Prison & Performance

Welcome to the start of the brand new 2017-18 academic year! I am feeling sightly off-kilter still, since the ECLIPSE took up quite a bit of the first day of our semester, but I was happy our students got a chance to do some real active learning. ūüėČ

But today’s post is more related to my current research project about the Third World Women’s Alliance. As I work on this conference paper, I have been reading Dani Snyder-Young’s book¬†Theatre of Good Intentions:¬†Challenges and Hopes for Theatre and Social Change. This fantastic resource has given me a phrase that I embarrassingly didn’t know before: Applied Theatre. As Snyder-Young writes, it can refer to “a wide range of practices in which participatory dramatic activities and/or theatre performances are used for a broad set of purposes […] used to describe many practices including (but not limited to) Theatre of the Oppressed, classroom drama, theatre-in-education, community-based performance, prison theatre, Theatre for Development, [and] political theatre…” (4).¬†“Applied Theatre” is a useful term that sums up much of what I research in a more elegant way than constantly referring to “agitprop” or “political theatre.”

Snyder-Young’s book discusses prison theatre quite a bit, and in her larger argument she warns that applied theatre can sometimes reiterate or reinforce the hegemonic structure which it typically seeks to dismantle, or at least brings awareness to. This is especially important in prison performances, where the panopticon-style surroundings makes hegemony more vivid and apparent to all participants. This has been on my mind as I consider what it means to be serious about prison abolition, a position that I have been coming around to over the years, and lean toward more now than I ever have before.

This argument has got me thinking about a newer podcast I’ve been listening to, Ear Hustle. Ear Hustle is a great podcast, produced by two inmates at San Quentin and a

Logo for Ear Hustle Podcast

Ear Hustle Podcast

volunteer instructor. It gives an interesting, thoughtful perspective on life inside prison, with all of the content and production approved by the warden at San Quentin. It may seem obvious to note that such endeavors can sometime veer into exploitation, as content is produced for gawkers to experience prison vicariously and thank their lucky stars they aren’t incarcerated. However, Ear Hustle is a sensitively produced podcast, which centers the voice of inmates in a way that never feels cruel or exploitive. Yet, if one is thinking about these issues of hegemony and even prison abolition, would listening to such a podcast run the risk of reinforcing dominant power structures?

I don’t really have a satisfactory answer to this right now; I don’t think just because there is a¬†risk of reiterating hegemonic discourse or structure in applied theatre (and I am not sure that Ear Hustle¬†actually falls under this description anyway, because it isn’t a play or a performed piece per se) that it necessarily means one¬†is doing that. But reading¬†Theatre of Good Intentions is really opening up some new ideas and ways of thinking about my work that I hadn’t considered before.

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