Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 9
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Walla Walla-‘Pen’ relationship explored through ‘The Walls’

The walls will be breached and the relationship between the Penitentiary and the Walla Walla community explored later this month in a performance piece researched, written and performed by a group of Whitman College students.

“It always struck me as a fascinating topic that such a large prison existed in this small town. I was curious to learn more about its role here, and about the prison system in the U.S. generally,” said Assistant Professor of Theatre Cynthia Croot, director of “The Walls”.

"The Walls" rehearsal. Photo Credit: Kendra Klag

Croot collected a group of 14 student performers and writers and to create a theatre piece called “The Walls” about the Walla Walla State Penitentiary.

“So far the result has been quite a bit different than I thought it would be,” said junior Theo Pratt, a performer. “We do have some interview stuff … but there is a lot more than just interviews.”

After interviewing everyone from correctional officers to Whitman professors and Walla Walla community members, as well as conducting research via the Internet and other sources on prison history and policy, the entire ensemble brainstormed a new format for the performance. Then the writers took the material and wrote drafts of the script.

“Writing’s never easy, but that’s what makes having four writers a little more easy,” said junior David Otten, a writer. “[But] also you have to be prepared to relinquish any creative ideas that you have.”

The creative process of the show is still in full swing; currently the performers are exploring the scripts and integrating them with movement-based moments they created.

“We had a gesture-off, coming up with different gestures that will be used both at the beginning of the piece in a very understandable way, and then are being incorporated later on in the performance in a more abstract way,” said senior Devin Petersen, a performer.

Although the collaborative process facilitates fluidity, such as discussions between writer and actor, Pratt, Petersen, and Otten agreed that the process is a challenging one.

“You have about 20 people in a room trying to construct a play as a committee, and that has been extremely difficult,” said Pratt. “And it’s inevitable in a situation like that … somebody has an idea that other people will like, [but] others don’t like.”

The subject matter itself also makes the process more difficult.

“Most of the ensemble comes from homes that have little to no intersection with the department of corrections in the U.S., so we’re speaking largely about concepts and realities that are foreign to us,” said Croot.

The students were struck by what they discovered during their research and interaction with the prison, some by certain facts about the system, others by the more psychological components.

“What has lingered with me is the fear of incarceration that we all have but we don’t think about often enough to have a huge impact on our lives. And thinking about it for every night at rehearsal, about the possibility of being incarcerated is really terrifying,” said Petersen.

The group does not plan to present a particular perspective or take on the prison because, as both Petersen and Pratt stated, there are too many perspectives to present it from just one angle. When asked about a core statement of the project, they said they wished to raise peoples’ awareness of their connection to the prison system.

“[The prison system is] largely hidden to people who don’t intersect with it. We think it doesn’t affect our lives,” said Croot. “It does, in ways both overt and somewhat obscure.”

The performance setting of “The Walls” will be unique as well. With Harper Joy Theatre unavailable due to construction, “The Walls” will start with a bus tour and then return to Jewett Dining Hall for the remainder of the performance.

“[Jewett’s] very communal but at the same time it’s kind of stark, in a way; it’s not home,” said Petersen. “I’m very curious to see how an audience is going to react to a performance on a bus and in the dining hall.”

The performances will take place April 13-17. Tickets are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Harper Joy box office and are free for students.

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