Prison reform projects have been a hot button social and political issue for a number of years– with good reason. Currently, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. According to a recent study by the Prison Policy Initiative, today, over a million individuals are imprisoned in state prisons, followed by 615,000 individuals who are currently held in local jails–the majority of whom have not been convicted of a crime yet. For folks interested in progressive alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system, these statistics can feel like an insurmountable wall. But a recent cadre of Lehigh University students and local activists have found hope in an unlikely place–theatre. Graduate Student Kalyani Singh and her team (including faculty advisors Dr. Karen Pooley, Bill Whitney, and Holona Ochs) are working on a Mountaintop Project (a university-funded grant) to explore how theatre can help prisoners to share their narratives, in order to to advocate for criminal justice reform. I recently had the chance to learn more about their project, “Beyond Bars,” and Singh’s hopes for the future.
Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno (SH): How did you first get involved with “Beyond Bars”? What interested you in the project?
Kalyani Singh (KS): Henry Fisher (Lehigh University class of 2019) and I began developing this Mountaintop project idea in December 2017. We knew we wanted to tackle the problems of the criminal justice system, particularly barriers to re-entry for formerly incarcerated people. As we considered possible creative pathways for our advocacy goals, it dawned on me that, while I have been preaching about the method of theatre as a vehicle for social change for a long time, we’ve finally been presented with a great opportunity to engage with this method. My background is in Theatre and Political Science, so the idea to create a social justice theatre piece on criminal justice reform became the most natural creative pathway to achieve our goals to affect social change.
SH: What does your role involve?
KS: Our academic background and experience has informed us about the detriments of the criminal justice system, however, we have done fieldwork in the Lehigh Valley to learn how communities are affected by issues related to criminal justice by attending community forums. On the theatre side, we both have researched social justice theatre artists and methods from around the world. From the interviews that we conduct, we both are writing the piece as well as designing the production, from staging and directing to dramaturgy.
SH: You mentioned that you would be conducting a series of interviews with currently incarcerated folks and story-gathering. Can you tell me more about this process?
KS: Through the community forums we’ve attended, contacts from previous work experience, as well as secondary media found online, we’ve found people who are indirectly or directly impacted by the criminal justice system, who have been willing to become a part of this piece by telling us their story. Most of the testimonies have been collected through in-person interviews, some have been phone interviews, and a few other sources have permitted us to use their testimonies or conversations that were published on documentary or advocacy sites. Working with currently incarcerated people will come from our creative writing program at Northampton County Prison, which will last for 8 weeks over the summer. Gathering their stories will be extremely valuable to the piece in the long-run, as the piece will continue to evolve beyond the August 24th performance.
SK: How have your interviewees reacted to the project so far?
KS: They have been very enthusiastic and generous with their time to tell us about themselves and the impact the criminal justice system has had on their lives. Knowing that we believe that their story has value and potential to make a social change through theatre, they have been very open with us and simply tell their personal story, which is what we essentially want from them.
SH: What have you learned in the process?
KS: We didn’t know this for sure going into the process, but it soon became true for us that the stories we’ve been able to collect aren’t entirely unique in experience to solely those individuals. The point of creating and producing this piece in the documentary theatre format is that these personal stories point to deeply system and pervasive experiences across the country. One challenge is that our source material is still somewhat limited geographically and demographically, so we are trying our best to include as many diverse and crucial voices in the pieces given our tight time frame. Another fascinating thing we’ve witnessed is that people we’ve interviewed that come from all different backgrounds and experiences have come to a number of the same conclusions about the importance of community and societal expectations and flaws. This has really informed how our piece is written and structured.
SH: What is the ultimate goal that you hope this project will work toward?
KS: After the performance on August 24th, we hope to develop the piece more throughout the fall and work towards a more designed production if the piece is ready for it. We have possible dates in the fall when we could put this on in partnership with social activist theatre groups, like Basement Poetry. But we ultimately want to spend a considerate amount of time broadening our vision of what this piece can really become with the help and guidance of theatre artists that have been creating this type of work much longer than we have.
SH: When can we expect to see a production?
KS: We are doing a reading of the piece with the Allentown Public Theatre as part of their Voices of Conscience art series. The performance will take place on August 24th at 7pm in St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Allentown.
SH: Finally, what would you like people to take away from the performance?
KS: We want our audiences to find themselves asking fundamental questions, like what they think should be the goal of the criminal justice system and how we can better empathize with people impacted by the criminal justice system, because it does essentially affect us all in some way. As this piece evolves, it might be a good springboard towards educating more people about how to implement restorative practices in their schools and communities. The piece will hopefully spark people to contemplate the significance of our experience of “freedom,” especially if we have not been in a situation where our freedom has been stripped away in the most basic and often overlooked sense. Our goal for the piece is to get people to think about how they can be a part of the solution in response to systemic issues of inequality. And once they start changing their own behavior and perceptions, then we are in a better place to start answering, “What can I do to help change the system?”