Inside-Out Prison Exchange Piece Performed at Portland Center Stage
Professional actors, in collaboration with faculty and students from Lewis & Clark, presented I Think of You, a variation on the final theatre project of students in the spring Inside-out Prison Exchange course.
The black box stage was sparse with only a few folding chairs as props. But the professional production of I think of You, based on the final theatre project of students from Lewis & Clark and the Columbia River Correctional Institution, was overflowing with feeling. Actors delivered quietly powerful monologues alongside choreographed marching, stomping, and the percussive movement of chairs.
I Think of You was originally developed by students in the spring 2023 Inside-Out Prison Exchange course. It’s a 10-scene production that examines the history of mass incarceration and its impacts on both society at large and the individuals in the class. Derived from the students’ own writing, the powerful piece was first presented at the Columbia River Correctional Institution in April 2023.
The performances, along with associated workshops and talk-back events, all took place in the Ellen Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage over the weekend of August 25 to 27, 2023. Four shows, featuring a cast of seven professional actors played to enthusiastic full houses. Three opportunities to engage with the cast, reflect on the role prison plays in society, and to better understand the Inside-Out model, were also well attended.
The collaborative production was made possible by a $85,000 Creative Heights grant from the Oregon Community Foundation.
I Think of You
Inside-Out Courses at L&C
Inside-Out courses have been a part of Lewis & Clark’s undergraduate offerings since 2012, after Associate Professor of History and Director of Ethnic Studies Reiko Hillyer received training from the Inside-Out Prison Exchange in 2011. Half of the students in these courses are “outside” students from the college and half “inside” students who are currently incarcerated. At this point, thanks to a grant from the Mellon Foundation, the program has expanded to include four faculty members who are trained to offer courses, with one course available per semester.
Hillyer’s course “Crime and Punishment in the United States” first incorporated theatre as an element in 2019, thanks to the support of a Whiting Foundation grant that allowed her to collaborate with Associate Professor of Theatre Rebecca Lingafelter.
After their experience in 2019, Hillyer and Lingafelter knew that the work that came out of this class would deserve a wider audience. They applied for the Oregon Community Foundation grant and collaborated with Portland Center Stage to create that opportunity this year.
The Portland Center Stage Version
The performances were more than a simple reprise of I Think of You. Direction from Professors Lingafelter and Hillyer–and dramaturgy by Sterling Cunio–stayed true to the text and concept created by the students, but told the story of the class itself in addition to presenting the original content. Audience members watched the inside and outside students forge connections, witnessed as skepticism became respect, felt the withering stare of a prison warden, and were themselves students of a history lesson presented through the students’ eyes.
The cast and crew were filled with Lewis & Clark connections. Lingafelter was the director and Hillyer was the lead artist and scholar. Four of the seven actors were L&C alumni: Negasi Brown BA ’23, Dylan Hankins BA ’20, Isabel Strongheart McTighe BA ’22, and Evelyn Wohlbier BA ’23. Costume design was by Jenny Ampersand, L&C’s costume shop manager. The audience at every performance included plenty of Lewis & Clark community members,including nearly 40 first-year students participating in New Student Trips as part of their orientation; current students and alumni from all three of L&C’s schools; and some formerly incarcerated Inside-Out students who had been released since the course concluded.
These performances were designed to communicate the creators’ belief that “we tell history not only through the word, but that we all carry history in our bodies.” This interconnection between body and words was central not only to the show but also to the associated workshops. A traditional talk-balk between the audience and performers was offered on Friday evening. On Sunday afternoon, Hillyer facilitated a workshop that engaged 30 participants—15 formerly incarcerated—in an in-depth look at the Inside-Out model. Saturday afternoon’s “Imagining a World Without Prisons” workshop gave participants a chance to use improvisation, movement, writing, and discussion to push their thinking about the role prisons play in society.
More Inside-Out Courses
The national Inside-Out program has trained more than 1,300 educators in 49 U.S. states and 14 other countries. These educators have in turn taught over 60,000 students using techniques that aim to effectively facilitate dialogue over difference.
Currently, Associate Professor of French Molly Robinson is teaching a literature course called Cry of Freedom, which focuses on longing and freedom across time, space, and culture. Lingafelter will offer Performance From the Inside Out, which will focus on acting and autobiographical performance, in spring 2024.