You’re not in prison when you’re on stage

The mission of the theatre, after all, is to change, to raise the consciousness of people to their human possibilities.” Arthur Miller

Last Saturday, I had the rare privilege of watching a theatre play inside a prison, Hindelbank, close to Bern. During an hour, a packed audience saw seven incarcerated women on stage offer fireworks of affirmation, emotions, and good, authentic acting, in three languages. They shed off their prison selves and broke loose of the barriers of identity, self-imposed or imposed by society. And we, the spectators, saw our prejudices and preconceptions shattered to pieces. In part Molière, in part Shakespeare, and Robert Walser, in part monologues of their own creation; creativity went off-leash. A red thread kept it neatly tied together: a reflection on identity. Are we defined by our major moral failures? By our greatest achievements? What is human agency?

At the head of the project two committed women, Bettina Dieterle, director and mastermind of this project, and Franziska Bill, head of leisure and sport at Hindelbank. Under their leadership the actresses worked together for close to 6 months, meeting twice a week. What they achieved will remain in the memories of actors and spectators alike, for years to come. As the show ended and the public sprang to their feet in a massive standing ovation, I saw tears roll down the cheeks of actresses and the public alike. I was relieved to be wearing a mask, it concealed my own emotions.

The atmosphere at the women prison of Hindelbank breathes hope. What makes this prison different is its human-centred management. In this women-run prison, the detainees have the right to a second opportunity.

Theatre helps us feel what it feels to be someone else. And imagine a better version of ourselves. Theatre is a collaborative process, it demands working with colleagues, it encourages introspection and self-reflection. Theatre teaches life skills. Acting allows us to overcome our past selves, imagine and become someone else. Nowhere does this seem more important than in prison.

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