NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — Bethel College student Emily Simpson’s time in prison taught her more than she’d imagined.
It might not be what you think. Simpson, nine other Bethel students and their professor, director of theater John McCabe-Juhnke, spent several dozen hours behind the razor wire, heavy stone walls and locked doors of Hutchinson Correctional Facility during Bethel’s January interterm.
They were collaborating with seven HCF inmates on Inside Story, a collection of dramatic sketches and monologues taken from several sources, including the journals both the students and the inmates kept during that month.
The group performed Inside Story twice at HCF, once for inmates and once for members of the public who wanted to come inside to see it. The students did two more productions on Bethel’s Krehbiel Auditorium stage in early February, adapting it so they could cover the inmates’ roles themselves and allowing for audience feedback after each performance.
Prison theater has been a passion of McCabe-Juhnke’s for a dozen years. In that time, he has worked with several groups of men at HCF. This was the first time he was able to directly involve students, in what he called Prison Theater Pilot Project.
Most of the students were like Simpson, a senior from Lebanon, Tenn. She volunteered for the prison theater project, since she was already taking another interterm course for credit.
“When I started this project, it was just a way for me to get more theater experience and to try something different,” she said. “It turned out to be so much more.”
A new environment
“I knew it was going to be an eye-opening experience and an opportunity to gain a new perspective,” said Jesse Voth-Gaeddert, a junior from Hesston. “I was a little unsure about whether I wanted to commit the time, since I was already taking four hours of classes during interterm.
“But I decided I couldn’t turn away the opportunity to take part in a theater project with a diverse group of people in a new environment.”
That environment changed participants’ perspectives. McCabe-Juhnke said he saw his students at their best.
“Something about combining elements of performance and service allowed them to do well in both,” he said. “One of the benefits of this for them was understanding their own privilege and being able to engage with others who had not had that privilege.”
Luke Loganbill, a junior from Moundridge, was asked to reflect on “seeing God in prison” for a Bethel chapel service.
“I think I saw the divine mostly in the people I worked with — inmates, students and director alike,” he said. “I knew God had a role in this when I became John’s assistant, [which] led me to type the journals the inmates wrote and read the comments about how much of a godsend this project was.
“I saw a director trust a small fragment of an idea, which eventually pieced together to become an amazingly moving show. I saw students’ eyes opening and labels being removed. I saw laughter and companionship where many would never think to look for it. I saw God in people some would claim to be godless.”
Inside Story succeeded as a pilot project, McCabe-Juhnke said, in that he hopes to make it part of the regular curriculum in the future, perhaps available for cross-cultural learning credit.
“[The project] was in many ways a cross-cultural conversation,” he said, “although the students probably learned more about prison than the inmates did about Bethel.”
Brad Born, vice president for academic affairs, went to see Inside Story at HCF.
“I recall that, years ago, John called his prison arts work a form of ‘restoration theater,’ ” Born said, “and that is what I witnessed — a shared aesthetic experience, in which students and inmates worked to bring comfort, rebuild hope, reawaken compassion and restore right relationships.”
Because of prison theater, Emily Simpson began to feel a calling to stand up to the injustice of the prison system.
“For a month, God put me behind bars, but I didn’t feel trapped. Just the opposite,” she said. “For the first time in a long time, I was being shown the path to freedom, the way to a life free of prejudices and stereotypes — lifting the veil from my eyes so I can learn to see people for who they really are.”