For over 25 years, prisoners at Volterra Prison in Italy have been performing elaborate, ruffled, high heeled performances of classic theater. The Compagnia della Fortezza, under the directorship of Armando Punzo is now stuff of legend in Italy. Shakespeare, Brecht, Virgil as well as the work of national playwrights have been acted out inside the walls but in front of attending publics. The company has had some coverage outside of Italy, but not nearly enough according to filmmaker Inaya Graciana Yusuf.

She and her crew observed, documented and lived this past season at Volterra Prison. It was a transformative experience. “We became part of something intensively rewarding and beautiful. We forged new friendships, bonded and engaged in each other’s stories,” says Yusuf.

Now back on home soil, Yusuf wants to share the atmosphere of positive change, unexpected growth and group achievement through a documentary film named The One & The Many which follows the fortunes, preparations and final performance of a prisoner theater troupe as they deliver a Jean Genet work.

“The film will explore how deeply impactful theatre and arts programs can be forprisoners,” says Yusuf.

Yusuf looks forward to returning to Compagnia della Fortezza but her ability to do so depends on our help. Today, Yusuf and her production crew launched a Kickstarter to raise monies for the second round of filming (they spent the month of July in Volterra) and post-production, media management, editing, graphics, so on and so forth. I wish them luck. Prison theatre intrigues me. Without exception, prison theater productions deliver a different type of image — of course, that has a lot to do with the costume and the make up, but I think that the act of the act allows prisoners to explore new parts of personality. A good photograph can capture that even though masks and thick mascara.

I wanted to delve deeper and find out exactly what prison theater is and how it does what it does. Scroll down for a Q&A with Yusuf.



Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Both yourself and the prisoners express great repeats for the director Armando. Can you describe briefly why his methods are so admirable and what aspects of his approach other prison theatre coordinators could learn from?

Inaya Graciana Yusuf (IGF): Armando is a progressive and stimulating individual. His mind is always going and in turn, his process is always evolving. He pushes boundaries and brings out something in you that you would otherwise never realize on your own. He essentially sees each individual as the person they are and not as a prisoner. Through encouragement he is able to bring out their best even humors them into embracing their flaws. Armando creates a balance.

I have learned about camaraderie and friendship through this tight-knit community. Everyone treats each other as equals, helping each other move forward with Armando’s guidance. I was able to understand that individual performances make up for the group’s performance collectively.

Armando always practices an open door policy. He welcomes opinions, criticism and direction because at an essential level, he is always inspired. Being able to supervise and influence, but equally empathetic and open minded are important abilities of leadership. So many other people facilitate programs and end up distancing themselves from developing human connection.



PP: What is particular about drama and theater that makes it good for rehabilitation?

IGF: Theatre is a reflection of society. It is an inevitable reciprocity. It enables the mood of a certain [prison] community and mirrors different facets of life.

What significantly appealing about theatre is that it allows us to critically process civil life and the drama of the everyday. I think this goes back into the idea of dramaturgy and the role it plays in our personal and professional development. I have always been a fan of Erving Goffman, and I apply his theories into analyzing this idea of the multiple-self facilitated by the aspect of performance. Essentially we are all performers and what theatre can bring into rehabilitation programs is helping people understand how to utilize and integrate it with certain situations. Theatre provides us with wisdom, be it cultural, political or satirical of any kind. I think its perfect because you get to work on your social and presentation skills based on the role that eventually falls on your lap.

What theatre can do more than any other form is shift attitudes, articulate discontent and reflect the environment you are surrounded by.



PP: What sort of productions and scripts really resonate with prison population best? What characters do prisoners enjoy playing the most? And why?

IGF: Armando always reminds everyone “It is not you who choose theatre, it is theatre that chooses you.” It is in a way, true. You can choose as many texts as you possibly want but eventually, there is only a few that will resonate and stick to you. The prisoner-actors actually mentioned this to me on numerous occasions. They enjoy the texts to which they are exposed to because they provide them with challenges to overcome. It is always about how does it relate to them personally and how can they express it. A few prisoners really connected with Mercuzio Non Deve Morrire and Hamlice a couple of years ago.

The texts they perform are all experimental, written and directed by Armando himself. He adapts them from existing classical and/or modern plays. I think this gives room for interpretation and personalization for all participating actors, which makes it more enticing and powerful upon completion. The method is that of psychodrama — it heavily relies on creativity, participation and spontaneity. The final performance is more or less personal and experiential for each audience that attends.



PP: Have you seen the documentary 12 Angry Lebanese?

IGF: I have.

PP: It’s about a production of 12 Angry Men in a Lebanese prison. Overall, the show is a great success and actually brings about legislative change, but throughout the preparations, there’s stern words, positive reinforcement, mutual growth but also a main actor who drops out last minute — it was no smooth ride. How were the workshops, education and rehearsals for Santo Genet?

IGF: The rehearsals and education for Santo Genet were ongoing and they were trial and error.

More than anything, it is about knowing what is doable in a limited time. I have spoken to both Armando and the participants about this. Everything that is on the “idea book” will be tried and tested, what matters is, accepting that it has been tried and done. Everything is discussed openly in front of everyone. New ideas and interpretations will come up and old ones will die down. It is a cycle and more importantly it is a creative journey. I think what is crucial to understand that experimental theatre is based on spontaneity and improvisation.

Santo Genet is a great example of collaboration and teamwork. Armando, along with his collaborators, work extremely hard in putting together his vision. The prisoner-actors rehearse every day, either with each other or on their own, with or without supervision.

It is interesting that you say, “It was no smooth ride.” When is anything in such programs ever a smooth ride? Armando always works through the different challenges he faces daily, and it gives rise to some incredible outcomes. What Santo Genet rehearsals taught me is to always be ready for the unexpected. It may hit you from any direction, but it doesn’t mean that there is no solution.


PP: There are several prison theater projects like the one you feature. Can you name some in the U.S. that you admire and/or have heard positive things about?

IGF: Yes, locally, I admire the work of Rehabilitation for The Arts, they are facilitators for art based programs inside Sing Sing prison here in New York. They do great work. I would recommend people with teaching experience to seek them out and work with them.

Other programs that have been inspiring to me is Prison Performing Arts in Missouri run by Agnes Wilcox, The Prison Arts Coalition run by Buzz Alexander in Michigan, and of course Shakespeare Behind Bars. Each of them has something unique to bring to the table, especially in terms of approach and programming.

PP: A silly question, perhaps not, but my readers would be interested. How do the prisoners feel about wearing eyeliner?

IGF: This is a very funny question and I am glad you asked.

The majority of the men enjoy dressing up, performing and using makeup. They are playful and many take pleasure in seeing transformation. I remember one prisoner asking me if I could do his makeup because he saw me with eyeliner. I explained that makeup was not my forte! These men are adept and capable of any adventure.

PP: Thanks Inaya

IGF: Thank you, Pete.