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The Scarlet & Black

Students help prisioners write one-act plays

For Caitlin Davies ’09 and Emma Silverman ’09, this semester’s Tuesdays have consisted of class, playing Mario Party, and teaching incarcerated adult students theater and playwriting.

Davies, a theater major, had previously taught an acting class at Newton Prison, and wanted to get involved in the playwriting class. Since Silverman had a strong writing background, and is a good friend of Davies, the two figured they’d be a perfect fit to teach playwriting together.

As this is their second semester teaching playwriting together, the structure of their class has changed over the year—last semester, Davies and Silverman focused more on different plays throughout history. Now, as their students are writing short 5-10 minute one-act plays, they’ve used more contemporary plays as models.

“They’re more models of the type of work that we are hoping that they would do,” Davies said. “I think that they get much better model of length and arc of story and the one-act plays are very different from a full-length play. You write in one setting, you write in one time, whereas full plays have scenes and acts.”

Though studying one-act plays is helpful for the plays prisoners will be producing, many have expressed interest in other theater, specifically Shakespeare. “We brought in a few videos of Romeo and Juliet because some of them aren’t quite at the point where they could just really read the text alone and understand all of it,” Davies said.

The film versions ranged from the more classic adaptations to Baz Lurhman’s version, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. “We also printed them out some Romeo and Juliet synopses and that served as a guide,” Silverman said. “And they had the opportunity to read the full text if they wanted—there’s a copy in the library.”

Additionally, with a semester already under their belt, the stress present in the initial classes has subsided with time.

“A lot of times at the beginning of the course we stressed about, ‘Okay, what is our plan going to be today, what are we going to do?’ but honestly, sometimes the days that we don’t really have anything planned are the days that we have the best discussions,” Silverman said. “We talk about the plays, we talk about theater, but like it happens much more organically and I think we get to hear more from them.”

The discussions in class range from analyzing assigned one-act plays to improv exercises.

“One of the usual parts of the structure of our class is improv exercises,” Silverman said. “They have the best time with them and they’re all just really good actors and you know it’s sort of a fun, informal to introduce a topic,” Silverman said.

Both Davies and Silverman feel that this informality lends itself to an environment in which the prisoners are comfortable talking about anything, from their families to their hopes upon release.

“We come in and instead of being this hero figure that George Drake is, we kind of go in as their peers and it’s an hour and a half for them to talk to someone that’s on the outside and really will respect what they say and we use the plays that they’re writing as a forum for ideas,” Davies said. “To teach them about playwriting is just giving them a channel to express themselves.”

After an entire semester of classes, writing, and editing, Grinnell College students will put Newton prisoners’ plays to life. Davies and Silverman contacted friends, theater majors, and those who are involved with various Grinnell productions to get a good basis of actors for the prison plays.

Mitch Avitt ’10, who directed Neverland Players this semester, jumped at the opportunity to participate.

“I’ve like heard about the prison plays going on for a long time but this is the first time that I sort of have a free chunk of time that I can invest in this and it seems like a really worthwhile opportunity,” Avitt said. “I’m not sure what I’m going to get out of it, but I think I’ll get something that’ll change my outlook a little bit.”

The plays will be performed at the prison on Thursday, May 7. “We’re hoping to get about 150 people at the prison, which would include volunteers and staff, which I think is the most that they’ve ever had,” Davies said. The plays will also be performed on Friday, May 8 at the Wall.

With several semesters of teaching experience in the prison program, both Davies and Silverman are sad to be departing the program, as they plan to graduate this May.

“If you teach at the prison you’ll develop in a strange way, you will develop friendships and meet unique, wonderful people,” Silverman said. “I think that I will probably cry more on our last day of class than I will at graduation.”

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