The world of theater performances is often thought of as being composed of wealthy persons who received elite educations at art institutions all so they could be observed by a small, wealthy elite at exclusive and expensive gatherings. Theater is seen as an insular, elitist practice, for and by a select few. However, this image of theater is deeply misleading, especially as more performances are available for download, and many smaller more open institutions invest more in theater productions. One place that might surprise a lot of people is the popularity of performances staged by incarcerated persons, and presented in behind the walls of prisons. Theater is a social, communal practice, so making it happen within an institution that is not only isolated from the outside world, but is designed to isolate those within, will naturally come with various challenges, and also raises various questions on the nature of both theater and the carceral system.
These are the questions Ashley Lucas addresses in her recent book Prison Theatre and the Global Crisis of Incarceration (Bloomsbury, 2020). Featuring a combination of her own firsthand experience as a director of prison theater, interviews with those involved in the world prison theater and scholarly research, the book is a unique combination of genres that occupies some very interesting intersections, and is able to explore some very difficult topics, from questions of artistic expression, the nature of community and what hope in a hopeless situation looks like.
Ashley Lucas is an associate professor of Theatre and Drama and the Residential College at the University of Michigan, and is also the former director of the Prison Creative Arts Project.