For our second installment of “Office Hours,” a series of interviews with prominent personalities on Cornell’s campus, Sunspots writer Andrew Shi talked with with Performing and Media Arts Professor Bruce Levitt, who has taught at Cornell since 1986 and is involved with Phoenix Players Theatre Group (PPTG), a prison theatre group at Auburn Correctional Facility.
You’ve worked with PPTG since 2010. How has the group evolved over time?
Since the group is inmate-led, that dynamic shifts and we shift with it. The makeup of the group changes over time as some men get transferred out and new men come into the group. A complete cycle of training the new men takes 18 months. Every time there are new members, the dynamic of the group changes, because there are other wants and desires about how the group should function.
Does the turnover rate bother you?
As ongoing volunteers, we can’t communicate with anyone who leaves the group. We can’t write, call, or visit them. I got to know the original five members and became very good friends with them, and ever since they’ve been transferred out I can’t communicate with them. I get to know these men on a level that is deeper and richer than most students I teach at Cornell. It’s a loss—not dissimilar to how an incarcerated person feels when he learns about another incarcerated person’s death. When someone dies, they may not hear about it for a long time. Only through conversations, prison gossip, rumors do they find out. You don’t even get to say goodbye.
So what remains constant?
This is a group by and for incarcerated people. The longer-term members impart the group’s philosophy on to newer members. What’s constant is trust: each man in the group has to trust each other. There is no conversation outside the group of what goes inside the group. Everything that happens in that room stays in that room. In the prison environment, the way to protect yourself is to put on a mask of distancing impenetrability. The men take that mask off in PPTG, so there’s a huge vulnerability in that room they don’t access or want to display when they’re outside in the prison. What happens in that room is only for the PPTG community.
So the men take off masks. But theatre is performative—it involves putting on masks, right?
Not in PPTG. The stereotype of acting is that somebody puts something on top of himself to represent a character. This leads to weak, incomplete, imperfect performances. In theater, there’s the character the playwright has written, and there’s you as a human being. What happens is that these two things come together and transform into a third thing, which is the character in performance. But that doesn’t mean you leave yourself behind and put on a mask. It means that there is a transformative process between the demands of the playwright and your own experiences. It is a transformation. The same way that PPTG guys are working on transforming themselves.
How is PPTG different from other prison theatre groups?
For the most part, other prison theatre groups work with people for a limited period of time. PPTG is year-round; nobody has to leave the group unless they get transferred to another prison. In other groups, for the most part the men are following a construct introduced to them by an outside group, although some groups do collaborate with the men inside. Here in PPTG we follow a construct written by guys early on in the life of the organization that has been perpetuated and expanded by others who have joined the group.
Talk about your documentary, Human Again. Why did you make it?
One of the key elements of PPTG is “witnessing”. Michael, a founding member, believed that if your transformation is not witnessed, it is not complete. In other words, somebody else has to see that you’ve changed or are changing. A live performance allows 80 people from the outside to witness the show. Those 80 people become witnesses; they go out and talk to their friends. But with film there is opportunity for greater witnessing. I also wanted to begin a conversation with the audience about the stereotypes our culture has of incarcerated people. Stereotypes aren’t all false—they’re just very incomplete: you take one trait and blow it up to define a whole group of people.
You’re the recipient of the Cornell’s first Engaged Scholar Prize. How did you feel?
It’s a wonderful recognition of the time that I, along with others, have put into Auburn. But it’s a greater recognition for the men. I wouldn’t be anywhere near the prize if it wasn’t for them starting the theatre group and saying “you can stay” to me after my audition. It makes me feel really good for them, because they are the originators of the group.
You had an audition?
Yes. Steve Cole, the first facilitator, brought me up and I observed a few classes. I explained what devised and solo performances were to the men. I gave them a demonstration and asked them to bring in some events from their lives to stage. I worked with them and at the end of the evening they told me I could stay. And I’ve been there ever since.
This spring, five undergrads started going to Auburn with you as part of a prison theatre course. Why did you start the course this semester?
As a board member of Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), I suggested that we do a minor for prison education. It’s now called Crime, Prisons, Education & Justice. I wrote the proposal for the course to fulfill a minor requirement. All in all, it worked out quite well, and I hope to repeat it next year.
Any advice for a student thinking about theatre in the prison context?
Understand who it is you’re serving. It is a privilege to be a theatre artist. There’s a discipline you need to acquire, a growth of your soul that you need to be open to. You need to be aware of the legacy you are inheriting as a theatre artist. There’s got to be a recognition of your responsibility as an artist, whatever kind of art you’re doing. Hamlet said that actors are brief chroniclers of our time. It’s not about us. It’s about the shared experience.