"When we are on stage, we feel free.
We forget we are in prison."
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — After finishing a performance, actor Edson Sodré takes questions from his audience. Following each answer, he anxiously asks, “What time is it?” Someone from the crowd, squeezed into a small amphitheater, responds quickly. The presentation is unique and exclusive.
The crowd is on edge. They laugh, get silent and cry as the 54-year-old man tells his story and continues to keep a close eye on time. The tension continues minute after minute until finally, 8:30 pm. has arrived. At this time, Sodré leaves promptly with much applause. He has a strict curfew in which he must return to prison.
“I was just thinking about escaping. I began to attend theater classes because it was the only way I could be in that space. The idea was to dig a tunnel under the stage and try to escape through the sewage system.”
The prison released him to participate in the second International Theatre, Incarceration and Community Practice workshop. He performs for a group of students from the University of Michigan, who are in Brazil on a theater exchange program for three weeks, and from federal university of Rio de Janeiro UNIRIO.
The incarcerated actor says he joined the UNIRIO extension project “Teatro na Prisão” in 1997, but at that time, he didn’t want to learn how to act or write plays. “I was just thinking about escaping. I began to attend theater classes because it was the only way I could be in that space. The idea was to dig a tunnel under the stage and try to escape through the sewage system,” he said.
It didn’t work. The security found out about the digging, and since he was one of the suspects, he started to be watched closely. The following year, Sodré still managed to dig in another area, away from the theater site, and began his attempt to escape. “I crawled for a long way, in that dirty sewage water. It was all dark. Suddenly, I put a hand on something strange; it was a skull. Shortly after, I was caught.”
It was the end of his obsession with escaping. He then dove into the arts. He began to act, to read, to write and to paint. “I created a bubble to live in. This was the only way I could survive and keep my sanity inside prison,” he said. In 18 years of confinement, he wrote five plays and about a 100 poems, and created a dozen oil paintings.
For the fourth straight year, U-M professor Ashley Lucas, director of the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) and UNIRIO’s partner, brought U-M students to Brazil to be participant observers in the theater work not just in prisons but also in underprivileged neighborhoods and hospitals. They learn about what theater can accomplish beyond entertainment in non-traditional settings and why people engage in performance practices in these challenging contexts.
“There is a moment in which all students realize they also could be in prison, because we are all human beings and we can make mistakes.”
“Arts and performing are strong tools for social change. Theater allows us to come up with new ideas, produce new stories in a safe and protective way. We are exposed without being in danger,” she said.
The benefits of the acting are not limited to those who are locked up. For UNIRIO professor Natália Fiche, who coordinates the project Teatro na Prisão, no student — confined or free — leaves the program the way they come into it. The professional and personal growth are astonishing.
“This program opens space to reflection, it makes you think. There is a moment in which all students realize they also could be in prison, because we are all human beings and we can make mistakes,” Fiche said. “From then on, they are able to see the world within a new perspective, they mature and learn a new way of facing life.”
For the inmate artist Sodré, acting means freedom. “When we are on stage, we feel free. We forget we are in prison,” he said.
Silenced voice and empathy
The arts workshops at U-M and UNIRIO aim to give back the inmates’ individuality and oppressed voices, at least during the activities, explains Leia Squillace, a student from U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. A PCAP member, she traveled to Rio to learn more about the playwright Augusto Boal, who created techniques to use theater as a tool to promote social and political change through dialogue, the Theatre of the Oppressed.
“In prison, you lose your individuality, you become just a number and have few opportunities to express yourself,” Squillace said. “Art then creates an ideal space for these people, where they can speak and mostly importantly, be heard. It is a perfect way to develop empathy on both sides.”
Moments at the Prison
Art is good for health
Accustomed to the classical music universe, U-M student Tsukumo Niwa, who also traveled to Brazil, got out of her comfort zone at the Federal Hospital da Lagoa. Even though she usually doesn’t improvise or walk around with the oboe, the instrument in which she is majoring, she surrendered to Brazilian singer Tim Maia’s song “Chocolate,” and joined the Brazilian artists playing music for ill people through hallways and waiting rooms of the hospital.
“I am glad that I was able to challenge myself artistically with a group of talented and supportive musicians from UNIRIO. The rewards I got from it: smiles, cheers, and appreciation definitely made my day,” she said.
The applause came from hundreds of patients awaiting for medical attention or receiving chemotherapy. Each hospital corner was turned into a stage.
“I am glad that I was able to challenge myself artistically… The rewards I got from it: smiles, cheers, and appreciation definitely made my day.”
“At first, I wasn’t sure if our presence was helping or hurting them until their sobs turned into cries of joy,” said Michigan alumni Layla Sareini. “I couldn’t believe how strong of an impact I can have on people just by doing something that I do everyday–singing and dancing.”
The performances help people forget the reason they are there, said Miguel Vellinho, another PCAP partner in the extension project Hospital Scenic Universe. “It is the power of artistic activism,” he said. “Inside the hospital, art is a tool to promote social justice and improve the lives of people.”
Every week, Eliete Barcelos brings her 36-year-old daughter to the hospital for lupus treatment. “Not everything is lost. Hope and joy fill our hearts with this presentation,” she said. “At the hospital, where there is so much suffering, this energy is contagious. It brings us relief and comfort.”
Moments at the Hospital
Meanwhile, in the Favelas
Outside of a traditional and sophisticated space, the Teatro em Comunidade program is another arm of the partnership with U-M professor Ashley Lucas. It also aims to change lives and open up a safe space for dialogue about the reality of the 130,000 residents of the Complexo da Maré, where many people live in poverty. Within 16 neighborhoods, the residents confront prejudice and violence.
The program, divided into three sections, was created five years ago and has about 70 participants from the community. “The difference of our work is continuity. We came to stay and we are engaged in training these young people,” said program coordinator Marina Henriques Coutinho. “We want to contribute to the critical mass in education. We want to bring up people capable of having autonomy and who can rein in their own lives.”
Coutinho still believes there is a gap of opportunity between privileged young people and those who live in the favelas. “In a way, we are changing this dynamic, causing movement, provoking dialogue to this uneven space.”
“All I know and all I am is directly linked to my theatrical training. From the beginning, I grabbed that opportunity.”
One of these changes and the program’s pride is Wallace Lino, a resident of the favela, Nova Holanda. He is a theater student at UNIRIO and one of the actors of the Cia Marginal–a professional theater group that consists of actors entirely from favelas.
“All I know and all I am is directly linked to my theatrical training. From the beginning, I grabbed that opportunity. What urged me was not only being there. I wanted to learn to be the best and get the most of me,” he said. “I’ve always been persistent. I wanted the most performance I could get.”
In 2015, Lino came to Ann Arbor to participate in the exchange program with the PCAP students. The opportunity of interacting with American students and learning theater methodologies improved his acting and teaching abilities. “This experience led me to reflect, rethink and have new desires.”
Moments in the Favela
Energy, Power and Desire to Live
Four hours stuck in traffic in Rio on a rainy morning didn’t spoil Jacyra da Conceição’s excitement and joy to go to theater class. Wearing sunglasses, a shining gold necklace, and dressed up in a fancy outfit, the 81-year-old woman steals the show, dancing and singing with the U-M students. She is part of the Renascer Theatre workshop, which consists of a senior cast age 60 or older. The intergenerational project allows the elderly and young students to exchange life experiences.
“It doesn’t matter how difficult it is to get here. I always attend the classes because we share a mother-daughter love. They give me a lot of affection and attention,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “Week after week, I get here happy and go back home even happier, counting the days for the next meeting.”
“Week after week, I get here happy and I go back home even happier.”
This enthusiasm also reaches the project coordinator, professor Carmela Soares. “It has been 10 years that I worked with this group. It is an amazing double-sided learning experience,” Soares said.
A recap on PCAP
The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) is a year-round program that brings the University of Michigan community and those impacted by the justice system into creative collaboration for mutual learning and growth. It links pedagogy with practice by training undergraduate students to facilitate weekly arts workshops in adult prisons, youth detention and treatment centers, and prisoner re-entry programs.
Facilitator teams open creative spaces in institutions where they do not exist and enter equally with the other participants, bringing—as they do—their individual energies and skills. Through individual and group activities, honest discussion, and hard work, each workshop creates original art in the form of plays, writing, dance, music, and visual art that is ultimately shared with others through performances and/or exhibitions.
Founded by Buzz Alexander in 1990, and directed by professor Ashley Lucas since 2013, the program currently sends about 100 students and volunteers a week into prisons and youth centers to facilitate workshops. PCAP has hosted its Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners on the U-M campus for 26 years, and it has published the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing for eight years.
More information, go to: lsa.umich.edu/pcap
This program and trip was co-sponsored by:
Brazil Initiative; The Center for Global and Intercultural Study in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; Department of Theatre & Drama, School of Music, Theatre & Dance; and the Residential College