‘It has to be witnessed’: Auburn inmates’ work to be performed at local theater

First published by Auburn Pub. See original piece here.

The audiences who see “Human Again” at Auburn Public Theater this weekend won’t just be witnessing theater’s power to transform — they’ll be part of the transformation themselves.

Performed by Cornell students and directed by theater professor Bruce Levitt, the show compiles work by the Auburn Correctional Facility inmates who make up the Phoenix Players Theatre Group, as well as video of them.

Levitt said the show isn’t story-driven, but instead a collage meant to introduce audiences to the Phoenix Players.

“I’d like the audience to consider how we think about people who are incarcerated,” Levitt said. “To try to challenge some of the stereotypes about them, and also to let them know that these are extremely bright and gifted people who write and create work that’s perceptive, entertaining, funny, moving and incisive.”

Soliloquies and scene work from three of the group’s pieces form the live portion of “Human Again.” The video comes from more than 70 hours of footage Levitt shot for a documentary about the group, which was founded in 2009 by Michael Rhynes and Clifton Williamson.

Rhynes believes that a prisoner’s agency in their transformation is the key to accomplishing it. (He doesn’t like the word “rehabilitation,” Levitt said.) That’s why the Phoenix Players write their own scripts from their own life experiences, and retain total autonomy over the process. That’s also why Levitt refers to his role with the group for the last five years as “facilitator.”

Theater, Levitt said, offers inmates like the Phoenix Players a transformative power above and beyond other forms of expression because it’s accessible, and not walled off to people without particular skillsets. It requires no tool or instrument but that of the writer or performer, he said.

However, writing and performing is only part of the transformation, he said.

“One of Michael’s major tenets about transformation is that it has to be witnessed,” Levitt said. “If not, it’s not complete.”

For that reason, the Phoenix Players have performed their work in front of audiences of 80 civilians at the prison every 18 months to two years. Inside Auburn Public Theater this weekend, though, the Phoenix Players could see their work witnessed by significantly larger audiences.

Levitt assembled “Human Again” with that outcome in mind, but made sure the group was in absolute agreement with his treatment of their work. He will also be recording a performance to show to them, he said.

“There’s a great story about these guys, who really are capable of tremendous humanity,” he said. “I think that’s reflected in the pieces they’ve written and the video people will see of them.”