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“Confinements” play by former inmates and Cornell students premieres Sunday

provided by Bruce Levitt
A student stands in front of a videocamera during a recording of her performance in the play

Cornell University’s prison educational programs have been on hold during the pandemic, but a theater professor has found a way to keep connected with incarcerated people. 

For decades, performing arts professor Bruce Levitt has used theater as a way to engage with people who are incarcerated. 

“To see people discover themselves in front of you is very exciting,” said Levitt, who is also a facilitator for the Phoenix Players Theatre Group at Auburn Maximum Security Prison. “To help them on that journey, particularly people who have been reduced to a number and a crime find and rediscover their wholeness as human beings is a pretty exciting process.”

This year, he taught a theater class online to both undergraduates and former inmates enrolled in Cornell’s Prison Education Program (CPEP). 

Students worked together on an hourlong performance called “Confinements.” It’s about the ways people are cut off from fully participating in society and includes a theme of transitions. 

Levitt said theater can be a therapeutic way to process trauma, even without an audience.

“There’s a great value in using theater as a transformative process through which people can explore their own lives,” Levitt said.

Levitt developed the theater workshop class with Betsye Violette, who facilitates college programs for Cornell at two prisons – Five Points in Seneca County and Auburn Correctional Facility in Cayuga County. 

“Usually most of our CPEP guys’ interaction with Cornell students is inside prison, where there’s a wonky power dynamic that gets set up," Violette said in a statement, "But what I think is really lovely about this project is that the playing field is level. Everyone is being vulnerable in the same ways.”

"Confinements" will air online at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are free and available at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts website.

Noelle E. C. Evans is an education reporter/producer with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.