SUNY Potsdam’s Applied Theatre Works with Inmates at the St. Lawrence County Jail
Rivka Rocchio, a visiting instructor in SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Theatre and Dance, just wrapped up an 11-week applied theatre course where she traveled with nine Potsdam students to the St. Lawrence County Correctional Facility for a collaborative community theatre project. Students had the opportunity to co-create and co-perform a short piece of theatre with inmates at the jail in Canton—marking the first time that SUNY Potsdam’s applied theatre class has ever been taught in a correctional facility. The course concluded last month with a performance by the SUNY Potsdam students and six inmates at the jail.
By blending academic and corrections communities, students on both sides of the walls were able to improve their understandings of stereotypes, bias and judgment. “This class made me less likely to judge others and to be able to humanize other communities,” she said.
SUNY Potsdam sophomore Phoenix Merritt said that she has only been involved in traditional theatre and musicals in the past and didn’t quite know what to expect.
“I think I can speak on behalf of my entire class that we were all a little nervous. Most of us have never been to a jail before,” she said. “Unfortunately, we had embedded in our brains stereotypes of prisons, but as soon as we walked in there, we had a blast. We played games and we were introduced to the group.”
Each week, the nine Potsdam students travelled by van to the St. Lawrence County Correctional Facility to meet the rest of their ensemble for the drama class. The facility houses inmates who are accused of a crime, are awaiting sentencing or have been found guilty of a crime and are serving a term up to one year. Located just outside the village of Canton, students had a short 12-mile commute from SUNY Potsdam to the jail. In addition to honing their acting skills, students had the opportunity to think, write, research, converse and interact with the inmates. A truly hands-on experience, this community-based class allowed students to work outside their comfort zone to create a unique theatrical production.
Rocchio joined SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Theatre and Dance last fall after receiving her Master of Fine Arts degree from Arizona State University in Tempe where she worked on community theatre in the Arizona’s prison system. She enjoys working with people who don’t see themselves primarily as artists, particularly those individuals who are incarcerated. Rocchio said there’s a real need for inmates to be able to express themselves to help with rehabilitation.
“95% of the people who are locked up are going to be released, and those are people who are going to come back and be our neighbors…so I think that we have a vested interest in making sure that their human connection is never lost, and theatre is an excellent way to do that,” Rocchio said.
Ron, currently incarcerated, wrote that the class gave him skills he will use in his everyday life. “I feel friendlier, more likely to open up to people. I don’t feel judged and I trust guys in the class a little more,” he wrote.
As he anticipates his release, Rocchio hopes that the collaborative theatre experience will help inmates like Ron in his transition back into the community. In turn, her students have taken away powerful lessons about the impact of theatre education.
For more information about SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Theatre and Dance, please visit: https://www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/Theatre.