“If we want to keep people from committing crimes they need a job and therefore you need to hire people have convictions on their record,” said Lisa Ellin. To help make that happen, Ellin, a community activist, has teamed up with Civic Ensemble to teach a reentry playwriting class with the ultimate aim of presenting personal plays to potential employers.
The 9-person class, which includes former state and county inmates from Tompkins and Cortland counties, has been meeting twice a week for eight weeks in preparation for a final performance at Hangar Theatre at 6:30 p.m., on Wednesday, April 22.
Sarah Chalmers, Civic Ensemble’s director of civic engagement, explained that the goal of the class is to present formerly incarcerated potential employees to local employers in a more personal setting that will allow employers to know these men and women for more than the box they check on a job applications. She said, “It’s an opportunity for everyone in the community to sort of open our minds a little bit to the humanity of each individual. There’s a stigma around having been incarcerated that doesn’t allow for differentiation.” She added, “The more employers get the chance to meet people who were incarcerated outside the interview, the better.”
Although she’s not actually a member of Civic Ensemble, the class was originally Ellin’s idea. Previously, Ellin had worked with the acting troupe during last year’s play about community and police relations. Now, when she had an idea for a reentry program, she brought it right to Civic Ensemble. Chalmers said, “She came to us and said, ‘I want this to happen. I’m passionate about criminal justice and theatre and I want to do this.’” So, along with Civic Ensemble’s Artistic Director Godfrey Simmons, Jr., Chalmers and Ellin got together and started a class.
Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources helped spread the word and find applicants, all of whom were accepted. A number of local companies and charities as well as individual donors helped provide the funding to make the class a reality and as a result, the class not only includes transportation but also a $200 stipend upon completion.
“The class is really delving into the nuts and bolts of playwriting,” said Chalmers. Ellin explained that meant beginning with reading and analyzing other monologues and eventually moving on to have the students write their own pieces individually or in pairs. The final performance will be a collection of these short monologues and dialogues.
Jose Pellot, one of the class participants said, “The drama class is blowing my mind.” He’s working on a play about a man who gets out of jail and tries to go straight, but ends up getting framed for something he didn’t do.
Briana Forest, who is taking the class alongside her husband, said that her play is not about her own struggles with the justice system, but about the effect of her husband’s struggles on the rest of the family. She said, “I’m going to write about how my husband’s been wrongly accused of things in the past and been incarcerated for it and he’s been in jail while I’ve been at home being a single parent for my first child. So I have struggled to care of all of us on my own, so that’s kind of what I’m writing about.”
Echoing Forest’s concerns, Ellin said, “There are families who are suffering because the father or mother isn’t working. We need to expand the work force and we have people who come out of prison with some great skills. How can we say we’re a community when we’re continuing to exclude a certain group of people? That’s not what Ithaca’s about.”
The show is free to attend, but interested individuals are encouraged to sign up online in advance athttp://bit.ly/ReEntryTickets.
The article, by Keri Blakinger, originally appeared on ithaca.com.