Theatre in prison

Mass every sunday, but culture only once in a blue moon

Plea for equality of gods and muses, at least in terms of their function as IAT (Imperial Arrest Turnkeys).

by Tina Leisch

When a person is lying on the ground in a sorry state, the time has come for priests. Protestant pastors, Catholic priests, Evangelical parsons, Jehova’s Witness preachers, and Muslim Imams go to the prisons to catch souls, like a fisherman heads for the seas.

For many prisoners they are welcome visitors. After all, they are commonly the only conversation partners who are not members of the prisoner subculture or obliged to the incarcerating institution. Usually one can at least speak openly with the priest about things that can’t be shared with social workers, psychiatrists, or therapists—and also not with fellow prisoners. Although the leitmotif of today’s justice is re-socialization and therapy rather than revenge and punishment, therapists and social workers are still part of the prison machinery. What one entrusts to them becomes an argument for or against reducing one’s sentence or early release. To this extent, many prisoners are extremely interested in painting an advantageous picture of themselves in their eyes. (Naturally, there are exceptions: people who refuse to simulate re-socialization and at the price of paying the full punishment do not conceal from the institution their chosen occupation as criminal.)

Prisoner subculture, on the other hand, often has very rigid rules for assigning or denying status. There, too, it is often necessary to be careful with confessions to avoid dropping down the rungs of the hierarchy.

The question is, however, why does a secular state reserve the turnkey function exclusively for the gods, and not let the muses in? Why are voluntary helpers naturally allowed to visit prisoners in the name of God, Allah, or Jehovah and hold discussion groups, prayer nights, or confession, but those who want to do the same in the name of Melete (contemplation), Clio (history), Melpomene (tragedy), Terpsichore (dance, light entertainment), Thalia (comedy), Euterpe (flute and song), Erato (love poems), Urania (astronomy and astrology), Polyhymnia (sacred poetry and pantomime), or Calliope (philosophy) often bang their heads against a brick wall.

Prisoners in Austria have the right to one cultural event each quarter. The prison guards who are responsible for supervising leisure time pick something—often according to their own tastes. Cultural projects by artists with prisoners are only possible in a few institutes in which progressive directors appreciate the potential of working with art. Only in extremely exceptional cases does the department of justice pay the artists.

Meanwhile, cultural work has gained in importance as many people are sitting in prison because the culture or subculture that they belong to follows different rules than those valid in the mainstream culture that makes the laws. In order to recognize the mutually contradictory rules of the various societies in this dilemma of identification and loyalty, one has to be able, at least, to keep them at an arm’s length: which is very difficult in the mandatory tight-knit prison community.

Theater provides some freedom to playfully try out conflict situations and behavioral patterns in an enjoyable way without being thrust into the often narcissistically grievous therapy situation of reflection about one’s own life=failure. In this respect, I advocate immediately handing the muses the keys to the Austrian prisons. Those who want to work with the prisoners in their name can, of course, do so. Should prisoners request courses in writing love poems, workshops for story writing, or dance theater, then such wishes should be fulfilled just as readily as the request for confession or holy communion.


From the play “Medea bloß zum Trotz” by Alma Hadzibeganovic and Tina Leisch based on prisoners’ improvisations

Medea (playing the judge): Jason of Jolkos, charged with high treason.

Jason: I am innocent. I am nothing but a little tree that the dogs of fate lift their legs and piss on.

Medea (playing the judge): Didn’t you give her the choice: accessory to theft or no more love?

Jason: I’m just a man.

Prosecutor: Didn’t you incapacitate her with a targeted shot of brilliant romance?

Jason: She was begging for it.

Prosecutor: If you hadn’t of stolen that fleece, you could have had a happy life.

Jason: The conditional is not one of my strong points.

Medea (playing the judge): May I reproach you with the following sentence: “As long as you two stay together, no one can have anything on you, regardless of what you do.” Does that ring a bell?

Jason: I heard it, I think, in a Brazilian soap at some point.

Prosecutor: The trial has concluded that Jason of Jolkos deliberately and freely incited Medea to the burning of history. He made a bowl of her cultural manor for his greedy hellhounds. He used them for years as false teeth to eat wild meat, and then he forgot about this magnificent Mrs. Stanley knife for a gold engraved coffee spoon from Girlie. I recommend capital punishment. No extenuating circumstances.

Jason: She wanted it all like that. I am not guilty.

Medea (playing the judge): In the name of revenge, Jason of Jolkos is found guilty of breaking hearts, of leading a sham existence, of high treason, of marriage betrayal, of brainwashing children, of breaking souls, of counterfeiting memory, of selling out dignity, of scrupulously stealing the future. He is sentenced to lifelong banishment in the realm of joylessness: A fate worse than death.