Though their work with inmates has been suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic, Italian theatremakers celebrated Prison Theatre Day online and vow to continue once restrictions are lifted, as Nick Awde discovers
As Italy went into lockdown to combat the spread of coronavirus, protests erupted in prisons across the country on March 8 and 9 as authorities stopped or limited normal family visits. Even without a crisis, prisons are institutions where access is a constant problem, particularly for social charities and education and social theatre programmes.
“As theatre and cultural workers, we have had no access to the prisons since the beginning of March, as all activities have been suspended,” says Vito Minoia, coordinator of the International Network Theatre in Prison. “It was a necessary measure to protect health inside the facilities but right now there is much distress as we have seen from the disturbances.”
Minoia is based at the University of Urbino in Marche, an Italian province that has been badly affected by the coronavirus, where last year he organised, with the Italian Centre of the International Theatre Institute, the official celebration of World Theatre Day on March 27 in the state prison in nearby Pesaro.
‘Once the coronavirus emergency in Italy is over, when it comes to prisons we have no lack of a cultural tradition to draw on’ – Vito Minoia, International Network Theatre in Prison
“Although this year we have had to cancel Prison Theatre Day, which coincides with World Theatre Day, we have invited colleagues to publish on Facebook pages, websites and blogs, videos of shows, rehearsals and interviews – or just articles and photographs that show the workshop experience in prisons.”
Minoia’s work focuses on theatre as an educational tool for people in the criminal justice system, linking into the country’s National Coordination of Theatre in Prison. “Until the crisis, we were working in Pesaro prison with two groups. The first group is made up of men and women in the criminal justice system, developing work on the relationship between theatre and sports with the involvement of university students from Urbino studying sports, movement and health sciences. The second group is working on a self-education programme through a collective drama-creation project.”
Other projects include the Rassegna Nazionale Destini Incrociati, a three-day travelling festival to forge a dialogue between experiences of theatre in prison and thousands of spectators, and for last year’s Prison Theatre Day more than 100 events were organised in 16 Italian regions, involving 64 prisons and other institutions. This builds on a collective drama project in Pesaro prison that led in 2016 to the launch of the International Prize for Theatre in Prison.
Minoia says: “At this tragic moment, the long-term impact on our ability to work in the prisons is comparable to that on all other workers. Or maybe it will have a greater impact, considering that professional cultural and theatrical work is generally among the most precarious in Italy. The government is including in the emergency decrees allocations of benefits for entertainment workers and businesses, but we do not know if they will be enough to make up for the losses.
“But once the coronavirus emergency in Italy is over, when it comes to prisons we have no lack of a cultural tradition to draw on that will allow us to get out of this educational emergency with support for re-socialisation and awareness-raising policies through art and culture.”
Minoia adds: “This applies to everything in general – and not just in Italy. Could this be a good time to reconsider, through greater institutional support, how cultural heritage can improve our quality of life? Like theatre and dance, solidarity has no national boundaries, and education and social theatre with equal ethical and artistic purposes is an excellent model to bring people together.”