BRUCE LEVITT: Thank you all for coming today. This, next to my family, is my favorite subject to talk about.
You might wonder what a theater director is doing in engaged work. But if you think about it, directing a play is not dissimilar for engagement because, at least for me and my colleague David Feldshuh, who's here today, it's a collaborative process. We respect, cherish, honor all of the ideas and all of the collaborative efforts that go into creating a production from all of our colleagues-- actors, designers, technicians, et cetera. So it's not a stretch for me to be involved in this work which began here 30 years ago with the inaugural performances for the opening of what became the Short Center, an American festival. And you're going to hear from one of the creators of that later, my friend Dudley Cocke.
Now, the other thing about engagement that attracts me is that it's not a transactional relationship with the people with whom you're engaged. It's not a group of people or one manager telling other people what to do. And if they don't do it, they are punished. And if they do do it, they are rewarded. It doesn't come out of that corporate model at all. At the heart of engagement is the personal and professional relationships that form to promote common interests and goals.
The other thing that I like about engagement is that it expands the kind of research and learning that takes place at Cornell. And I must say that Cornell was one of the first major research universities to recognize that artistic pursuits were tenurable-- directing plays, writing books of poetry, painting, sculpture, writing music compositions, et cetera. We often conceive of the research in a major university as emanating from the lab or the library.
Engagement greatly expands upon the ways in which research is defined and disseminated. And finally, engagement is often the very definition of active learning because it gets the student out of the lab, the library, or the lecture into environments and pursuits of knowledge that are often beyond their comfort zones intellectually, emotionally, and experientially.
Now, the film clips I'm going to show you today while I introduce you to the work of the Phoenix Players was shot by five students, three of whom were from Ithaca College, and two of whom were from Cornell. And they spent six months, once a week, going into the prison with us and filming whatever happened under the tutelage of Andy Watts, my colleague and friend from Ithaca College.
So the other thing I want to tell you is that this was filmed while we were working on a show, a presentation of the Phoenix Players called Maximum Will. Michael Rhynes, who was the founder, said we've got to do Shakespeare. We've got to do Shakespeare. So all of the guys picked a lot of soliloquies or monologues from Shakespeare, which we worked on. We tutored them in acting and meaning. And then I suggested that they might want to write reflective pieces from their own lives based on the Shakespeare pieces in the play. So when you see some of the film clips, that's what they're working on.
Now, imagine if you will, that we are not in this place. But that we are about 45 minutes north of here standing in front of a fort-like structure, which houses 1,700 of our fellow citizens. This is part of the exterior of Auburn Correctional Facility, the oldest continually operating maximum security prison in the United States.
Now, I'd like you all to take a moment and close your eyes. Go ahead. Indulge me. It's OK. OK?
Now, what are you expecting? What do you see? What do you expect when you know, if I took you in here, that you were going to be walking with, through, around, about, and among violent criminals incarcerated? Everybody has some expectations. OK? Open your eyes, please. Thank you.
Most people imagine them as brutes or horrors or psychopaths. And that expectation comes from the cultural representation about prisoners. For the past six years, I have served as a facilitator for the Phoenix Players Theater Group, which was founded by two incarcerated men at Auburn Correctional Facility. It is a grassroots transformative organization, a collective founded in 2009 by Michael Rhynes and Clifton Williams. These are the five original members of the Phoenix Players Theater Group, or as we refer to them, the first generation.
The group uses theater techniques to create artistic and therapeutic space in which a transformative journey is initiated leading to personal and social redemption.
MICHAEL RHYNES: I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live onto the world. I cannot do it. Yet, I'll hammer it out.
BRUCE LEVITT: Now, Michael Rhynes, one of the two founders, has been incarcerated now for about 35 years. For Michael, rehabilitation is about other people having control over your life while transformation is about you taking your own life into your own hands. As Rhynes writes, we seek not to make every man in this prison a professional dramatist, but to reconnect us to society, our communities, and our families by learning through drama how to love, what it feels like to be compassionate, to forgive and be forgiven, to reach into the depths of our beings, and bring forth our humanity.
MICHAEL RHYNES: To be or not to be. That is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take up arms against a sea of trouble.
I never intended to really act. Right? You know, I just wanted to create a therapy program. In fact, if I can, I never know that I could. You know, and I was afraid to fail. You know I love what I'm doing, even though I'm in prison because I believe that if I can change the trajectory of one person's thought pattern, I may save a life on the street. So the only reason I've been at it for this long is because I enjoy what I'm doing.
People in high offices come up with these rehabilitation programs. And they never consult us. You know, because I feel that everybody else was told about rehabilitation and re-entry, but nobody every told us. So you got something coming in as a rehabilitation or a re-entry program, but they never tell the people on the ground. And it may be because we're wards of the state or whatever, and we shouldn't have no say so in how we're rehabilitated. And PPTG is about grasping the ring of rehabilitation and saying, hey, I can change.
BRUCE LEVITT: This concept of transformation works in two directions. It originates within the participants to repair and restore the aspects of their humanity fractured in incarceration. And at the same time, it works from without helping to alter public perceptions of the people reductively marked as criminal.
DAVID BENDEZU: I didn't know who I was. I just didn't know what to expect from life. What did I want from life. I didn't know nothing. I said to myself, all right, what do I want? I don't know what I want. I just went with the flow of whatever life course is going to take me. And whether it was a job [INAUDIBLE] whatever. I just went with it. I didn't have goals. I didn't plan, which was my fault.
But I wasn't that person. Like, how do I say this? Prison, like the sentence and everything, makes you feel like damn, you're a bad dude. You did some bad shit. I'm sorry.
But I was never that kid. I was never maliciously violent or bad or whatever. I just had my way, but I was normal, just made a mistake before prison. A bad decision, matter of fact. But I was just a normal kid trying to live in a rough neighborhood.
BRUCE LEVITT: Now, by allowing its incarcerated members the chance to use their bodies and emotions in ways that usually are not possible in prison, PPTG encourages them to stretch outside the paradoxically uncomfortable comfort zone of punitive incarceration and to reach their full potential as human beings, both in the eyes of non-incarcerated society and of the participants themselves.
KENNETH BROWN: I'm in jail for violent crime. I wanted to learn more about myself. So when I heard this, I approached Mike about being a member. And after about four or five small talks, he finally allowed me to get into this.
All the word's a stage. And all the men and women are merely players. The infant-- mewling and puking in the nurse's arms. And then the lover, sighing like a furnace--
So beautiful. So beautiful.
KENNETH BROWN: --With a woeful ballad made to his mistress' arms.
I haven't done no acting. And I was actually scared about the acting part. I've thought that the acting would be kind of like easy, but I find out it's not. But being yourself and just going through the program helps you out a lot with the acting [INAUDIBLE].
BRUCE LEVITT: For PPTG, transformation is a communal practice, a recurrent process one undertakes with others. PPTG's transformation comes from within. And is undertaken daily by all those members who wish to participate.
EFRAIM DIAZ: The hardest part of incarceration for me is waking up every morning and looking at the bars. The first thing in the morning my kids aren't there. My wife's not there. The alarm clock didn't go off. And if it did go off at home, you could shut it off, snooze it, sleep another half hour. These are the little things that I dislike the most. That's when reality really strikes you in the head.
Now, the consolidations of all my cries, pleadings, and sufferings rubber stamped and denied. Every meeting was supposed to be my last meeting. So all right, we have class tonight. I'm going to see what it is. And after this, I'm not going back.
But it was interesting enough for me to say the following week, this is going to be my last one. That's it. And I'm not going back. And it's going on, what, three years already.
SPEAKER 1: Is this your last class tonight?
EFRAIM DIAZ: Yes, it is. This is my last class right here.
BRUCE LEVITT: Michael Rhynes, when asked a question about the roots of crime said, if one digs deep, one will discover the underlying reason for most youth crime is some sort of pain.
MICHAEL S. HALE: For me to go PPTG is humanization. And so it is a lofty goal. Because I think with-- I don't know if you're familiar with like Pedagogy of the Oppressed?
SPEAKER 1: Really, no.
MICHAEL S. HALE: Paulo Freire I believe is his name. He talks a lot about this issue about people who are oppressed, and in particular the system. And that they become dehuamized. And that the people who are doing the dehumanixing maybe, whether they realize it or not, however they justify it, are not able to help people find their humanity. And so it's the people who are being oppressed who have to find their humanity and be able to express it in order to transform the system.
BRUCE LEVITT: In order for PPTG members to transcend past mistakes, they have to confront their pain.
MICHAEL S. HALE: Like when you came up with the idea to have D and Kenny to act, to mime. So at first when that happened, sorry, it was really hard to watch because I'm responsible for taking someone's life.
BRUCE LEVITT: What you're seeing here is that Shane picked Claudius' speech, his confession in the chapel, o, my offenses rank, for one of his Shakespeare pieces. His reflective piece was a dialogue between he and the man he murdered just before the murder occurs and into the murder.
So when we staged it, Shane had proposed that he do both characters. It was a little intense for an audience. So we staged it as a dumb show with two actors miming the action, and Shane doing the dialogue. And he had just seen for the first time the murder that he created. He just witnessed it.
We have collaborated with the men of PPTG in creating a training process that serves as a catalyst to transformation within the prison setting. After each cycle of training, the incarcerated men devise performances with the guidance of the facilitators, which take place approximately every 18 months to two years. The men perform for an audience of 80 invited civilians because they want to be witnessed.
Witnessing is a crucial concept for PPTG, and one of the group's main goals. It is part of the transformative process and power of the PPTG. Through the sharing of stories and experiences that spread outside Auburn's walls, the incarcerated members of PPTG might open up in the minds of the public alternative perceptions of themselves and of incarcerated people in general.
We as facilitators are uniquely poised to bear witness to the group because as facilitators we create, perform, and explore right alongside them. With one foot inside the walls and one foot outside the walls it is our charge to introduce PPTG's process to a wider audience. The collaboration that happens in the room every Friday evening is dynamic because of our complete acknowledgement that the men of PPTG are the experts on their environment and their journeys. And our functioning is to provide them information and facilitate the fulfillment of their goals.
There are four points that I'd like to leave you with today. One, the techniques we engage in with the men contribute to their ability to manage their everyday life in prison. They learn how emotions manifest themselves in others, as well as themselves. And so they not only become aware of how to manage their emotional life, but how to avoid situations that might be detrimental by coming to know that they have no need to engage with others whose emotions might be out of control.
MICHAEL RHYNES: Shakespeare said it best, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to day. That's what time is like. It's like same day over and over and over and over and over and over again. You have to conform in two ways from an administration standpoint, and then from our standpoint. You know?
If you smile all day long, you're suspect. You know? If you walk different, if you talk different. Even if you go to school, you're different, which makes people fear you because you're different.
BRUCE LEVITT: Second point, that we as facilitators may be gaining as much or more personally and professionally from the experience broadening even our perspective, not just about the criminal justice system, but what it means to be human. Or as one of the members of PPTG puts it in response to how the group functions for him, to be human again.
MICHAEL S. HALE: [INAUDIBLE] dance last time. And you know, I've been pondering on that and trying to write about it.
SPEAKER 1: Yes.
MICHAEL S. HALE: Because, you know, it's about movement. Right?
SPEAKER 1: Yes.
You know, and this environment is about regime. And to move your body in such in a matter is liberating. See in this place, nobody dances. And you know, and if you dance, you're alien. Or you're the other. Right? You know? It's like if you smile too much, you got the problem. Nobody else has the problem.
BRUCE LEVITT: Third, that the men of PPTG are the real researchers digging into their own lives, excavating memories, assessing their traumas, and coming to own the reasons for their incarceration.
What form What form of prayer can serve my turn? May one be pardoned and still we tame the offense. What then? What rest? Try what repentance can. What can it not? Yet, what can it when one cannot repent?
A wretched state. Bosom black as death. Lying in soul that's struggling to be free art more engaged. Help! Angels, make us say! [SLAPPING] Bow, stubborn knees! And a heart with strings of steel become soft as sinews of the newborn babe. All may be well.
Sorry. [SOBBING] It's really hard because I want to shut down so much. And I don't want to come back. I just want to say thank you for creating this space and letting me be a part of it to be able to say that I'm sorry. Sorry. I want so much to be able to heal, and to somehow bring light into the world after bringing so much darkness.
BRUCE LEVITT: Finally, the men also uncover the notion that they are more than their crimes, that they are family men-- fathers, brothers, sons, husbands. And that they are intelligent and educable. That they are citizens of a larger culture. Or to put it the way Michael Rhynes puts it, we are in Auburn, but we are not of Auburn.
DAVID BENDEZU: This experience in itself, everything about prison before the class, before Cornell, before PPTG, but everything that I've learned throughout my time-- so I've been incarcerated since 2006-- and I go to the parole board in 2021, but it'll be a while, but everything that I've learned, trust me, I will definitely carry with me. And I will definitely try to apply it.
It's free-fall. You don't know what to expect. You just go in there, and it's a spiritual self-rehabilitation. I love that point about it. It's more therapeutic. You know? And it's more honest.
With this class I feel like people. Some nights I feel Steve when he's in pain and walks through the yard. You can feel that. You know? Some teachers come in here, and they just, how you doing? My name is da da da, and this is the course. This is the class. And there's no connection.
And then we go back to our cells and walk with that emotionless feeling. And then we're just like bricked walls just walking. But PPTG helps you walk with kind of emotion. It fills you with emotion.
BRUCE LEVITT: By translating the personal into performance pieces to be witnessed, the men not only get closer to completing the cycle of their transformations, but have something to offer the culture by coming to such an intimate understanding of the root causes of their decisions that landed them in prison and sharing those discoveries with the public. And by putting themselves and their lives on display, and by developing theater techniques that assist them in becoming more than competent performers, they engage their audience in becoming witnesses as well. And not only entertain and educate through theater, but help to translate their world into something that audiences can experience more directly.
SPEAKER 4: I just want to thank you [INAUDIBLE]. You open yourselves up. And I can't tell you what it meant to me just be a human sharing your human experiences, the stuff that you brought, I know, to me. I don't know about everybody else here. But my world got bigger, got better. I got smarter. And it was just nice to be with guys. You know? Every one at some point, it's like, [INAUDIBLE] god. You know? And I just thank you for that. And that's it. Just thanks. It was good to be with you.
BRUCE LEVITT: Thank you very much.
I thought I'd begin by asking a question of Sandra, who graduated in 2014. And while she was at Cornell she was an ambassador for the Center for Engaged Learning and Research. And she spent about six months with us in PPTG working with the men, learning the techniques, and also helping to create and perform in our third show, which is called An Indeterminate Life.
And I'm just curious to know how your work and engagement influenced your undergraduate career here? And what you might have done as a civically-engaged person since graduation?
SANDRA FOLASEWA OYENEYIN: Right. So like Bruce said, my name is Sandra. I came into Cornell as a theater major and performer. It was really interesting for me to kind of be a part of this work because working for the Engaged Learning and Research Center as an ambassador you see other students from other disciplines who are able to be engaged, but their disciplines, it's the ties to being community engaged. And their disciplines are a little bit more obvious, if that makes sense.
Like, say, for architecture, you have the whole idea of universal design and making spaces for different types of people for different walks of life of that nature. So coming from an arts kind of background it was really interesting for me to try to find a way to combine community engagement with theater. And I was really fortunate enough to be a part of PPTG to be able to just be there with the men and be able to witness the kind of powers that the arts has on people.
And right now, I'm currently working with National Geographic Studios as part of their digital video team. And in that sense where I get to create content that actually means something. And that's one thing that from my Cornell experience has really shaped just my trajectory.
Because I always knew that I wanted to be in the arts in some way or form. And I also just loved having a broader idea of what I wanted to do to help people, to help the world, and to make a difference. And I think it's just so amazing to be a part of a community where I can create art, but also have art be a mission at the same time. So I'm really grateful for that experience. I think that's definitely how this whole journey has really affected my career and just my trajectory.
BRUCE LEVITT: As I said earlier, Dudley and I met 30 years ago when we began planning the opening event for what is now a Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. So Dudley, maybe you want to talk about a little bit your relationship to Cornell. And then, Dudley's been all over the country working with various groups and organizations for decades. He's the Artistic Director of Roadside Theater. And so his expertise and his overview of engagement around the country is quite profound.
DUDLEY COCKE: Thanks, Bruce. And congratulations.
BRUCE LEVITT: Well, thank you. Thank you.
DUDLEY COCKE: So I'd like to make two claims for engagement. And I'm interested in democratic engagement. Engagement can be anti-democratic, or it can be democratic. And so I want to make two claims for democratic engagement.
The first claim is that a sense of place is a pillar for democratic engagement. In that way, we are right now on the sacred ground of the Cayuga Nation. [INAUDIBLE]. Thank you.
The second claim, besides the fact that place is always important in democratic engagement, is that from its founding democratic engagement has been part of the DNA of Cornell University. So I have been drawn to Cornell over these decades because Cornell is a source for a lot of my work.
Now, I will tell you that at times when I've come here the sense of this legacy has waxed and waned. So it's not always been understood as fully as I think it deserves in the University. But there is a lot of evidence for this claim about democratic engagement.
I was reading the Nine Founding Philosophical Principles of Cornell University by your first president White. And I thought, I see now where Bernie Sanders got his platform. It is remarkable. I suggest you read it again if you haven't. It is remarkable.
And then right along after that, you have somebody like Liberty Hyde Bailey as the dean of your School of Agriculture 1903 to 1913. There are people in this room, like Dr. Scott Peters and Dr. Horrigan who are carrying on this work right now of Bailey. And it's not coincidental that his signature work is titled The Holy Earth.
Spin forward just a few years, and you have the great Alexander Magnus Drummond appearing on the Cornell scene. And Drummond is in the drama department. And he begins something quite remarkable, The New York State Plays Project right here out of Cornell. And then eventually through extension.
And his vision for theater is that every community in the United States, and certainly in New York, should be able to tell its own story, to have its own theater. What a wonderful vision.
And then right along in '37 comes Robert Gard out of Kansas. Grew up about 20 miles from Indian nation Oklahoma. Very influenced by the whole native perspective. He comes in as a graduate student and learns from Drummond. Collaborates with Drummond. And then he goes on to found the Wisconsin Idea Theater to teach for three decades at the University of Wisconsin.
His new book of selected writings-- he's, of course, passed-- but his new book of selected writings is To Change The Face and Heart of America. And the book will be out soon. And my review of it is already out. It's an outstanding book.
So here you have Drummond and then Gard. And then we spin forward to the Schwartz Center. And Bruce is chair of the theater department, as I recall at the time. And an amazing man is president of Cornell University, at least that's the way I saw him, because he was in our corner from the day we got here. That was president Frank Rhodes. He believed that diversity would be the defining issue of the 21st century.
And he stood behind that belief with all kinds of support, including guaranteeing any shortfall in our budget against his own budget. Now, that's the kind of guy I like.
So we opened up the Schwartz Center with this multicultural festival that has a whole history to it. But just so you understand the engagement part of it, it represents the full diversity of the US. But it's not like we just swoop in here as Urban Bush Women or Traveling Jewish theater, El Tietro Campusino, Franciso Gonzalez [INAUDIBLE].
It's not just that all these groups come in here to the Schwartz Center. They come in here through communities. They come in performing through communities. So their performances for migrant workers as we're making our way to Cornell. And of course, their people trail along. So the opening of the Schwartz Center is not just in this bubble of Cornell University. But it's bringing people from all different parts of the state.
And then we have this large celebration over about 10 days. And then we go back out through the communities of New York. It was marvelous. And so that represents the democratic engagement that I am so concerned about. And it also speaks to the role of the arts and the humanities in the engagement.
BRUCE LEVITT: Thank you, Dudley. I think there were almost 100 performances outside of the Schwartz Center in that traveling in and out of the Schwartz Center in and around upstate New York.
Since we started late and we probably shouldn't end late, maybe we should open up the floor to questions. If anybody has a question for any of us, or about any of the topics that we've talked about, please feel free. We've silenced you all. Yes, please.
SPEAKER 2: For you to go to this path, and find this as a Cornell activity, how did you do that? Where did you start?
SANDRA FOLASEWA OYENEYIN: So, like I mentioned a little bit before, I worked for the Engaged Learning and Research Center as an ambassador. And at that point, I was kind of jealous of all the other kids there because their majors really were more technically driven in terms of community engagement, like what they can do, and how exactly they can help their communities. So through that, through working with the Center, I actually heard about Bruce's work.
And I got really into it because I had done some volunteering with the McCormick teenagers in the past, while at Cornell. And I was like, wow, this is interesting. It's prison theater. But at the same time, I didn't really know what I was getting into being a part of it.
But it kind of just goes so much more of just, like I mentioned, entertainment. And even just being an audience member, you're there. You're witnessing the performance. But actually being with the men and seeing that transformation and seeing how much work they're putting into it, seeing and hearing their stories, and just being a part of the whole process was just such an amazing experience.
And I definitely have to think Engaged Cornell for that for sure. And I wish more students would just be more involved in that sense because it adds so much to what you're learning in class. You can just read a textbook and understand something. But to actually go out and see its impact on communities.
And not to say that I was enforcing it on them, but just to kind of collaborate, that's the main thing. And that's something that forever super grateful for.
SPEAKER 2: Did it give you the skills to now use them and influence other people?
Yes, definitely, for sure. I would say, because my work right now, a lot of the stuff we're doing is more conservation-based, getting the word out, figuring out how to help different species and things like that. So it's really cool coming from this background and understanding that, OK, I can't really go somewhere and tell people this is what you're doing wrong. This is how you're doing things.
But it's really important to stress now that, hey, let's work with our communities. Let's see what exactly the problem is. Let's work together to fix it. And let's give them a little bit of the tools to fix it.
But also at the same time, let's not be overbearing. Let's step back. Let's kind of work together and figure out how best we can help our communities and help the planet in general. So it's been really cool.
BRUCE LEVITT: Yeah, I think Scott Peters and I, along with [INAUDIBLE] team teach a course in engagement. And one of the core tenants in that is narrative and storytelling and how important knowing each other's stories are. Who we are. Who I am. Who you are. Who we are. And then what we want to be, or what we're becoming in that progress. And keeping those stories alive and keeping cognizant of everybody's story and the progress of the story leads right back to what I do as a director. My first job is to tell the story of that play and to do it as well as I can along with the company.
Did you want to respond to that, Dudley? OK. Another question. Please, right here.
SPEAKER 3: Hi. Are the prisoners [INAUDIBLE] chosen? How are they chosen and screened?
BRUCE LEVITT: OK. The men choose them and screen them themselves. I can't screen them because I don't know them. I don't live with them.
So the way the process works is we have a training period that's about six or seven months. We begin to evolve a production. We do that production. After the production, we sit around and talk about it and evaluate it. And then the men start to think about who the next generation should be.
And all the previous generations can stay unless, of course, they're transferred. The five men that you saw today have all been moved to other facilities because, for example, David, the young man, once you get close enough to your first parole hearing, and you've got good behavior, they'll move you to a medium facility. And you cannot refuse.
But other than that, the men stay with us as long as they're-- so they repeat the training. They repeat the process.
So at the end of evaluating the work we've just done the men will bring up names. And they'll talk, and we'll listen. And sometimes we'll ask a question. And there may be 12, 14 names brought up. And somebody will say, you know, I work with him. He seems like a good guy. And somebody will say, no, you know, he bunks next, he locks next to me. And he screams all night. And he gives the guards grief. And he's not.
So once we get a group of names that they all agree on, then there's an application. It's a seven page essay question application that they wrote. And then the men that they are inviting have two weeks to fill that out. That's brought back into the group. And then each application is shared with the whole group. And the men ask questions. They comment, et cetera.
And only after that process are men invited to join the group for a six week workshop, which the older members lead. And then at the end of that six weeks, there's a conversation between the invited members and the current members as to whether the invited members want to stay, if they think this work is right for them, and if the older members think those guys are ready. And only then and after that process does someone become a permanent member of the group.
And there's one other intervening step. I send the names of the people that they're looking at to the central administration because they do not want anybody who's had an egregious offense in the last two years, because any group in a prison exists at the pleasure of the administration. So they don't care about minor things like what's called being keep lock, locked in your cell for seven days. That can happen for being too slow to move when an officer tells you to move. And so they don't care about that.
But if somebody has had an egregious ticket or been in the shoes, the special housing unit, for 30 days during their last two years. But we can't know that. And we can't know the reason. So I send the list up to the administration. It comes back. And if a name is missing, the guys don't invite them.
So that's the process. It's their process because they're the experts on who's there.
SPEAKER 3: Are there men and women in this program?
BRUCE LEVITT: There are women who participate as facilitators. But the prison is an all-male prison. My wife Judy is one of our facilitators. There are eight of us currently facilitating. Not everybody goes every week. So tonight there will be several of our colleagues there.
Usually Judy and I are there every week with the rare exception. And then Allison Van Dyke, who's a retired colleague of mine, is a facilitator. Norm Johnson a colleague of ours at Ithaca College. Christopher Seeds, who was a death row attorney and now is finishing his PhD in sociology is a facilitator. Another young woman named Mariana Amorim, who's doing her PhD in public policy is a facilitator. And Mary Rolland, who has done a lot of spiritual work and meditation work, is also a facilitator.
SPEAKER 3: And Nick Fesette.
BRUCE LEVITT: And Nick Fesette, right. Nick and I have collaborated on, as I said, I think on a number of panels and things. And so we're very close. And he's a terrific guy. We're going to lose him in about a year when he finishes his PhD In the back, please.
SPEAKER 5: Have any of the--
BRUCE LEVITT: Yeah, you know the mic's not on, because I don't hear it coming through the speakers. Oh, the camera. Guys, for the camera. I see. OK. I understand. OK.
SPEAKER 5: Have any of the incarcerated men been released?
BRUCE LEVITT: Yes.
SPEAKER 5: And do they talk? Do you know how they're doing?
BRUCE LEVITT: Yes.
SPEAKER 5: Talk about how this has influenced him? Or if it has influenced them?
BRUCE LEVITT: Phil Miller, who was quoted in one of the letters, was paroled after 17 years. He had a flat sentence. There are two kinds of sentences in New York state, a flat sentence, 17 years, indeterminate sentence was which, Michael Rhynes is 50 years to life. So he can't even come up for parole until he's served 50 years. So you're paying his housing, food, and medicine to the tune of $50,000 a year for a man who isn't going to hurt anybody.
So Phil was paroled in February after 17 years in prison. Now, Phil in his first couple of years in prison was sent to the box or solitary confinement because naively he took a cell phone. Cell phones are contraband. And he created a little niche under the window of his cell to hide it. So they got him for having contraband and for damaging prison property. And sentenced him to five years in solitary confinement.
He ended up spending three. During the three years in solitary confinement, you can have books and tapes. So Phil taught himself French and Russian.
And he came out after three years fluent reading, writing, speaking in French and Russian. He has since learned Spanish, and he's studying Chinese now. He graduated through the Cornell Prison Education Program with an associate's degree. He accepted at Baruch College in the program for international business. He started that this fall.
He called me after he got out and said, you'll never guess what I'm doing. And I said, what are you doing, Phil? He said, well, he said I'm working for a consignment company that buys all the supplies for large corporations. You know? They don't have anybody who buys their toilet paper and their printer paper and all that stuff. They hire a firm that does all that. He said, here I was in prison for 17 years and nobody would trust me, and now I have all the credit card numbers of every major corporation in the country. [LAUGHTER]
So he did that. And then he got a job as a paralegal in a law firm. So he's now working as a paralegal at a firm that does housing discrimination, racial discrimination, and LGBTQ issues. And because in New York State you do not have to be a member of the bar to appear in housing court, Phil will be arguing cases in court for some of the housing discrimination clients in that law firm.
And he'll be here this weekend because his wife, who he married since he got out of prison, is the Cove presenter with Nick of the conference that's tomorrow at the Schwartz Center. So he's doing quite well.
A lot of our guys have much longer sentences. And so Kenny Brown, who was the guy with the beard, came up for parole. He's 25 to life. And he came up for parole in June of '15. And was turned down. So he has to wait two years.
Trust me, there was no reason to turn him down. Parole in New York state, the Parole Board only has to consider one thing, the nature of the crime. They do have to look at what you did in prison. They don't have to look at the fact that Kenny got an associate's degree. They do not have to look at the fact that Kenny was the most trusted incarcerated person at Auburn because he ran what was called the radio room. That's the room that the administration puts somebody in to run the approved television programs in the yard at night. And there's a lot of pressure, you can imagine, from other inmates to play things. And so Kenny was turned down. And he'll come up again in 2017.
DUDLEY COCKE: Yeah, there are two things that really have struck me within working with prison reform for over 10 years. And there are two themes that always come back in every encounter. One, when they incarcerate the person, they incarcerate the whole family. So the whole family becomes incarcerated, becomes this very hard.
And then, secondly, I'm always remembering what Solzhenitsyn said in The Gulag. He said, even in the time of czars people used to bring the prisoners presents at Christmas. And I live in the central Appalachian coal fields, or what were once the coal fields, and the economy is being replaced by maximum security state private partnership prisons. So people are making money from incarceration.
And you know they are so invisible because the prisoners are all coming from cities at some distance, eight, maybe even further away than eight hours. And so the families can't get there to visit. And this invisibility is one of the real human rights violations from my perspective. That we know that families are important to rehabilitation, and yet, we make that impossible.
So impossible that there were 110 Rastas from Virgin Islands who were locked down in one of our maximum security prisons 24/7. And the reason they wouldn't cut their dreadlocks. So we started a radio campaign in the Virgin Islands with our radio station. And within several months, every one of those 110 were returned to the Virgin Islands. It was because they had become visible.
BRUCE LEVITT: Other questions? Yeah, please, Barbara.
SPEAKER 6: Two questions. The trivial one is where did the audience members come from? How were they recruited? And the non-trivial question is given how supportive and therapeutic your program is, is there an opportunity for the participants to support one another during the rest of their time in prison? Or can they only see one another during the program?
BRUCE LEVITT: Great questions. The audience is invited. And I started out with people who teach in the Cornell Prison Education Program because they know the guys. But then it's expanded. There a lot of people now. I have a mailing list of several hundred people who are-- I think you are on it. And so, yes, anybody who wants to be on the list.
But the ironclad rule is 80 people. So I have to do sort of like rolling admissions. Because I remember one time I turned in 81 names, holding my breath, and the dep of programs, Seth Thomas, said, no, 80.
And fortunately, somebody that morning had said, I can't come. So I didn't have to scratch anybody. So 80 is the limit. It has to do with their over time, how many COs they have to have on duty for that number of people. How long it takes to get that number of people through security and then back out of the prison at the end of the evening. So they have limited it to 80.
The second question is that a number of the men do see each other during the week. So a lot of them live in the same cell block. And some of them are on honor block, which means that their cell doors are always open and they have a little cooking area and things like that. So they socialize a lot.
As an example, one of our younger members has had a problem getting his GED. Clearly, his reading skills are an issue. And this tutoring from the state is sporadic. So two of the guys asked me if I could talk to somebody in administration and get this guy transferred to their cell block, and they would tutor him. And that happened.
And so not through my machinations. I don't know whether it was through me or not, because it was like my contact with the prison said, uh, [INAUDIBLE]. And then six months later it happened. So I don't know what the mechanism was.
So he's very close now. He's passed his preliminary GED. So I think he might be able to get the GED classes beginning in the spring. So we'll see.
And they do. I mean, you know, the last show we did called This Incarcerated Life, we were supposed to perform for the first time for other members of the Auburn community. And we performed for this guys in CPEP. And the night we did a performance, at the end of the performance there was a fight in the yard, and there was some shooting. In other words, the guards shoot into the ground to break up the fight. And so we were locked out for three weeks, meaning no programs. And civilians can't go in.
And so we were supposed to perform the following Monday. We got in again on a Friday, and were supposed to perform the following Monday. And we had to make rearrangements to the script because it was only 70 minutes. And the script was 95. We had to make cuts. And I had no idea.
We got there, and Adam, one of the guys, had gotten his counselor to do a call out, meaning through the administration getting guys called out to a meeting. And they did it. It was all done. So they do get together when they can.
But it's not like a medium security where everybody can see everybody all the time. Because they're in individual cells in five different cell blocks.
Please, right here.
SPEAKER 7: Your piece is so powerful in terms of revealing the kinds of emotional transformative change in the part of these men in terms of the issues you've raised here, public policy issues of redemption versus retribution in our prison system. Have you successfully engaged other elements of the Cornell community-- the Law School, the Psychology department-- to join with you in your efforts to help in their research, in their findings, in sharing the practicum of the rich environment you've created?
BRUCE LEVITT: Well, you know the Cornell Prison Education Program contributes to that environment. They got a grant from the Mellon Foundation this year, which allowed them to move into four additional prisons. So they offer an associate's degree. There are about 15 classes taught every semester with guys in it.
The people who teach in that program-- it's a humanities degree that's the courses are taught by Cornell. The credits given by Cornell. Then the credits transferred to Auburn Community College that grants the degree because Cornell does not get an associate's degree. But the people who teach in that program-- the faculty, the graduate students, and the undergraduates who are TAs in the course-- come from all over the university.
SPEAKER 7: Another question is given your men, your theater program--
BRUCE LEVITT: Yes.
SPEAKER 7: --are they the subject of, say, the psychology department--
BRUCE LEVITT: No.
SPEAKER 7: --Who can contribute to your view? It's clearly-- there is transformation--
BRUCE LEVITT: Yes, absolutely.
SPEAKER 7: --And it seems to be a tremendous opportunity for them to take, you know, the reality, the experiential learning of what's happening to these people, as opposed to just theory that they espouse in the Cornell classroom.
BRUCE LEVITT: Right. Well, the clips that I showed you are from a completed documentary, thanks to the Engaged Scholar Award. Because as you could see, the color's off. Some of the sound in this. So it all has to be color corrected and sound designed after a film is finished. And that's quite expensive. And so the grant from Engage Cornell allowed. So that we have a 77 minute film, which I think is the greatest advocate for what you're suggesting.
Now, there is a mass incarceration affiliates group through social sciences which has people from all over that compare notes that talk to one another, et cetera. The idea of doing research on the men, instead of with the men, is a problematic, I think, issue.
First of all, even Nick to write about his experiences with PPTG, and the first people we start with before I do anything, this talk today, whatever I get the permission of the guys to do it. And so then if you're going to do, Nick's going to write and one chapter of his dissertation is going to be on PPTG. He has to get permission from the state. It's very complicated, as you can imagine, because they are wards of the state as Michael says in the film.
So we do share information. And there's a lot of cross-pollination amongst departments through that group in social science through the Cornell Prison Education Program. But I don't know about a formal way of studying them and what they do. But I think the documentary itself is sort of sine qua non of the kind of research that would.
I mean, we do set it up-- I mean, we're purposely cross-fading from mugshots to the real guy. Right? So that we put out there that the culturally familiar very negative image. And then you see the real person. Thank you, though, interesting question.
Anybody else? Anybody else? Yeah? Becky, sorry. Right here. Sorry. The microphone's here, so we'll do that.
LUCY: Lucy. So? I worked with the Cornell Prison Education Program for some time. And I remember our classes often diverged completely from the material to really just becoming like a place where they could share their experiences in the prison and relate the literature they were reading to past experiences in their life. And I'm wondering if you've sort of delved into any of, I guess, turning their stories into their own plays and having them write their plays? And if those plays would ever be like exported from the prison as manuscripts to be performed in other places? If the prisoners themselves, the students, can't perform them outside of Auburn maybe others could as well.
BRUCE LEVITT: Well that's interesting you asked that question because there's a woman named Angela Daddabbo who runs the Auburn Public Theater. And she's very connected to the community. And the prison is a major part of that community.
So she's been to see three of the performances. And she called me and asked me could we do one of the scripts at the Auburn Public Theater with actors? And that didn't quite feel right to me.
So I spoke to the guys, and I said, what would you think if I took clips from the film and interwove them with the stories? And they liked that idea. So we did a program with four of our students and one professional actor. And we interwove clips like these with some of the pieces that they had done in all three shows. And that was quite effective.
One woman came and said that I've lived here 30 years and nobody ever talks about the prison, which was kind of an interesting statement to make since it's such a central presence in the town.
So yes, could they write plays? We haven't done that yet. I mean, Michael's written short plays, like three or four pages. We haven't tried that yet. We do do a thing where we give the guys a set of prescriptions, and then they've got 15 minutes to come up with a 10 minute play. And two of those were dynamite. And I have the script for two of them. And who knows?
But it's a challenge to decide how that represents them. And how they have agency in that process. Dudley and I were just talking about something similar with a play he's doing, but not with incarcerated people. And the issues that that brings up in terms of their representation through other actors.
My goal, which is a long way off, is to have them tour. I would love to bring them to the Schwartz Center and have them perform one of their shows there. This is not impossible, but it's probably out of the question at the moment.
Anything else? Oh, Becky's over here. Yeah? Wait for the microphone or you won't be on the videotape.
BECKY: So Bruce, thank you so much. And I know that we're out of time. But your comment just now about checking with the guys to make sure that it was OK for you to show their footage here made me think about how much I would like you to communicate back to them our respect and admiration for their part of this partnership since they can't be here in person. So I assume that they're aware that you received this prize. And I just I hope that they get a sense back from this audience of the power of their work for us.
BRUCE LEVITT: There's one tragedy about being a volunteer. When somebody is moved, Michael was moved to Attica because of the escape of Clinton that everybody heard about with these two guys, the Department of Corrections got nervous about old long term prisoners in certain facilities getting too familiar with the staff. So Michael was there for 14 years, founded the Buddhist group, founded the poetry group, founded the theater group, brought in a program in domestic violence.
He was just transferred to Attica where there are no programs. There's no college program. There's no theater program. There's no writing program.
And once somebody is out of that prison at Auburn, I can't communicate with them. No volunteer is allowed to communicate with any inmate except in the room when you're teaching them or working with them. You can't write them. You can't go visit them. So it's very difficult.
But they will know. There are ways to let them know that it was. Thank you for that. Any final questions?
I want to thank Dudley and Sandra for being here and adding such wonderful comments. And thank all of you for your interest. And for those involved in supporting Engaged Cornell.
And if you want to know more about the Phoenix Players, for some strange reason the Department of Corrections let us do a website. So it's Phoenixplayers@Auburn.com. And three of the shows are on there under Videos. Some interviews with the guys are on there, a bunch of articles. There's a blog page, which has 15 blogs that they've written.
There's some other non-show writing on there, their photographs of the shows. There are the founding documents, Michael and Clifton Williams' founding documents are on there. So that's part of the research. And it's continually building in terms of what we add to that website. So thank you.
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What impact can theater have on the lives of incarcerated men in a maximum security prison? Bruce Levitt, Cornell professor of performing and media arts, is working with inmates to find out. Honored as the inaugural recipient of the Engaged Scholar Prize for his work as a facilitator for the Phoenix Players Theatre Group at Auburn Correctional Facility, Levitt delivered a lecture on his time with the troupe and his corresponding documentary, "Human Again," Oct. 28, 2016.
Following the lecture, Levitt participated in a panel discussion with Roadside Theater Artistic Director Dudley Cocke, who has taught theater at Cornell as an artist in residence; and Sandra Folasewa Oyeneyin ’14, a production coordinator for National Geographic Studios, who volunteered with the Phoenix Players as a Cornell student.
The Engaged Scholar Prize honors a distinguished faculty member who inspires students, colleagues and the community through innovative projects that integrate community engagement with scholarly activities.