Liberated by Art

July 22, 2014

Amanda Nagy

A singer, 2 guitarists, and a violinist.
Photo credit: John Seyfried

This week, the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival (OSTF) is extending its community outreach by traveling to Grafton Correctional Institution to present scenes from its production of William Shakespeare's romantic comedy As You Like It. The company will perform for inmates on Thursday, July 24.

Now in its sixth season, OSTF is a professional theater company featuring Equity and professional actors, as well as Oberlin College students and alumni. All shows are family friendly and free of charge. The festival is attracting a growing audience across northern Ohio. Paul Moser, the artistic director of OSTF and a professor of theater at Oberlin College, has spearheaded the performance at the minimum-security prison in the nearby town of Grafton, Ohio.

Oberlin faculty and students have forged connections with the prison in recent years. Phyllis Gorfain, professor emerita of English, leads a program called Oberlin Drama at Grafton. Earlier this year, Gorfain directed 18 inmates in a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with the help of five Oberlin students. A teacher of Shakespearean and early drama for 37 years, Gorfain began reading Shakespeare and teaching workshops for the prison about eight years ago. She launched the drama program in 2012.

In addition to the Oberlin Drama at Grafton program, which is sponsored by Office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the English department, and the theater program, many Oberlin faculty are involved in various ways.

In 2012, Associate Professor of African American studies Pam Brooks led an educational exchange in which Oberlin students helped teach a seminar on the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X.

Associate Professor of Theater Matthew Wright has sponsored students’ private readings in Theater for Social Change and Prison Theater. Faculty members Caroline Jackson-Smith and Justin Emeka have taught master classes in acting at the prison, while Associate English Professor Gillian Johns has given two master classes on the works of playwright August Wilson. Gorfain says six students plan to volunteer with her in fall 2014.

Last summer, three OSTF actors came to the prison to perform scenes from Twelfth Night. This year, Moser, who has previously guest directed at Grafton, will take eight actors to perform in the prison’s Reintegration Center. There, they will bring to life the fabled Forest of Arden. The plot follows several young characters exiled from the harsh court world who discover the charms of the country. All of the characters eventually find true love, but only after disguises and confusion lead to mismatched infatuations and surprise attractions, ending in the inevitable celebration of at least four marriages at the play's close.

“As OSTF brings As You Like It to the prison, they are profoundly extending their mission to offer quality theater to all of Northeast Ohio,” says Gorfain. “Their dedication to the power of theater to transform lives is a belief they act on powerfully. The general population at the Grafton Reintegration Center has been very inspired by these performances, and more than once I have heard someone say, ‘During the performance, I was not in prison.’ In fact, that has become the stated goal of the men who perform theater in the Oberlin Drama at Grafton program. They have pledged that when they perform, every member of the audience will forget they are in prison and will be liberated by art.”

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