Gorky Never Looked Like This Before: Teatro na Prisão in a Men’s Prison

20 Jul

We, of course, could not take our cameras with us into the prison when we visited Teatro na Prisão’s workshop, so in view of the fact that I don’t have many photos to post in regards to our trip to the men’s prison this past Tuesday, I decided to begin this post with a picture of my student Hector Flores Komatsu, who has yet to appear in any of the other photos on the blog despite the fact that he’s been doing fantastic things as part of this exchange program.  In fact he’s the one of us who will stay here for the longest, spending a full month in Rio and returning to the U.S. in early August.  Hector (now known in Rio as Heitor–the Portuguese translation of his name) is a directing student at Michigan and has been attending many directing and acting classes at UniRio during his time here.  He’s working with UniRio students to make plans for future collaborations in which actors, directors,


and designers visiting from one campus to the other could work on short student productions for a few weeks at a time.

In this photo Heitor is eating Brazil’s national dish, feijoada–a black bean stew with several kinds of sausage and many different cuts of beef and pork. It’s served with rice, black beans, shredded collard greens, chunks of yucca, yucca flour (which is kind of like cornmeal), and pork rinds, all of which can be mixed into your feijoada in whatever amount you like.  Slices of oranges are also served on the side.  The students and I sampled this Brazilian staple at a restaurant in Ipanema called Casa de Feijoada, and we loved it.

On Tuesday, July 16, 2013, we accompanied the students and faculty of Teatro na Prisão to the men’s prison where they conduct a theatre workshop.  Here’s a picture of us at UniRio before we got on the bus to the prisons.


Pictured here from left to right are Renee Gross, Jodie Lawston, Sarah Thompson, Natália Fiche, me, and Viviane Narvaes (the UniRio professor who leads the workshop in the men’s prison).  The men’s prison where Teatro na Prisão facilitates a workshop is just down the road from the women’s prison we visited last week.  By all appearances, the women’s prison we visited stood on its own away from any other prison complex, while the men’s prison is inside a walled and gated compound with multiple prisons for men inside.  The UniRio students told me that the various prisons in the compound house prisoners grouped by various kinds of categories.  Some of the prisons house men who have committed a particular offense.  In Brazil as in many other countries, sex offenders are a high risk for being attacked or abused during their incarceration, and one of the UniRio students with whom I spoke on the bus ride said that one of the prisons in this complex houses only sex offenders so that they will not be in general population with other prisoners.

The prison we visited is just for men who used to be state employees.  One of the UniRio students said this prison houses former government and court officials as well as former professors from public universities.  The men in the theatre workshop (one of the workshop’s incarcerated participants informed me) are all former police officers who are housed together in two pods (smaller housing units) in one of the two main sections, called gallerias, of the prison.  I never did find out who was housed in the other pods in the galleria we visited or who lives in the other galleria, which is entirely separate from the one we visited.  Apparently other men in that galleria are eligible to participate in this workshop, but right now only six men, all from the pods where former police are housed, have chosen to do so.  The men in the workshop discussed how hard it has been to encourage others to join the group.  Some former participants in the group are no longer part of the workshop because they had behavior problems in the prison or because they were transferred to other prisons.  Others in the prison believe that participation in theatre would cause people in the prison to think they were gay and will not join the group for that reason.  I would speculate that the fact that the group is now completely made up of former police officers might deter men from other groups in the prison who would perceive any such homogenous faction to pose a difficult challenge for a new person to find social acceptance among men who have already bonded with one another and share common life experiences.

The idea of housing former government officials together is not unique to the Brazilian prison system.  We have prisons in the U.S., sometimes referred to as “protection units” where not necessarily the prison’s entire population but a fairly high number of the prisoners housed there are former law enforcement, district attorneys, or judges.  Also, U.S. prisons sometimes segregate their inhabitants by race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gang affiliation in efforts to prevent violence.  These forms of segregation can offer the type of protection that they are meant to provide but can also exacerbate tensions within prisons.  These practices most commonly occur in the U.S. on a smaller scale than what we’re seeing here.  The Brazilian prisons within this complex, if I understand this correctly, are segregating on the level of entire prisons being made up of one category of prisoner, whereas what I’ve seen more often in the U.S. is usually one wing or section of a prison being set aside for a certain category of prisoner or a prison having a higher percentage of a certain category of prisoner within the general population of one facility.

Getting into the men’s prison was a more complicated and intimidating process than what we’d experienced last week at the women’s facility.  After we dropped off the group going to the women’s prison, the UniRio van drove us inside the gate to the prison complex, and a uniformed guard with a large pistol strapped to his hip got on the van with us to take our IDs and compare them to the list of approved visitors.  Apparently the list of us foreigners was not with the first set of papers he’d picked up, and he and Professors Fiche and Narvaes got off the UniRio van for what felt like about twenty minutes to straighten it all out.  Then they came back with two guards who checked all of our names off the list and compared our faces to our passport pictures.  One of the guards stayed on the van with us as the UniRio driver took us deeper into the prison complex, past at least three other prisons, to the building we were to enter.  Before the eighteen of us went into the gatehouse, the guard took our passports inside.  We stood outside and formed a circle.  Prof. Narvaes reminded all of us that we do not go anywhere alone inside the prison, even to the bathroom, and that those of us who had never been to this prison before should never be without at least one of the experienced Teatro na Prisão folks to guide us.  As we held hands in the circle, she asked each of us to look to our right and say in Portuguese, “I will take care of [the name of the person standing to your right].”  Prof. Fiche stood on my left and promised to take care of me, and then I looked to my right and promised to take care of Andy.

The eighteen of us went into the front room of the gatehouse where Profs. Fiche and Narvaes introduced me to the director of the prison–a man whom an UniRio student told me he’d never seen in the entire year he’d been coming to this prison with Teatro na Prisão.  Today because there were so many foreigners visiting the theatre workshop, the director stayed with us throughout our entire visit.  The guards in the gatehouse all wore holstered pistols on their hips, and one woman carried a large rifle.  As in U.S. prisons, the guards beyond the gatehouse in the interior of the prison did not carry guns.  They took us three at a time into a separate room where we walked through a metal detector and signed a visitor’s log.  After everyone had gone through this process, we went further into the prison, leaving our passports at the front gate.

This prison, like the women’s one we’d seen, was made completely out of concrete, but the men’s facility seemed to have dozens of gates made of iron bars which could close and section off portions of the hallways.  Most of these gates were wide open as we made our way further into the prison, but even without the gates closing behind us as we walked, we could feel the presence of the layers of cages we crossed through.  I saw two visiting booths for families who have to talk to one another on phones through a pane of glass, and it struck me as so odd and painful that Brazilian prisons would be so similar to U.S. ones in that particular detail.  Jodie and I observed repeatedly during this trip when people questioned us about the differences between U.S. and Brazilian prisons that really they are very much alike.  Nothing we saw in the Brazilian prisons surprised us.  It all felt painfully familiar.  I wonder how many of these similarities are due to the homogenizing forces of globalization and how many of them developed simultaneously yet independently.  It seems likely that both globalization and a cross-cultural willingness to devalue the lives of incarcerated people are at play in carceral systems all over the world.

As we walked down the main hallway of Galleria A, we could see the pods where the men lived branching off the hall on our right side.  The pods are built around narrow open air courtyards, which looked dismal but at the same time received quite a bit of sunlight, which is a comfort that most U.S. prisoners do not have in their living spaces.  The opposite side of the main hallway seemed to have rooms that were used for other purposes, though I couldn’t really see into most of them.  One of these rooms, toward the far end of the hall, is the meeting space for the Teatro na Prisão workshop.  It’s a rectangular concrete room with iron bars in lieu of a door.  Old wooden theatre seats line three of the walls, and the fourth has a huge and quite remarkable wooden table pushed against it.  This room also has an adjoining doorway, with another set of iron bars, leading to a smaller room which serves as the prison’s library.  A couple of the UniRio students who came with us spent the duration of our visit to the prison sifting through books in the library.  Apparently they are helping to cull the books that are worn out and molding.

A line of six incarcerated men all wearing orange tee shirts with the name of their theatre troupe on it.  (Sorry! I couldn’t take notes while in the prison and now can’t remember what the wording on the shirts said.)  We shook each man’s hand and greeted one another as we made our way into the workshop room.  Then we visitors took seats along the walls, while the UniRio students, Professor Narvaes, and the incarcerated workshop participants formed a circle and did a few warm ups.  Then they left the room en masse, and we tentatively followed them into the main hall of the galleria to see where they’d gone.  They gathered at the far end of the hall and then came back to us in a festive procession which included singing, dancing, tambourine playing, and waving straw fedoras and large pieces of brightly colored fabric above their heads.  The procession was the only piece of the performance that the many men locked in the pods branching off from the main hallway could watch.  Unlike the Teatro na Prisão group which goes into the women’s prison, these UniRio students and Professor Narvaes rehearse and perform with the men in the workshop, rather than directing and observing without taking roles in the improvised play.

When the procession ended back in the workshop room, we visitors took our seats again, and the workshop participants, including the UniRio folks, formed a circle like the one in which they had done warm ups.  They produced about a dozen rubber balls about the size of tennis balls and in a variety of bright colors.  They tossed the balls to one another across the circle, making rhythmic noises as they did so.  When a new color of ball was introduced, they made new sounds, and the patterns of ball tossing grew more complex.  One UniRio student held up signs periodically during the game.  One sign told us in the audience that we would see a performance of Maxim Gorky’s play Ralé (commonly translated in English as The Lower Depths).  Subsequent signs stated that the performance would include rhythm, music, hip hop, and beat boxing.  Each sign set off the introduction of a new sound or rhythm amongst the performers who were now tossing the rubber balls to one another quite rapidly and making an assortment of interesting beats as they did so.  Some of them also began to sing the song they’d sung during the procession.  My meager Portuguese was not serving me well that day, but I did understand the word feliz, meaning “joy” or “happiness,” as it was repeated frequently in the rather festive song.

As a chorus of the song ended, the ball tossing and rhythms ceased suddenly.  The circle disbanded, and all participants became a tightly packed group in the middle of the room.  One UniRio student jumped out of the crowd and told us that we would be introduced to some of the characters in the play.  He struck a military-looking pose and made a loud grunt.  The other members of the group repeated both the gesture and the sound.  Another male student jumped out of the group, leaned back, crossed his arms, threw his head back, and laughed maniacally.  The others did the same.  A female student struck a flirtatious pose and giggled.  Everyone else did, too.  Then the group broke apart and scattered.  They used the hats and colored fabric from their earlier procession as they positioned themselves in sleeping poses all across one end of the room, many of them lying on, under, or on the floor in front of the enormous table.  They grumbled and poked at each other, stole the fabric from one another to use as blankets, and settled in to sleep for a bit.  Then they all awoke and had a rather comical argument which escalated into a shouting match.  There they ended the performance, and we all sat in a circle on the floor to discuss what we’d seen.

This group is at the beginning of their rehearsal process for this play.  They’ll be improvising scenes based on Gorky’s play in a process similar to what the women at the other prison are doing with Romeo and Juliet.  What we saw was both an introduction to their practice and the first scene of the play.  The musicality and playfulness of the group are remarkable and infectious.  We had a wonderful time watching them and could palpably feel the spirit of fun and joy in the room.  Given their obvious desire to make this space one of celebration, it’s very interesting that the group chose The Lower Depths as the subject of their performance.  Before we entered the prison, I’d asked Prof. Narvaes who had chosen this play as the subject for the group’s latest work.  She told me that she’d offered them a choice between this and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and the prisoners chose Gorky.

Like most great Russian writers, Gorky is not known for comedy.  A Marxist and advocate for the social-democratic movement in Russia in the early 1900s, Gorky was imprisoned at least twice and penned a number of political plays, most notably The Lower Depths, which is widely considered to be a masterwork of the theatre.  The play describes the lives of a group of men living in a homeless shelter.  The 1902 production of the play launched director Konstantin Stanislavski’s storied career.  One of the major tensions at the heart of the play is whether people living in dire circumstances should confront the painful reality of their lives or create more beautiful fictions to distract them from the brutal conditions under which they live.  It’s a pretty dark play, though a very good one.

We only got to see Teatro na Prisão’s first scene of this play, but I would love to be able to see how the rest of their improvisations on Gorky will develop.  Will the pervasive playfulness of the group somehow alter Gorky’s original plot, as the women in the other prison saved Romeo and Juliet from their once inevitable demise?  Or will the level of engagement and energy that these men bring to the workshop be channeled into grappling with both the tragedy of Gorky’s characters and the prisoners’ actual circumstances?  To the best of my knowledge, whatever performance they create will not be seen by anyone besides the members of the group themselves.  No audience of other prisoners or outsiders will be invited, unless something changes between now and then.

What does the absence of a viewing public do to a play?  All social justice theatre finds meaning in the process of rehearsal and creation, but it usually aims to make its most significant impact in performance for an audience likely to be swayed by its message or encouraged to think critically about the issues at hand.  Inside a prison, captives might choose to participate in a process such as this one for a multitude of reasons: to have a way to pass the time, to engage with one’s peers in a safe and productive way, to have meaningful contact with volunteers from outside the prison, to learn, to hone a skill set, to prove something to one’s self or others.  Whatever their reasoning, the men in the workshop must find value in the doing of the work itself, rather than seeking any outside recognition for their participation in this process or this play.  The upside to this work from a social justice point of view is that guards and prison administration don’t seem to be interfering or censoring the work of Teatro na Prisão, and they apparently have only been observing the workshops when we foreigners come to visit.  This, I’m guessing, is why Teatro na Prisão can do politically charged theatre work that I do not believe could be done in most U.S. prisons, but their freedom to be political, like everything else in prison, is rather narrowly confined because their work does not have an audience.  I don’t believe this in any way diminishes the quality or meaningfulness of the theatre practices we’ve witnessed in Brazilian prisons, but the lack of audience does make for a distinct theatrical experience–one in which only the participants can benefit.

I wonder what Gorky would think of this.  Surely he would be glad that people in prison know his work and can experience it performatively more than 100 years after he wrote it.  Perhaps he would also feel, as I do, that both the privileged and the oppressed among us are poorer for our inability to witness a full length performance of the improvised version of The Lower Depths that this theatre workshop will produce.  I know that my life would be greatly enriched were I to have the chance to see it.

Alas, my trip to Brazil has ended.  I am finishing this post from an airport in the United States as I wait for the connecting flight that will take me home to my beloved husband and my comfortable life in Michigan.  Liz Raynes has already safely arrived back in our native country, and Renee Gross returns very soon.  Hector/Heitor will remain for a few more weeks and continue to study directing, but my lovely trip is over.  Thank you to all the folks we met at UniRio and the places where they conduct their workshops!  Thank you UM Brazil Initiative and LACS!  We look forward to continuing this work next summer.


2 Responses to “Gorky Never Looked Like This Before: Teatro na Prisão in a Men’s Prison”

  1. Viviane July 21, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    Hello Ashley, what a pity we have not met before your return to the United States. Hope you can go back and watch our “Ralé” when the play is ready. To us is very important that in addition to the prison inmates, are present in the presentations , authorities of the prison system and possibly other guests, because in these moments the group becomes visible and there is the possibility to win improvements in their quality of life and even shed light on problems and issues typical of the prison environment.
    Some contributions to your post: the group name and the letter of the funk ( they parodied a song very successful here in Brazil in the ’90s.)
    The group name is Chain Reaction. I do not know if it makes sense in English.
    The song goes something like: “I wanted to be happy, living in this shitty slum I was born, I do not know what to say, I feel hungry and cold and do not have a pot to ” think. ” .My dear audience I will tell you a good story but that is not bourgeois. The scenario looks like a picture of favela, but it is much older before that. My dear friends, colleagues and spectators here for you our actors. Heed this is a good piece, the text is not a comedy, but you will laugh galore”
    I hope to see you soon!

    • razorwirewoman July 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

      Dear Viviane,

      Thanks so much for your comments here! They are very helpful, and I would LOVE to go back to Rio to see your performance of Ralé, though I do not know if that will be possible. When will the performance take place? Please keep in touch. I will be back to visit you again next year!



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