Arts and Culture

DIY prison play In the Belly shows aggressive scenes of life inside

On a particularly frigid night in the winter of 2009, Weslie Coleman, Kate Pleuss and Ben Turk were sitting in their collective home and talking about how cold they were. Incredibly cold, they decided. So the three members of the revolutionary theater group Insurgent Theatre decided to plan an escape -- not realizing at that point that their escape would revolve around others who cannot do the same. In February 2010, the three friends launched their experimental play In the Belly on the first of what would turn into three long-term tours. And while many of their destinations are warmer than their home in Ohio home, the play itself is chilling.

In the Belly, which they have continued to adjust and adapt since they wrote it, is a non-narrative performance focused on incarceration. In it, the three housemates each play three roles, but those parts aren't traditional characters. Over the space of roughly 45 minutes, In the Belly takes audiences through many of the more aggressive experiences of prison life, which, while okay for children accompanied by parents, occasionally are too much for former inmates. It's a tough subject, but "that's kind of the point," Turk says. "That's what makes it worthwhile."

Westword spoke to Turk about the real-life stories behind the play, which comes to the 27 Social Centre tomorrow.

Westword: What influenced the three of you to take an experimental approach? Ben Turk: When we first started brainstorming, we came up with more of a plot, a narrative story, but we were uncomfortable with that. We didn't want to make these characters speak for everyone who has ever had incarceration experiences. One night, we realized we'd either have to postpone the tour or finally figure something out. So we started really basic, ignoring plot lines and dialogue and doing these weird theater game exercises to focus on thoughts and faces and picture ourselves inside these cells. What we came up with was more a series of experiences than one solid story line.

It's a non-narrative play, more a series of moments, designed to evoke the way people in solitary confinement are alienated from time and space, as well as the ways they are restrained. It's kind of confusing, initially, but it's supposed to be. There's nudity and violence, but not not in a sexual or shocking graphic, exploitative way. It's not bad for small children, and we recommend their parents bring them and have discussions afterward. Every performance is followed by a group discussion so that people can ask or say whatever they want. We welcome all political views. We'd like people to recognize the humanity of prisoners and the way the system works.

Where did the stories inside the play come from?

We have never been incarcerated, and that's part of the play. We talk about our inexperience. Initially, we did a lot of reading, but the most valuable research came from touring with the play and altering it based on audience feedback. We've had a lot of formerly incarcerated people in the audience who have guided us. Because it's non-narrative, it's easy to incorporate new things,and we've also sent letters to our partners in long-term solitary confinement, who give us feedback.

For instance, we've added different ways for the prisoners to communicate with each other. A lot of the feedback asked us to add opportunities for the characters, even though they are in isolation, ways to communicate together. There have been at least seven people who are currently incarcerated that we sent scripts to and probably about the same amount we've gotten feedback from at shows. Then there are the crusty punks. (Laughs.)

Who should not see In the Belly?

We welcome everyone. At the beginning, we give a warning that formerly incarcerated people might have their memories triggered by the experience, but we create a safe space for them if they need it. We want to create this arena where there is no longer a stigma for them if they want. That's one of the shortfalls of calling yourselves Insurgent theatre, is that your audience self-selects and you tend to get a lot of anarchists, which is cool but not everyone. We have discussions after the show each time, and we want to talk to people and make them feel comfortable expressing themselves however they want to. What is the most significant piece of feedback you've received so far?

When we were in Denver at the ABC Conference, we met Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin (a former member of the Black Panther party), and he had to walk out of the show partway though. He said it was hard to watch, but that it was important for people to go around with it. We've heard things like that from other formerly incarcerated people, which always makes me feel like we're doing it right. On the other hand, when we did it in Columbus, there was this theater reviewer who came out and really wanted to see a certain kind of play about prison. When we didn't do that, his review was really negative and weird. It was the only review we've gotten to date, and it proves that this experience is not the same for everyone.

When you are not on the road acting in a play about prison abolition, what do the three of you do?

We're lifestyle anarchists who dumpster dive. We live in an egalitarian community, where we do income sharing, and there's only a tiny income requirement in order to keep that going. Kate (28) has worked in a vegan bakery for a long time, and Weslie (24) and I (33) have done all kinds of petition work or temp work, or sometimes I clerk for a lawyer. Eventually I want to be able to do that kind of work without having to go to school for it. Right now, we work with people who are incarcerated and send lots of letters to prisons.

In the Belly plays at 6 p.m. tomorrow at the 27 Social Centre before heading to Salt Lake City. Donations of $5 or more are suggested.

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple

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