Prison Theatre


Students will demonstrate an understanding and appreciation for Prison theatre by listening to a lecture and presentation on prison theatre, participating in a discussion, and writing a short response to the presentation and a draft of an email asking how they could get involved.



Materials Needed

Computer with Internet access and speakers, alternate activity: DVD Shakespeare Behind Bars, Prison Theatre worksheet   Prison Theatre Response



Lesson Directions

Anticipatory Set/Hook
Before class has begun, write the following facts on the board.

299,398,484 (US Population Est. 2006 from
199,688 (total inmate population in US prisons
The average inmate spends 5 to 10 years in federal prison. (from

“Each year, over 11,000 inmates are released from Michigan’s prisons.
Nearly half will return to prison within two years and
cost the state $112 million dollars per year.”
Source: Michigan Department of Corrections

Once class has begun, quickly read over the facts, and then invite a student to read aloud the following poem. Before the student begins the reading, tell the students that the person who wrote the poem is someone who is in prison.

You are like a
baby bird trapped in an
egg it is dark no freedom
no friend you can’t get out
inside you crying
but you can’t show it
you have to be a
you have to be strong if you are
not strong you
will not survive
–Danny (Teaching the Arts Behind Bars by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams pg 86)




Step 1: Transition: Invite the students to consider a central question about prisons and prisoners, and in fact, the central question of the unit. Can theatre really inspire social change?


Step 2: Instruction: Lecture on notable moments in Prison Theatre.
We’re defining prison theatre as anything theatrical done for or by incarcerated individuals. Theatre for prisoners is part of a larger cause of bringing arts to individuals who are incarcerated, and an even broader cause of providing positive, learning experiences for prisoners to help them successfully reincorporate them into society.


An important story in prison theatre centers on the play Waiting for Godot. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett features two men, waiting on the side of the road, for someone named “Godot.” Through the course of the play, nothing much happens; it is essentially a show about two men waiting. This play has entered the cannon of great theatre literature; it is a hallmark piece of Theatre of the Absurd. However, when it was first performed for an audience in 1956; it failed. (

However, a year later, the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop performed the play for prisoners at a prison in San Quentin. It is written of this performance: “What had bewildered the sophisticated audiences of Paris, London, and New York was immediately grasped by an audience of convicts” (Esslin, Martin qtd. in Teaching the Arts Behind Bars by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams pg 81)

It was also said of the performance: “It was an expression, symbolic in order to avoid all personal error, by an author who expected each member of his audience to draw his own conclusions, making his own errors. It asked nothing in point, it forced no dramatized moral on the viewer, it held out no specific hope…We’re all waiting for Godot, and shall continue to wait. When the scenery gets too drab and the action too slow, we’ll call each other names and swear to part forever—but then, there’s no place to go!” (The San Quentin News qtd. in Teaching the Arts Behind Bars by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams pg 81)


Step 3: Instruction: Listen to the following interview on NPR. This particular interview discusses prisoners’ experiences in participating in a production of The Tempest. The interview is available online at


Step 4: Discussion: After the presentation, pass out the prison theatre worksheet. Have the students answer the first question concerning the presentation. Then invite the students to share their responses to the questions.


Step 5: Transition/Lecture: Introduce the work of Prison Theatre Groups.
The following website gives the current projects of a group based in Missouri. This particular page gives a run down of their current projects.

This particular organization: Prison Performing Arts has a contact person who answers questions and helps people get involved. Though this particular organization isn’t a local group; they perhaps can offer suggestions for how we could get involved (if we wanted to) in our local community. So, on the second half of the worksheet, invite the students to draft an email that introduces themselves to the representative, why they are writing, and ask for some ideas on how they could get involved in their own community. If students want extra credit or are genuinely interested, they can actually email the person.
The email address can be obtained from


Step 6: Discussion: What does prison theatre have to do with children’s theatre? How can children’s theatre give children a voice?


Step 7: Independent practice: Any remaining time can be spent working on the project; students need to turn in a script by the end of the period.



Author’s Notes

NOTE: For the purpose of this lesson plan, we will assume that permission is granted by to use an on-line audio archive of an interview. This lesson can also be effectively taught with an extended lecture or a movie.