Why Craig Wright's THE UNSEEN?

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Craig Wright's THE UNSEEN Production at Tennessee Rep Every year the professional intern class undertakes the producing of a project of their own choosing and this season’s class has chosen to stage Craig Wright’s The Unseen. The play focuses on Wallace (Richard Daniel) and Valdez (Kevin Bohleber), who are imprisoned and tortured by a totalitarian regime for unknown crimes and how they struggle to understand  each other, their situation, and their guard, Smash (Kenneth Brown), the only visible arm of the regime in the play. While the interns had an endless list of plays they could have chosen from for their project, you may be puzzled about how and why they came to choose a prison drama.

First of all the worlds of confinement and the theatre have a strong connection with each other. Playwrights have a history of being fascinated with the unique psychological and social microcosm of life behind bars. In 1938 Tennessee Williams wrote Not About Nightingales, a recently discovered and produced work about the relationship of power between a prison warden and inmate. Irish writer Brendan Behan, inspired by his own stay in Dublin’s Mountjoy prison, wrote The Quare Fellow, a powerful dialogue spattered with satire about capital punishment that eventually played in London’s West End in 1956. Famously performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Peter Weiss’ 1963 long titled play often referred to simple as Marat/Sade addresses class struggle and human suffering through the play within a play structure in which inmates of the 1800s French Charenton Asylum perform a play for the asylum’s warden-like supervisor and his family. A musical, 1990’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman, has even arisen from the confines of prison life. And closer to home, the 2011-2012 Ingram New Works Project saw the production and premiere of Kenley Smith’s Empires of Eternal Void about a young soldier and a military chaplain locked in a cell together attempting to discover the dark and confusing truths of each other. And these are just a few of the plays that touch upon the prison environment.

But prison isn’t just inspiration for playwrights, it’s also a venue for and creator of theatrical works in its own right. Prison has long been known to be a producer of artistic expression, from drawings and tattoos, to poetry and memoirs. But in recent years theatre has begun increasingly working in therapeutic and outreach capacities for inmate populations. For example groups like Shakespeare Behind Bars founded in Kentucky and famously profiled in a documentary of the same name at the Sundance Film Festival teaches performance skills to inmates and stages full productions of Shakespeare by inmate actors for inmate and public audiences. For more than 20 years the group’s mission has been to help inmates to develop life skills through theatre in order to reintegrate into society. While the recidivism rate nationally hovers at 60%, for participants in programs likes these that rate falls to around only 6%. Drama therapy, such as groups like this one provide, has proven to be a useful counseling and rehabilitative tool for a population that often struggles to express their life stories and emotions in order to gain acceptance and move past their history.

Craig Wright's The Unseen production at Tennessee Rep

It’s not necessarily unusual for the theatre then that our professional interns are working on a production involving prison. In fact it’s actually quite socially relevant of them to be addressing such a subject in their project. In the past two decades the population of American prisons has quadrupled, making the incarceration rate of the US the highest in the world. As a result more Americans then ever before have been touched, even simply through indirect association, by the corrections system. Because a higher percentage of the population now knows a family member or friend who is or has been incarcerated, the level of public concern with and interest in life behind bars has peaked in recent years. Clicking on Google news in the past year yielded headlines about inmate hunger strikes in overcrowded California prisons, the inhumane nature of solitary confinement, the expiration of lethal injection drugs and refusal of EU companies to supply them for the purpose of execution, the search for and controversial use of new lethal injection drugs, the record number of wrongful convictions overturned in 2013, and the growing monetary business of prison and privately operated corrections facilities. The recent political conversation on the growing support for the legalization of marijuana has also brought the current status of our justice system to light. In a two-decade time frame that has seen the violent crime rate in the US drop 25%, prison populations have soared in large part due to the implementation of mandatory drug sentences and three strike laws. Topics of immigration, race, poverty, education, sexual orientation, everything now seems to circle back to prison in some way. It is a place, a culture, and a way of life current society more than ever is curious about and concerned with

And as much as American culture tends to promote supporting the ‘good guy’ in the white hat and punishing the ‘bad guy’ in the black hat, there has always been a slight curiosity about the less acknowledged gray areas of right and wrong, and life after the door has been locked and key thrown away. The increasing growth of this curiosity has been quite evident in recent pop culture successes. The 1990s addressed the gray areas of prison and its inhabitants in hits like The Shawshank Redemption and HBO’s OZ. The Unseen premiered in 2007 during a decade that brought us Breaking Bad and its technically ‘bad guy’ Walter White who stirred feelings of conflicted support from audiences, and Prison Break that had viewers cheering for the so-called ‘bad guy’ to escape and get away. And the interest continues to show its presence with the surprising hit success of the based-on-real-life Netflix series Orange is the New Black and the much anticipated premiere of 24: Live Another Day sure to incite fevered nail biting as vigilante fugitive Jack Bauer races to save the world once again. Simply turn on the National Geographic channel at any time and there is a high likelihood you will be treated to an episode or even marathon of a show like Lockdown, Hard Time, or America’s Hardest Prison.

With one in 31 American adults either behind bars or being monitored on probation or parole, American society is increasingly coming to the realization that this subsect of the population can no longer be labeled as faceless, numbered ‘bad guys’ to be written off or ignored. The personal stories, experiences, and circumstances of convicted criminals and life in prison are being considered more and more as important and of interest. The gray area of society’s moral compass is growing in acknowledgement. The Unseen does not portray a specific prison, government, or state. Its goal is not to comment on any specific real-life political entity or country. In that matter you are free to draw connections as you wish whether they be to the Holocaust, the Cold War, or Orwell’s world of 1984. The Unseen is not concerned with crimes or violations either. Playwright Craig Wright says if asked about what his play is about he always responds that is it about two guys in prison talking to each other. It is about the personal, human experience, about day-to-day life in a world of confinement and punishment, about how you psychologically and emotionally react to this existence, and about the ingenious power and limits of the human ability to cope and survive. The purpose of theatre is often to address and reflect issues of current political or societal concern. It is widely apparent there is an ever-growing fascination currently surrounding the topic of prison. This fascination is helping to slowly wipe away the chosen ignorance of the incarcerated in much a similar way The Unseen hopes to do. It is then relevant both to the times and to the theatre that our professional interns have chosen to produce a prison drama. Support their efforts in making the unseen seeable by coming to experience Craig Wright’s The Unseen April 27 and 28 at 7PM. More information on the show and how to make reservations here.

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