Ron Jenkins, center, rehearses with former inmates Saundra Duncan and Lynda Gardner. (Photo by Steve Miller)
The Magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education featured a story this month on Professor of Theater Ron Jenkins’ Dante Project, “a program he created that attempts to use theater as a catalyst for positive change in prisons throughout the world.”
According to the article, the program, which has been facilitated in places as far flung as Italy and Indonesia, encourages incarcerated men and women to “write about points of connection between their own life stories and the experiences of the characters” in classics like Dante’s Inferno. These writings are then used to create a script that is performed inside the prison. Wesleyan students also perform the scripts at other colleges and in the community, and engage in discussions about issues related to reforming the country’s criminal justice system.
Jenkins, his Wesleyan students, and three women who had been incarcerated, attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Alumni of Color conference in March to perform a mash-up of Dante’s Inferno and the prisoners’ life stories, called To See the Stars.
Ron Jenkins rehearses a play with actresses. (Photo by Steve Miller, for the Boston Globe)
Ron Jenkins, professor of theater, is featured in the Feb. 24 issue of The Boston Globe for teaching a class at York Correctional Facility. Jenkins and his Wesleyan students teach the “Activism and Outreach Through Theater” course to inmates.
While behind bars at York, students take workshops with Jenkins, learning plays by Shakespeare and Dante.
According to the article, Jenkins has focused his career on theater as a catalyst for social change. That has meant working in Italy with Nobel laureate Dario Fo (whose play “Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas’’ Jenkins directed at the American Repertory Theater in 2001) and running drama workshops in New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility and Indonesia’s Kerobokan prison. About five years ago, he started working with inmates in Connecticut.
“People in prison feel like they get erased from society, like they’re forgotten, and they’re in an environment that’s very dehumanizing,’’ Jenkins says in the article. “Theater can be a great way to help humanize that environment and help people who are in the process of rehabilitating themselves and trying to transform themselves.’’
The full Boston Globe article is online here.
Ron Jenkins, professor of theater
Ron Jenkins, professor of theater, was interviewed about his prison theater project for a Radio Australia program on June 24. The broadcast was aired on their pacific network in Australia, Indonesia, Cambodia and East Timor. A transcript of the interview is below:
Theatre program with a difference in Bali, Indonesia
The Kerobokanprison has become synonymous with the trials and convictions of Australian drug traffickers Schapelle Corby, and members of the Bali 9. But now a professor of theatre from the United States is running a theater program as part of efforts to change the atmosphere of the jail.
Presenter Nasya Bahfen interviewed Jenkins, professor of theatre at Wesleyan University in Connecticut; Made Mantle Hood, honorary research fellow, University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music:
JENKINS: Well I’ve always enjoyed staging theatre in venues that are outside of traditional theatres
and over the last five or six years I’ve been working in theatres in the United States in prisons.
BAHFEN: Ron Jenkins, mild mannered professor of theatre at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, USA. He regularly meets with a theatre group in one of Indonesia’s most notorious prisons, Kerobokan jail in Kuta, Bali. He gets inmates who reportedly include three members of the Bali 9 to perform pieces such as Dante’s Inferno.
JENKINS: Although I’ve been going to Bali and Indonesia
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Ron Jenkins, professor of theater
Ron Jenkins, professor of theater, was featured in the June 9 edition of The Jakarta Post in an article titled “From Hell to Heaven at Kerobokan Prison.” In January, Jenkins started running a theater project at the Kerobokan Correctional Institution in Bali, where he taught 20 men and women inmates about acting. After six months of practice, the group performed Dante’s Divine Comedy,” a story about taking a personal journey through hell and purgatory to heaven.
“It is a story that anyone who has experienced hard times can understand,” Jenkins explains in the article. “But people in prison unfortunately have a deeper understanding of hell than most of us, and they can identify even more strongly with a character like Dante who is trying to learn something as he travels through hell, which will help him get to heaven.”
Jenkins spent part of his sabbatical in Indonesia working with I-Nyoman Catra, Ph.D. ’05 now a professor in Indonesia. View the Jakarta Post article here.
Ron Jenkins, professor of theater, created a program in which inmates study and perform parts of Dante’s "Inferno." (Photo by Andrew Sullivan for the New York Times)
Ron Jenkins, professor of theater, was featured in the Dec. 24 edition of the New York Times for his efforts teaching incarcerated men Dante’s “Inferno.”
In the Dante Project, Jenkins leads a series of workshops that, through reading, analyzing, adapting and performing, explores the connections between Dante’s 14th-century epic poem and the lives of incarcerated men and women.
Jenkins, who has taught in Wesleyan’s theater department for 11 years, introduced prison outreach into the curriculum in 2007, bringing Wesleyan students to the York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Niantic, to work with inmates on literary classics. In 2009 and 2010, they began concentrating on “Inferno”; this year, because of construction at York, the class took place at the men’s facility in Niantic, the J.B. Gates Correctional Institution.
“Everyone who reads [“Inferno”] can identify with it, but the inmates can identify in a more powerful way, because they’ve gone through hell more than the rest of us,” Jenkins says in the article. “In our classes, they aren’t identifying with the sinners; they identify with Dante. They’re taking Dante’s journey, learning how to get out of a difficult place into someplace better.”
At left, Ron Jenkins, professor of theater, focuses his new book on the acclaimed Balinese painter Nyoman Gunarsa (pictured at right).
This issue, we ask “5 Questions” to Ron Jenkins, professor of theater. Jenkins is an expert in Balinese theater, international traditions of comic performance, and directing and translating the plays of Italian Nobel Laureate Dario Fo. He was awarded a residency at the Bellagio Center by the Rockefeller Foundation next spring. He is a former Guggenheim fellow whose research in Bali over the past 30 years has been supported by fellowships from the Watson Foundation, the Asian Cultural Council of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Fulbright Fund.
Q: Professor Jenkins, you’ve been teaching theater at Wesleyan for 11 years, specializing in international theater translation and prison arts programs. You directed the student/inmate play, “Unexpected: Voices of Incarcerated Woman” last spring. How, and when, did you acquire these interests?
A: I began my professional theater career as a clown and juggler in the circus, where I enjoyed having direct contact with large and diverse audiences, but I had to spend time in other cultures to discover clown and theater traditions with a deeper sense of social responsibility. I lived for a year in a Balinese village where I apprenticed with a troupe of temple performers who combined slapstick,
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Ron Jenkins, professor of theater
The Rockefeller Foundation awarded Ron Jenkins, professor of theater, with a residency at the Bellagio Center in Italy during his sabbatical next spring.
Between March and April 2011, Jenkins will be working on a book about prison theater projects that he’s been directing at correctional facilities including his most recent work at a prison in Indonesia.
Jenkins has been collaborating with incarcerated individuals on staging their adaptations of classic texts by Shakespeare and Dante and other authors. These projects have grown out of work done with Wesleyan students in Connecticut correctional facilities.
The specific texts include Shakespeare’s Tempest, Dante’s Inferno and the Mahabhrata.
“The personalized adaptations give incarcerated individuals the opportunity to tell their own stories by making connection between their experiences and the experiences of classical literary characters, with special emphases on life-changing turning points,” Jenkins explains.
To read more about Jenkins and to see a Wesleyan video on him, click here.
Ron Jenkins, professor of theater, is the author of the 330-page book, Rua Bineda in Bali: Counterfeit Justice in the Trial of Nyoman Gunarsa, published by the Indonesian University of the Arts, 2010. The book focuses on how a Balinese painter, puppet-master and a Brahmin priest perceive a landmark court case involving art forgery and identity theft. Read more about this book in a “5 Questions With . . .” profile at http://newsletter.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2010/09/02/5-questions-with-professor-of-theater-ron-jenkins/.
The play, Unexpected: Voices of Incarcerated Women, included pieces written by former and current inmates at the York Correctional Institute in Niantic, Conn. Photo by Bill Burkhart.
The debut of Unexpected: Voices of Incarcerated Women, a new play directed by Professor of Theater Ron Jenkins, was shown to full crowds in the Center for the Arts Hall on Feb. 25 and 26.
In Unexpected, stories written by women formerly and presently incarcerated at the York Correctional Institute in Niantic, Conn., were performed by the former prisoners and Wesleyan students who have collaborated with them in Jenkins’ service learning course.
Jenkins has been leading a theater outreach class at York since 2008, which predates the Center for Prison Education at Wesleyan, founded in 2009. However, through the Center for Prison Education, Wesleyan students are currently volunteering at the prison.
“The mission of the Center for Prison Education program is to practice Wesleyan’s civic engagement by offering college courses to incarcerated individuals, in order both to enrich the lives of those who are systematically denied access to educational opportunities and to enhance Wesleyan’s academic community. We believe that the work done by Ron Jenkins and our activities complement one another well,” explains program manager Cathy Crimmins Lechowicz, director of community service and volunteerism.
The Feb. 25 performance included a reading by novelist
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Ron Jenkins, professor of theater, was featured in the June 23 issue of ODE Magazine in an article titled “Laughter can set people free.” Jenkins argues that laughter is a survival tactic for people under siege. “For ages, comedy has been used as a liberating tool for people, especially in oppressive regimes, to confront, ridicule and criticize the powerful,” Jenkins says in the article.
Jenkins recalls how he began his study of laughter: “When I was in pre-medical school, I was trying to help a child with autism who never made eye contact and who never spoke, [except to] repeat words spoken to him. My comical, silly, joking gestures broke though a barrier and he started looking in my eyes and initiating words. That’s when I knew I would not learn how to make people laugh in medical school. I decided to become a circus clown.”