The existence and persistence of the theatre workshop in Ferrara District Prison.

In what has become daily practice for eight years now in Ferrara prison, a group detainees, some of them always the same, others changing, have made theatre part of their everyday life. The project isn’t – not yet; it can’t be yet – a theatre company because its existence revolves around workshops, whereas a company implies rehearsals for a performance. They are workshops, and every session is an experience that begins and ends. When the accumulated experience develops into the need for an open rehearsal or the preparation of a performance – in order to include other people in the experience and see what effect it has, and to incorporate the result of the session into the group’s body memory – then the sessions partly take the form of rehearsals. This is also because, with a performance, the outside world can be reached with a new discourse and, through this, society can meet the detainees in a situation that transcends punishment, stigma and prejudice.

The detainees taking part are not professionals, in the sense that they don’t live on what they earn from theatre. But in another way, they are, because they now live to make theatre come alive. They live for the things they have learnt that theatre can give them, as payment – not cash, but priceless things that can be neither bought nor sold. The theatre workers in the project, on the other hand, can see how richly this action contributes to theatre, in terms of both methodology and creativity. As prison is a world in itself, with its own written and unwritten rules and its own ethical structures, the theatre workers have had to rethink their certainties and renew their approaches in order to make the rules of the craft – rigour, discipline, solidarity and responsibility – function here as they do elsewhere.

The continuous nature of the workshops has made it possible to use them for training, this being essential in that there’s nowhere else that can teach you how to do theatre in prison – you have to pick it up as you go along. A number of trainees have taken part, with encouraging results.

In 2009, with the backing of the Regional Council and Ferrara City council, we created a forum for prison theatre activities in the region. A preliminary survey showed that various projects existed, but that they were working in isolation and sporadically. Knowing that drama needs continuity and support if its transformative and creative powers are to be effective, we set up the Forum so that the activities could interconnect and be discussed with prison and probation personnel (prison guards, educators, etc.) and scholars of renown, with the meetings taking place on neutral ground, our Cortázar headquarters – although still in a theatre.
The theatre workers decided to form an association, which then set up the prison theatre regional coordinating body, attended by representatives of the different prison theatre groups, the regional Social Services and Cultural Policy departments, the regional Prison Authorities and the University of Bologna DAMS drama school. The coordinating body is now drawing up its second programme, which, as mentioned above, has the scope of bolstering and bringing continuity to the theatre work, extending it to all institutions, ensuring a strong link with the regional theatre network and encouraging access to training (for detainees and theatre workers alike).

Since 2006, open rehearsals have been taking place in the prison, involving other detainees and community groups.

In 2006, the detainees’ drama group put on the play “Splinters – from Totò to Beckett” at Ferrara’s Municipal Theatre, to be followed in 2011 and 2012 by “Woyzeck Worksite”, as part of the “Theatre/Prison Rooms” programme organised by the regional theatre/prison coordinating body.

Since 2010 the repertoire has included the play “My neighbour”, based on prison theatre themes,  with the participation of an actor who was formerly a detainee member of the prison theatre workshop.

In 2012 the play “Woyzeck Worksite” was awarded the Entertainment Medal of  the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano.