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Engaged brings theater and thought to WA prisons

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Photo courtesy of Freehold
Photo courtesy of Freehold

When most people think of a venue for a play, the first thing that comes to mind likely isn't a prison.

But the folks at Freehold's Engaged Theatre is Seattle aren't like most people.

According 2021 data from the Prison Policy Initiative, 455 per 100,000 people in Washington are incarcerated, which is a higher percentage than most other democracies on earth.

A press release by Freehold says, "For 20 years the Engaged Theatre program, unique to Freehold, has connected with extraordinary audiences across the Northwest. This fall, our tour will reach over 500 persons who are incarcerated, and inpatient men and women struggling with mental health issues. We have heard from past audiences that watching the struggles of characters on stage makes them feel less alone. They feel seen as nuanced, complex human beings, and less the sum of their past mistakes."

The play Engaged Theatre performed this fall was Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, which is rooted in themes of forgiveness and human nature.

"We were very intentional with the production of this show and the way that we cut the script, because we knew we were taking it into the prisons and performing it for the incarcerated populations," said Freehold Theatre actor Lola Fukushima.

"And it was really important for us to find a story that not only showcases a wide range of different morals and ethics and ways of thinking and being moral, but also to showcase a story about humans. Every single person that is alive has the capacity to do something bad. And that can never mean that they are wholesale a bad person."

Because of the location of the performances, the cast and crew endure extra-long days during which they are only allowed the clothes on their back and the materials needed for the show.

"It is a lot of work and it's pretty intense, but not in the ways you might think when entering a prison," Fukushima said. "It really is more just the work that as actors... and crew have to [do], like setup and stuff like that. But... it was so lovely to meet everyone and see the programs that they have."

Despite the long hours, Fukushima and the people who have viewed the show have been deeply impacted by the experience in a positive way.

"The people that we were performing for are some of the most thoughtful, considerate, reflective, intelligent people that I have ever met," Fukushima said. "Just from briefly speaking with them, after we have performed and [done] a quick Q&A, the way that they are so intensely engaged with art and the work is almost overwhelming... Because as an actor in Seattle, you don't get that kind of audience engagement pretty much anywhere else...

"And the things that they had to say about the scenes and the stories that they were telling us were just so beautiful and poetic... The things that they say and the things that they have to think about are the exact same things that we have... It's very humanizing for both parties, and I think that that's what was especially impactful ... being able to be the person who could show them that I that I saw them as a human — to be able to humanize each other — I think was incredibly important."

For more information about Freehold's Engaged Theatre, visit https://www.freeholdtheatre.org or follow @freeholdtheatre on Instagram or Freehold Theatre on Facebook. While the theatre is done with this current tour, it still offers a variety of classes and space rentals throughout the year.