The magic of the theater - behind bars

The scene might have been from any play: a young woman, sitting still and upright under a spotlight that illuminates every strand of her long dark hair and the tears in her eyes.

prison theater 88 298 (photo credit: Ilana Teitelbaum)
prison theater 88 298
(photo credit: Ilana Teitelbaum)
The scene might have been from any play: a young woman, sitting still and upright under a spotlight that illuminates every strand of her long dark hair and the tears in her eyes. On a couch behind her, a lean man with graying hair and a hangdog expression sits in the shadows. She has just finished berating her absentee father. His monologue intertwines with hers, as he addresses his own daughter and speaks of the crimes he committed that kept him in jail and away from her. What makes this different from most plays is that one of the actors was not playing a fictional character - and the stage is a platform in a prison courtyard. Gidon, a middle-aged Tel Avivian, is an inmate of Givon Prison in Ramle - a jail for drug offenders and violent criminals - and he is playing himself. Seven times imprisoned and with a 28-year-old daughter whom he barely knows, Gidon's play is a reflection on his own life - and a relentless scrutiny of the choices that have put him behind bars year after year. Simultaneously, the play is also Tel Aviv University (TAU) student Dana Shifman's monologue portraying the daughter of a drug addict. As their monologues commingle, it becomes apparent that each is speaking words that carry profound resonance for the other. "I understand," Shifman says bitterly at one point in her monologue. "[Escapism] is part of your personality - it's how you deal with things." For a moment Gidon is silent, as if the words have dealt him a blow even though they were not addressed to him. Intensity and brutal honesty pervaded a series of performances held inside the prison late last month, the culmination of eight months of collaboration between 11 TAU theater students and 13 prison inmates. For three consecutive evenings, the prison courtyard was transformed into a theater, with platforms erected as stages - one for each play so that the audience rotated from one stage to another. The four plays, which were each about 20 minutes in length, were named for their respective themes: "Freedom," "Family," "Prisoners-Students" (about the relationship between the inmates and the students) and "Arabs-Jews." Behind spirals of barbed wire and looming watchtowers lay an incongruous gala atmosphere, where an equally incongruous combination of students and inmates mingled under the vigilant supervision of prison personnel. Before the performances began, a few of the participating inmates agreed to speak with Metro.With unexpected shyness, the inmates sat awkwardly in plastic chairs slightly apart from the bustling crowd. The three interviewees hail from diverse backgrounds: Hamoudi is an Arab from Jaljulya near Kfar Saba, Avraham is an Ethiopian from Lod and Gidon is a native Tel Avivian. Before the conversation commenced, Hamoudi said with a trace of swagger, "Let's turn on some Arab music," and hit the power button of a nearby stereo. The spiraling lilt of Arabic singing blended with the chattering of the surrounding crowd. Hamoudi, who is in his early 20s, described the process by which the inmates and students wrote the plays. The inmates who elected to participate - a handful out of the hundreds of prisoners in Givon - first shared the stories of their lives and the events that led to their incarceration. Hamoudi admitted that he was initially reluctant to participate, and that at first he and the other inmates derided the project. But over the course of eight months, scripts based on the inmates' life experiences, as well as candid dialogues between the inmates and students, took shape. "I realize now that there is a world outside that I never connected to, and that I wasn't free even when I was still on the outside," he said. Hamoudi starred in the play "Freedom" in the role of a king, representing these newly-formed ideas. "The king has everything but he still isn't free," he explained. "He is closed inside himself." The role is intended as a metaphor for Hamoudi himself, who maintains that opening up about his life and feelings has instilled in him a new sense of freedom. Equal collaboration is key in the process of developing the plays, explained Peter Harris, Head of Community & Educational Theater Studies in TAU's Theater Arts Department. "The [students'] experience is working with the community as peers - participating rather than instructing," elaborated Harris, who has been running this educational program as an experiential theater class in various jails in Israel for the past seven years. "The idea is for the students to become sensitized to a community that's very different from theirs, and the community at large." Gidon, who played himself in "Family," said, "Telling our life stories united us - afterwards we'd sit around during recesses and talk about many things." Gidon, whose own father was an addict, is serving his seventh prison term for drug-related crimes. "I hope it will be the last time," he said. In "Prisoners-Students," this concept is explored with unflinching candor. In the play, a female student stands only inches from an inmate and says bluntly into his face, "I'm afraid for you, because the statistics show that 70 percent of released prisoners go back to jail." The play "Arabs-Jews" is even more candid, as political correctness is stripped away to reveal the pure emotion underneath. On the one hand, a woman on a bus (played by student Nela Kretchman) tells the Arab inmate sitting next to her, "You seem nice, but my boyfriend fought against Arabs - and then there are the ones who killed my friend." The Arab inmate, whose name is Jabbar, responds, "I'm also afraid to get on a bus." The dialogue segues into a discussion of social issues, where the Arab inmates Jabbar and Sahil express dismay that the female students are actresses. "Where we come from, women don't behave that way," said Jabbar. The Arab inmates remain nonplussed at the students' declaration that women can have careers, insisting adamantly, "A woman's place is in the home." After the play, Kretchman told Metro, "I will never agree with the things they said, but the important thing is that we are all listening to each other." Yosef Magames, commander of Givon Prison and a prison official for 21 years, is of the opinion that the theater program has the potential to aid in the process of rehabilitation. Magames, who has a collection of pencils from all over the world in cans on his desk, explained, "Our goal is to get [the inmates] out into the world. Theater can be a link that connects them to the world." Magames observed that some of the inmates who participated in the program - who were once some of the most problematic in the prison - have altered their behavior in the course of the eight-month process. "We see it's made a change - they've started to show courtesy to one another." Harris concurs, saying, "Anyone who stuck with [the program] for eight months is already ahead of those who stay in their cells all day and do nothing - they have a determination to prove to themselves that they can change."