performance.”
Bethel is a four-year liberal arts college founded in 1887 and is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Known for academic excellence, Bethel ranks at #15 in the Washington Monthly list of “Best Bachelor’s Colleges” and #31 in U.S. News & World Report, Best Regional Colleges Midwest, both for 2021-22. Bethel was the only Kansas college or university selected for the American Association of College & Universities’ 2021 Institute on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, and has been named a TRHT Campus Center. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu