During the COVID-19 pandemic, prison volunteers and the formerly incarcerated produced powerful videos and audio projects at California State Prison-Lancaster (CSP-LAC). The inspirational productions were based on the words of incarcerated thespians (actors and artists).
The TheatreWorkers Project (TWP), a theatre-based prison workshop, had to pivot at the height of the pandemic to provide correspondence courses to its incarcerated participants.
“The Circle” (a video) and “Still Here” (an audio piece) were created from the coursework of the incarcerated. Allen Burnett and Louie Brash, both formerly incarcerated and members of TWP’s Project Re/Frame ensemble, performed in “Circle.”
The video and audio projects were later played on the prison’s institutional channel.
“I was turning the channels and I heard some familiar words … my own words being spoken so eloquently and with so much passion,” said incarcerated person Donnell Campbell. “One of my freed brothers speaking my words. I felt like I was right there with him. Free, watching him speak. I was free in that moment.”
“The Circle” blends spoken word and movement to create a lyrical filmic collage, producer Susan Tanner, of TWP, told SQNews. The film was co-directed by Marlene McCurtis and Alexa Kershner, TWP teaching artists. The movie was selected for the Social Justice Film Festival.
“I’d had the pleasure of meeting them (Burnett and Brash in LAC); unfortunately those acquaintances were attached with Life and Life Without sentences,” said incarcerated person DeRon Perrin. “God blessed Louie and Allen with the opportunity to earn their release dates. Seeing them both perform in ‘The Circle’ was uplifting — not only was my words spoken but other gentlemen’s words as well.
“My spirit had awoken, I felt as if I was in that field and that structural building. I appreciate every single person who was involved,” added Perrin.
The TWP program has impacted the lives of those both inside and out.
“Working with TheatreWorkers Project while incarcerated was transformative,” said Burnett. “It provided me with a platform where I was able to express myself artistically that was both healthy and healing. Now having the opportunity to work with this amazing organization since my release is equally rewarding.
“It allows me to continue to practice rehabilitation and living amends while representing and supporting my brothers and sisters who are still incarcerated,” Burnett added.
Inside/Out, a chapbook, was also produced from the correspondence course. It featured visual arts along with the participants’ writing. The paintings were done by incarcerated members from the Prison Arts Collectives LAC program.
Quentin Blue, a former San Quentin band, wrote and performed music for some of the projects. The group consists of Billy Harwood, Dwight Krizman and Richie Morris, all paroled from San Quentin.
“I had the great pleasure of working with the TWP on three projects: The Circle, Rituals, and Still Here,” said Harwood. “Susie Tanner brought these projects to The Francisco Homes and gave so many men, just re-entering society, the opportunity to freely express themselves and to experience a sense of acceptance and validation that we hadn’t had before.
“The experience reaffirmed my belief in myself and through that I knew I was going to be able to make it, that I would succeed on parole,” Harwood added.
The workshops with The Francisco Homes were done via Zoom to have socially distanced still photo sessions and to produce virtual performance collections for 150 Days and Rituals. The Circle was selected for the Social Justice Film Festival, as a part of the festival’s Opening Night: Prisoner Justice and the Art of Social Justice presentation.
TWP is now back going into Lancaster prison. They host workshops and have started a collaboration with Project Rebound
“TheatreWorkers Project is a blessing. It gives voice to our muted incarcerated community and reminds the public that there are beautiful human beings behind our prison walls who are worthy of redemption,” Burnett concluded.