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A sabbatical spent in prison: Professor sees profound implications for inmates in theater

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For all its rigid structure and scheduling, even prison can be unpredictable.

That’s what a Bethel College professor, working at Hutchinson Correctional Facility (HCF) with an inmate drama troupe, discovered last fall, though not for the first time.

John McCabe-Juhnke, professor of communication arts, was spending his second sabbatical in which he focused on the arts in prison, specifically theater. He has been volunteering for six years with the Prison Arts Project, directing plays with incarcerated men at HCF’s Central Unit, maximum security. The Prison Arts Project is a program of Offender Victim Ministries (OVM), a not-for-profit organization in Newton, with a mission of reconciliation and healing for offenders and victims.

McCabe-Juhnke had a group of HCF inmates working on two productions, Poor Fellas, a series of related sketches by Mark Palmieri, and The Meeting, a dramatization by Jeff Stetson of an imagined conversation between Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

In late October, there was a homicide on Cell Block 2, maximum security, which caused it to be locked down. “Two of my Poor Fellas actors were on that block, out of seven, all of them double-cast,” McCabe-Juhnke says.

He had originally intended the performances of both plays (they are each done once for a prison audience and once for a pre-approved public audience) to be completed by the end of November. After the lockdown, he decided to drop work on The Meeting for a while and “do some understudy work on Poor Fellas, which was further along. And then the man playing Malcolm X [in The Meeting] quit.”

As it turned out, the lockdown ended in time for the two inmates to resume their original roles in Poor Fellas, presented at the end of November. The Meeting was rescheduled for Jan. 19, to align with the national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Jan. 21. McCabe-Juhnke had two of his actors do a preview of The Meeting at the end of Poor Fellas and then announced auditions for the now-vacant role of Malcolm X.

“The prison administration was very excited about having the performance of The Meeting, because it was an initiative in the prison that promotes African-American history,” McCabe-Juhnke says. “And the guy who ended up playing Malcolm was really good.”

With the plays behind him, McCabe-Juhnke took time to reflect on his second sabbatical spent in this way, and what has changed since the first one in 2001. One thing that hasn’t, he says, is that “the work is compelling, no matter what. It is tremendously rewarding to see the men learn to collaborate and learn other skills – like working to deadline, self-expression, empathy – they’ll need once they get out, and most of them will.”

Most of the differences, McCabe-Juhnke says, “are qualitative. I’ve grown better at relationships with prison administration and I’m able to more comfortably face obstacles that naturally occur and deal with them creatively.” The problems he encountered this time “didn’t seem earth-shattering,” he says. “It was continued affirmation that you never know what to expect.”

Since he first began working in prison theater in 2001 – that time he was at Lansing Correctional Facility, where his mentor, Elvera Voth, began the first arts in prison program in the state of Kansas, directing a men’s choir – McCabe-Juhnke has directed a half-dozen other plays at HCF, working them around his regular teaching load. “Two of my colleagues who came to see Poor Fellas remarked, ‘This one was so much better [than my productions they had seen at HCF before] – why is that?’ The concentrated effort really makes a difference.”

McCabe-Juhnke’s sabbatical started at the end of August and from then until it ended in late January, he would travel to Hutchinson three days a week, spending about three hours each time with his theater workshop group.

Another thing that was different this time was the presence of a female actor in the mix, McCabe-Juhnke’s former student Karin Kaufman-Wall of North Newton. “It worked out well in terms of working with the cast,” he says, “but we weren’t prepared for the reaction of the facility audience” – nonstop whistles and catcalls whenever Kaufman-Wall was on stage.

Nonetheless, having Kaufman-Wall in the cast “was a real affirmation and a privilege for the men. And it was a gift for me to have a colleague to process things with.”

Also during his sabbatical, McCabe-Juhnke got to attend a national conference on Arts in Corrections in Philadelphia. “It was a great experience to connect with other people, several hundred of them, who do this work and to see the variety of shapes it takes,” he says. He visited a prison theater project at Greaterford Prison, a maximum security institution in Bucks County, Pa., and saw a screening of a forthcoming video production, Healing Walls, which documents a program of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Project that brought together offenders and victims to create a mural.

He kept a detailed sabbatical journal and will be contributing a chapter to a book edited by Jonathan Shailor, a professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and the director of The Shakespeare Project at Racine Correctional Institution.

As for what theater in prison contributes to his own teaching, McCabe-Juhnke says, “It gives me anecdotal experience to bring to the classroom, about the challenges and what you can achieve in spite of them. There is the affirmation that doing theater is important work, that the skills are valuable and relevant for a variety of populations.

“After my Lansing sabbatical, I had the strong feeling, and still do, that it’s not until you take your art to a population deprived of it that you see how profound it can be.

“Once an inmate asked me, ‘Why do you do this? Is it just for the endorphin rush of coming into a prison?’

“I gave him the answer about the skills being valuable, and I also said it’s about my call to be faithful to my Christian life and principles. We’re called [as Christians] to serve those less fortunate than we are. So often, theater tends to be more self-serving, especially in terms of professional theater and the entertainment industry. But this shows me my skills can be used for real, valuable restorative work.”

With a grin, he adds, “Sometimes the men get that, and sometimes they don’t. I came back from Philadelphia all charged up, and all they wanted to talk about was how the Phillies were doing in the playoffs.”

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 was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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