America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s

By Lee Bernstein | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
CELL BLOCK THEATER

ENTERTAINMENT, LIBERATION, AND THE
POLITICS OF PRISON THEATER

In the spring of 1979 the Center for the Advanced Study in Theatre Arts (CASTA) at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center held a conference on theater in prison.1 The event featured a spirited and divided debate about the goals of theater programs by the founders of many of the key programs then in existence, including the heads of the Theatre for the Forgotten, Cell Block Theatre, the Family, Geese Theatre Company, and the New York City Street Theatre Caravan. Stanley A. Waren, a professor at City College and the director of CASTA, summed up the varying and contradictory ways theater professionals and corrections officials thought about the value of theater programs: to entertain; to change the social and criminal justice systems by “politicizing prisoners, those who control the prisons, and the general public”; to “habilitate” inmates to the existing social system; “to develop personal skills, including language skills, voice, body and interpersonal sensitivity”; to “stretch the imagination of the inmate”; and to train inmates for careers in the theater industry.2 This range of goals reflected the political, humanistic, and professional contexts for theater during the 1970s.

There was some question if these different values could be reconciled, and in the end, Waren did not succeed in finding common ground. With some saying their primary goal was to entertain and relieve the monotony of life behind bars and others arguing that “any attempt to ameliorate the prisoner’s conditions through the arts only served to prolong the existing system,” there seemed to be little basis for compromise.3 These practitioners would soon have a clear voice in the form of the Brazilian director Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Op-

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America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations viii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter One - We Shall Have Order 19
  • Chapter Two - The Age of Jackson 51
  • Chapter Three - What Works? 75
  • Chapter Four - We Took the Weight 99
  • Chapter Five - Cell Block Theater 129
  • Chapter Six - Radical Chic 151
  • Conclusion 173
  • Notes 185
  • Index 215
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