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Prison theater program enacts restorative justice

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For the second time in less than six months, John McCabe-Juhnke, Bethel College professor of communication arts, directed a play with the U.S. penal system as an important theme or sub-theme.

What was probably most different about the two plays was his cast.

Last April, McCabe-Juhnke directed Bethel College students in a production of Dead Man Walking, using a script adapted by Tim Robbins from the movie screenplay. This past July 15, McCabe-Juhnke had eight inmates – seven cast and one crew – at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility who staged the dark comedy T Bone N Weasel by Jon Klein.

The event was the latest installment of the Prison Arts Project, coordinated by the Newton-based Offender Victim Ministries (OVM). T Bone N Weasel is about two ex-cons traveling in a stolen car through the backwoods of South Carolina. Faced with racial and class-based stigmas, the main characters T Bone and Weasel at nearly every turn run into people who try to take advantage of them.

“The play very intentionally focuses on the prevalence of injustice in American society from the perspective of two ex-cons just trying to make it,” McCabe-Juhnke said.

T Bone N Weasel was the fifth play McCabe-Juhnke has directed at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility. It was not the first time he chose a script dealing with issues of social justice or the penal system. One performance, staged in November 2003, was a collection of scripts entitled Law and Disorder. Twelve Angry Men, staged in March 2004, was about a group of jurors determining the fate of a boy accused of killing his father.

The theater component of the Prison Arts Project consists of seven-week workshops that allow inmates at Hutchinson Correctional Facility to learn fundamentals of stage production and to act in a full-length play. They perform once for the other prisoners and once for the public.

Spectators from outside must present Social Security numbers for background checks about a week in advance of the performance and follow a dress code when they enter the prison. After the play is over, they have only a few minutes to greet the actors before being escorted out.

McCabe-Juhnke noted that strict regulations like these comprise the most distinctive challenge of this type of theater. His group of actors must adhere exactly to their allotted practice time slot of 1-2:45, three days a week. Every prop and every item of clothing for costumes must be approved before it can be brought into the prison.

“The actors have to be given a lot of rein, because I’m not allowed to keep them an extra half hour to work on details,” said McCabe-Juhnke. “Scheduling can be a challenge, and there is always the very real possibility that you’ll lose a cast member somewhere along the way [for disciplinary or motivational reasons].

“It can seem like prison is one big ‘No,’” he continued. “The question is how we can take what we [are allowed to] do and make something fantastic and beautiful out of it.”

McCabe-Juhnke’s first play in prison took place in late December 2000 at the Lansing Correctional Facility’s medium-security unit, where he directed Hope is the Thing with Feathers, a comic play by Richard Harrity, with a nine-man cast and six-man crew. That show marked the premiere theatrical production of Arts in Prison.

Elvera Voth of Lenexa founded Arts in Prison, a non-profit organization, in 1998 after internationally renowned choral conductor Robert Shaw directed a benefit sing-along at Bethel College that included the East Hill Singers, named for the minimum-security area at Lansing. Voth had organized the East Hill Singers, which also include some non-incarcerated members from the Kansas City area, in 1996.

McCabe-Juhnke attended that November 1998 concert and began thinking about whether the concept at work in making music – to use the arts as a rehabilitative tool to enhance inmates’ social and creative skills – could also be effective through doing theater in prison. He spent his sabbatical in 2000-01 developing a program, helping to sell it to Lansing officials and then directing two plays at Lansing, Hope is the Thing with Feathers in the winter and Triple Play, three short dramas with baseball themes, in the spring.

First, however, he had to sell the program to the inmates. When he first put up posters in the prison advertising a theater workshop, only one person showed up. However, after he did a one-man variety show for the inmates, he got a full sign-up sheet and 16 more aspiring actors to work with, and his new theater career was born.

McCabe-Juhnke came back to Bethel College after his sabbatical with a new appreciation for what he did in his job. “To see the men’s appreciation and excitement for theater, to see what a special privilege they felt they had been given, was amazing to me,” he said. “I realized that what I do with my students can be life-changing.”

He was also inspired to begin the theater workshops at Hutchinson as part of the Prison Arts Project. His first production there was a reprise of Hope is the Thing with Feathers, in the early spring of 2002.

Gary Isaac, director of prison ministries for OVM, sees the Prison Arts Project as highly compatible the organization’s mission. “We have a restorative justice mission,” he said. “We believe in the healing of relationships and of individuals, and there’s often not a lot of that in the prison environment. We believe that the arts can be an important factor in the development of a person’s character and socialization, their ability to reconnect with society.”

Added McCabe-Juhnke, “Theater teaches collaboration, the skill of empathy, the ability to work to a deadline. All are critical if and when inmates find themselves on the outside someday.

“I went into this experience feeling like I was going to serve the inmates, but I came away feeling like I was greatly served. To put these men in a situation where they must work together for an end product in which they succeed – and to watch them receive the applause and well-wishes of their peers – was a transforming experience for them and for me.

“There is a great deal of wasted potential inside prison,” he concluded. “If we have ways to tap that potential, it will benefit all of society.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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