The Collaborators

The members of Phoenix Players Theatre Group and its facilitators see the work of the group as a publicly engaged project.  Students from Cornell University and Ithaca College have observed the work of the group, participated in the creation and performances of PPTG presentations and served as crew for the filming of a documentary about PPTG.  Those former students listed here are considered members of PPTG and have contributed to the group’s desire to be “witnessed.”

Student Collaborators

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Blaize Emily Hall

Blaize Emily Hall is a recent grad of Ithaca College. ...

She currently resides in Manhattan where she is pursuing a career in acting. From Vermont, she misses the mountains and gorges of Ithaca but loves the city so far, wants to do more volunteer theater, encourages everyone to see a PPTG performance. "Working with PPTG was quite possibly the highlight of my college career. These men are so talented, inspired, warm-hearted, and caring. I never felt like I was in a prison when we were all rehearsing together. They pushed me to grow and dig deep to learn about myself, something I was not expecting. They offered me one of the safest places I’ve found to explore as an actress and as a person. I consider each of them a dear friend and love that we keep in touch! I fully believe in the mission and the people of PPTG and only hope more will soon see the redemptive power of this group."

 
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Christian Kelly

Christian Kelly is a 2016 graduate of Cornell University where he majored in Performing & Media Arts. ...

He currently lives in Los Angles, California where he is pursuing a career in professional acting. Christian got involved with the work of PPTG as an actor in Human Again, the Bruce Levitt directed compilation of pieces written by the Phoenix Players. Unlike some of the other collaborators who had worked directly with the men of PPTG, Christian’s first exposure to the men was through their work. Christian maintains that the opportunity to perform the men’s work has been critical to developing empathy for the men wo are incarcerated. It is Christian’s hope that PPTG continues to grow and that the men have more opportunities to share their work and art beyond the walls of Auburn Correctional Facility.

 
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Danielle Frimer

Danielle Frimer recently completed her Master’s in Fine Arts at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, ...

where she recently played Nell in Indian Ink, Annabelle in A Christmas Carol, Teresa in Napoli and understudied Shaina Taub in Old Hats with Bill Irwin and David Shiner on the mainstage. Favorite ACT conservatory credits include Ophelia in Hamlet, Victoria/Boy Edward in Cloud Nine. Favorite regional credits include The Princess in Love’s Labour’s Lost (Post 5 Theater), Olivia in Twelfth Night (Portland Actors’ Ensemble), Fox on the Fairway (SRJC Summer Repertory Theatre), Stop the Virgens (St. Ann’s Warehouse, directed by Adam Rapp), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Julius Caesar (Shakespeare Santa Cruz). Frimer holds a B.A. from Yale University, where she was the recipient of the Branford Arts Prize. "My time with PPTG made a tremendous impact on me both personally and artistically. On an artistic level, it reacquainted me with the power of theater to enable one to express one’s truth, even when society or institutions are teaching one to hide. It firmed my belief in fighting to create art that is important, political, and transformative. On a personal level, I made some wonderful new friends, whose stories I will never forget, and whose voices I will continue to fight to make heard throughout my life. With the help of its fearless leader Bruce Levitt, PPTG has become a paragon of an arts program that makes light shine through the darkness of the oppressive prison system, and it should serve as a model throughout the country and the world."

 
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Elise Czuchna

Elise Czuchna is a Cornell University alumna. She began her work with the Phoenix Players Theatre Group in February of 2017...

and continued to collaborate with this incredible group until her graduation in May of 2018. She feels incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to join PPTG, and to have performed alongside the men of PPTG in The Strength Of Our Convictions: The Auburn Redemption. While Elise has performed in various shows at Cornell University, including The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek and Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, she considers The Strength of Our Convictions the best production of her entire college career. Elise’s next step is to attain a J.D. in order to pursue a career in human rights/civil rights law. She hopes to continue working with incarcerated peoples, and potentially focus her career on prison reform and issues of mass incarceration. Above all else, Elise wants to thank the men of PPTG for allowing her to witness them and their stories, as well as be witnessed herself. Her collaboration with the Phoenix Players Theatre Group has been the most rewarding and transformative experience of her life. Elise hopes that everyone who encounters PPTG will see how incredible this group is, and will recognize that these men deserve to be humanized and witnessed. Elise encourages everyone to see a PPTG show!

 
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Ezioma Asonye

Ezioma Asonye is a new alumna of Cornell University where she played herself in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised]...

and Olive Allison in The Women of Lockerbie at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. She also played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Ovalhouse Theater in London while studying abroad at the British American Drama Academy. In addition to acting, she also spends her time singing in church, dancing all over her house, and learning how to dismantle oppressive societal structures. Ezioma will be attending The New School for Drama to attain her Master of Fine Arts in Acting this August. She feels blessed to have been able to participate in this powerful production with such an amazingly talented group of lovely people.

 
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Ilana Gilovich

IIlana received her BA in English at Cornell University, and her MA in Literary Studies at Queen's University, Belfast. ...

She is currently pursuing her PhD in English/ Theatre at Columbia University, and performs in Punchdrunk's off-Broadway show Sleep No More. Ilana volunteered at the Mountain Lake Academy juvenile facility in 2010 through Alternative Spring Breaks, and was a 19th Century World Literature TA at Auburn with the Cornell Prison Education Program in 2011. She was fortunate enough to assist Bruce Levitt and return to Auburn in the spring of 2012 with PPTG. Ilana's experience with PPTG has profoundly shaped her academic and philanthropic interests, and she hopes to continue working with incarcerated populations after completing her doctorate. She is extremely grateful for the talent, emotional courage, and innovation of PPTG and its members. 

 
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Jeremy Flynn

Jeremy currently lives in San Francisco, California and continues to perform. ...

Past credits include: Berowne (Love’s Labors Lost), Rudge (The History Boys), Burrs (Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party), Javert (Les Miserables), and The Aida Benefit Concert at Cornell University – a night set up to raise awareness for African youth. Aside from his work for PPTG, Jeremy has also been a featured performer in Cornell University’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS and Soiree Cabaret, an original work directed by Professor Bruce Levitt

 
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Jesse turk

Jesse Turk '14 currently lives in Los Angeles where he works in television programming and directs for film, TV and theater. ...

Since working with PPTG, the impact of seeing how theater can actively change outlooks on marginalized people and communities as well as affect change within those who need it most, Jesse has taken that mission to heart in his professional work and looks to create projects that spark conversations and work to rethink difficult situations, especially in issues of mental health. 

 
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JOashua Mensah

Joshua Mensah currently attends Stanford Law School and has a B.A. in Government from Cornell. ...

At Cornell, Joshua has acted both in Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts and in the community. Joshua has also performed clarinet in a number of events on his campus. Joshua was exposed to PPTG through performing in Human Again, a Bruce Levitt directed presentation of PPTG’s work. Joshua feels honored to have had the opportunity to learn and communicate the message of men who are incarcerated. Even though he had not met the Phoenix Players before the performance, Human Again indeed humanized the creators behind the works for Joshua. Thanks to Human Again, Joshua has learned more about the need to address the human facet of solving social phenomena. Joshua prays that the men of PPTG continue to strive for “redemption” and that their supporters continue to spread PPTG’s message.

 
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Juliana KLiest Mendez

Currently living in New York City, Juliana works at a public charter school in Brooklyn. ...

Along with teaching 5th, 6th, and 7th grade reading, she is in charge of school Joy, where she plans events to increase student investment in learning. She hopes to continue her passion for theatre by directing in her spare time. In her daily life, she often thinks about the lesson she learned in PPTG: that respecting someone else’s humanity is the most basic thing we can do for one another, but is often the most difficult. Juliana worked with PPTG in the spring of 2011. Her favorite part of working with the group was the open and accepting space they actively worked (and continue)to create. She remembers feeling nervous that she would have nothing to share. But, when she received honest and supportive feedback after reciting her first work-in-progress, her nerves evaporated and she knew that this was truly a special group. Since their first performance, Juliana has seen the group evolve. They are continuously working to tirelessly hone their acting and writing craft. But, what has not changed is their dedication to making PPTG a place where all are welcome to simply exist as themselves.

 
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Mark DiStefano

Mark DiStefano first became involved with PPTG when his professor told him he worked with Shakespearean actors in a maximum security facility in upstate NY. ...

The privilege of knowing the members of PPTG and watching them perform has been life-changing for him. Mark served as primary editor for Human Again, the documentary feature about the group’s process and first members, produced by Bruce Levitt. Mark graduated summa cum laude from Cornell University in 2016 with a double major in English and Performing Media Arts. He is based in New York, NY where he makes a living working in feature films and television, while writing and directing his own projects. Being witness to PPTG’s message has taught him the importance of individual expression even in the most unreceptive of environments. The members of the group have set him off on his own path of self-discovery in his work and his life.

 
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Sam Morrison

Sam Morrison recently graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY with majors in Performing and Media Arts and Government. ...

He enjoys blurring the lines between the two disciplines, and exploring mediums through which art influences and shapes politics. Sam was assistant director to Bruce Levitt for Human Again, and has a sincere interest in supporting artistic programs for incarcerated people as well as reimagining our conception of crime and punishment in America. In addition to directing, Sam is an avid actor who was most recently seen as himself in the Schwartz Center’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). He worked for Ithaca based theatre troupe Civic Ensemble, and studied abroad in Uganda in the Fall of 2016.

 
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Sandra Oyeneyin

Sandra Oyeneyin is a graduate of Cornell University and volunteered with the Phoenix Players Theatre Group in the spring of 2014. ...

She first learned about the group through professor Bruce Levitt as part of her thesis research on prison theatre. While volunteering, Sandra participated in various skits and exercises with the men of PPTG and even performed with them during their spring show titled, “An Indeterminate Life.” Her favorite memory of her time at PPTG was when she played Leroy’s son, Nac'cir, in the pieces “Na’cir’s Google Search” and “A Step-Dad? No Way!” Sandra also performed her own piece, “Sister Sandra,” alongside Leroy, who played her younger brother, Samuel. PPTG not only taught her about the justice system, but also how the transformative power of art can be used to make a difference in people's lives. Having the opportunity to rehearse with, talk to, and perform with the men of PPTG was the highlight of her undergraduate career.  Post Cornell, Sandra has coordinated and produced a variety of shows with credits from National Geographic, Investigation Discovery, The History Channel, Fox, and The CW. Her ultimate goal is to create content with a message and specifically, to inspire the next generation to think about social issues. Sandra is extremely grateful to PPTG for allowing her to join the family and share her story. 

See a chapter from Sandra’s honor’s thesis on PPTG.

 

Film Collaborators

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Peter Carroll

Peter Carroll received his BA in motion picture production from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. ...

For over 38 years Peter has been producing educational and documentary films and videos for The Ford Foundation, National Geographic Society, The National Science Foundation, National PBS Television, Discovery Channel, Cornell University, and the Smithsonian Institute. In the last few years Peter has devoted much of his time to projects that promote issues of social justice. He is the official videographer of the Prison Theatre Class, creating the films seen on that page. Peter is currently collaborating with facilitator Bruce Levitt on a second documentary about the Phoenix Players.

 
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Andi Obarski

Andi Obarski is a cinematographer whose works includes short and feature length documentary and narrative films, music videos and commercials. ...

Andi is a graduate of Ithaca College and lives in New York City. "When I look back on my years at university, and how I’ve grown as a filmmaker and artist, it is hard to not recognize the insurmountable affect that this documentary has on me. Every Monday after class, I traveled with Bruce, Andy and fellow students to the Auburn State Penitentiary. I passed through the halls of a maximum-security prison; a place where ever since I was a child was told, “that’s where bad people go.” I will never forget the first time we walked across the courtyard on our way to the schoolhouse. Within seconds of stepping onto the asphalt, a roar of inmate’s voices sprang at us through the cold nighttime. We were introduced to the students and were allowed to shake their hand. Outside a guard stood watch. Over the ensuing months of filming, we came to know and listen to what these inmates, these men, where sharing through Shakespeare. Some were more open than others, some denied their crimes entirely, and some were victims of sheer bad luck and unfortunate timing. This place where “bad people go,” soon transformed into a moral quandary of sorts for myself and, as far as I can tell, my fellow filmmakers. We would leave the prison and rush across the street to the gas station, eager to buy snacks. Sometimes, I remember thinking that I wasn’t even that hungry, so why did I buy those bag of chips? I soon realized I bought them just because I could. We would talk about what the student’s said during the rehearsal, how they acted towards our questions, whether what they told us was genuine. How would we have acted if we were in their shoes? From a cinematography standpoint, I believe that this documentary helped me immensely as a shooter. I was able to sense what was important to capture and including the pathos of the students that could be found on and off the page. I was constantly scanning the classroom looking for tidbits and moments that no one else was capturing, which was quite a task because we were shooting with three DSLR’s simultaneously! I owe a lot of who I am as a filmmaker to my experience shooting this documentary. I met a group of incredible people, and I’m speaking of the inmates as well as my colleagues who collaborated on the production, who I will never forget."

 
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Andrew Inglin

Andrew is a graduate from the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. ...

Since graduating in 2012, he has moved to Los Angeles to continue to pursue is passion in Cinematography. He has worked for companies such National Geographic and Rolling Stone. "Working with PPTG was an incredible experience that I will always look back upon very fondly. It is incredibly humbling to see the work and dedication these men have towards self-transformation through theater. It also taught me the value of the freedom we have outside the prison walls; that the world is immense and that most people don’t appreciate it until they are confined."

 
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Andy Watts

Andy Watts directed the film unit for the documentary about the Phoenix Players that was filmed during rehearsals for Maximum Will. ...

He guided the video recording of that performance as well as the performance of An Indeterminate Life. He is a screenwriter and filmmaker based in upstate New York. His short films have won production grants from New Line Cinema and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, aired on HBO and Cinemax in The U.S. and Latin America as well as Japanese television, and were featured at numerous film festivals throughout the world. He has two feature length scripts under development, and a film he co-wrote, Crooked & Narrow, is currently in post-production for a fall release. Andy teaches both screenwriting and cinema production at Ithaca College.

 
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Jamie Lewis

"I became involved with PPTG through a documentary film class that I took 3 years ago. ...

Early on, I learned of an opportunity to work with Professor Bruce Levitt on a project about a theatre troop functioning in a nearby correctional facility. I was very curious to see how the men in PPTG were developing their craft in such a unique environment. Over the course of 5 months, we traveled to Auburn weekly to film the sessions and ultimately the final performance. While I was interacting with and getting to know the men, it became clear that the ultimate purpose of the group was less about craft and more about therapy. Acting gave the members of the group a new and powerful way to inwardly reflect on their individual circumstances. Furthermore, it offered a literal stage for the men to share the results of this reflection publicly. My ultimate take away from meeting and filming Kenny, Dee, Shane, Michael, and David over the course of 5 months, is that the power of self-reflection exists regardless of one’s personal circumstances."

 
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Joseph Triska

Joseph Triska is a filmmaker and software developer whose work centers around transformation of place, person and feeling. ...

On film, he enjoys working in documentary, as well as short narrative fiction, influenced by his experience in both computer science and theater. In software, he enjoys developing augmented and virtual reality focused applications emphasizing new ways of social and human-computer interaction. " I count the lucky time I spent with the people of PPTG (both participants and facilitators) as a defining time in my life. I entered Auburn Correctional Facility knowing very little of what to expect, although I had been assured that the inmates were good students, and dedicated to their craft. Great stone and iron walls on all four sides hardly put me at ease, and I hardly felt like I was in a place where magic could happen. Yet when I stepped into the small elementary school-esque classroom, I found something we sometimes forget sits inside places like this maximum security penitentiary: people. Not prisoners, poets, writers, or artists–although they were all of these things and more–but human beings. Human beings striving to transform themselves through theater, and in the process changing my perspective on myself, them, our prison system, and society as a whole. Before I get too far out, though, I’ll simply say that I truly enjoyed the conversations, theater games, happy moments, and sometimes painful moments with the people at PPTG, and would wish them many more curtain calls."

 
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Nathan Breton

Nathan is a film producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently works full time at a Manhattan-based advertising agency...

in their production department as an Associate Producer, managing and producing client-based film & digital projects from start to finish. On the side, he collaborates with friends on various projects ranging from short films to spec commercials while pursuing his long term goal of being a fiction director. Nathan enjoys playing piano, running, and vegetarian cooking. While a Junior at Ithaca College, Nathan’s acting teacher Judy Levitt began to talk in class about PPTG and the impact it was having on her. Later that semester, Nathan’s lighting professor Andy Watts approached him about making a documentary of PPTG. Having been intrigued from Judy’s accounts and wanting to experience it in person, Nathan worked in the documentary crew as the sound recordist and an interview camera operator. Then in the Spring 2014, he edited the short film documenting the group. Several months later in the summer under direction of Andy Watts, Nathan worked in Ithaca for the month of August editing the feature length version of the documentary. PPTG has deepened Nathan’s interest, understanding, and puzzlement of humanity’s approach to helping one another and itself. He is incredibly grateful for the time he spent with the members of PPTG and the stories they imparted during that time. He is honored by the opportunity to be involved in telling the stories of those whose voices are forgotten and never heard. He struggles with the knowledge he’s gained of the human condition in prisons, and hopes to continue making content that aids our society’s system of incarceration.