School of the Art Institute Chicago

In November 2015, I was delighted to teach a second workshop at the School of the Art Institute Chicago. I was invited by Alexander Starr to take a three hour workshop based on my applied theatre work with ex-prisoners from Stateville prison in Illinois. Danny Franklin, one of the men from the Stateville show, an ex-prisoner and present day activist, joined me. We met outside the beautiful Art Institute building on Lake Michigan Avenue, Downtown Chicago and took the elevator to the 13th floor. The view was spectacular- what a pleasant and inspiring view to each from.o

The students trickled in and when all 14 were present we began.

We spent the first half of the time working on some of the Boal exercises I used with the men from Stateville in order to create the ‘medical scene,’ a piece of forum theatre to accompany the reading of ‘A Day at Stateville.’The second half we spent reproducing the scene and running the forum. Here’s an example of the format and the play from a previous performance in Decatur.

The aim was to show the students how the Boal exercises can transfer to real life and difficult issues, and how successful they can be in stimulating dialogue and definite action.

We discussed how the most simple exercises in Image theatre, such as the ‘chair’ exercise and ‘The hours of the clock’ can uncover deep truths and revelations around status, hierarchy and identity. Also about freedom and slavery. For example one of the students commented that the hours of the clock exercise made her realise how much of the time she spends ‘surrounded by stuff’, and another said it made her realise she spends too much time on her computer- we then related this exercise to how it may affect men in prison: especially evident when we mimed the visual representation of a ‘standard day’ compared to an ‘ideal day’, the difference in body movement and expressions of joy as opposed to stagnation and routine with these representations – this can be true for those of us who are not in prison too, which we discussed. The chair exercise, as always, revealed a compelling image of attempts to be dominant or to take centre stage- we discussed the impact of this in a prison setting where being dominant and displaying machismo is interwoven into survival and manipulation. I told the class how this very simple exercise had provided the opening scene to ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’, a play I directed in HMP Maghaberry, Northern Ireland, as the visual impact and layers of meaning was so compelling. And Danny agreed the resonances for prisoners were profound.

Danny and I peppered the evening with anecdotal examples and experiences of the work in action. We also gave personal insights into our background and motivation for our work. Danny having served 12 years in prison for murder, coming from the Southside of Chicago and talking about his ‘past life’ as though he was another person, ‘getting his hustle on’. And now he spends his time working with others to help them avoid the same traps and mistakes. I spoke of my background in Belfast and the history of the troubles, then my journey working with prisoners in HMP Maghaberry and creating applied theatre there and now in Chicago.

In the second half we recreated the medical scene, with Danny playing Pookie the prisoner with an emergency stomach complaint and the failure of the prison to provide medical help, and then 3 students volunteered to play the other characters. The medical scene is the short forum piece we developed originally, in order to draw attention to the medical emergency within the Illinois Department of Corrections, where inmates are not receiving basic health care leading to medical emergencies and even fatalities.

A young artist called Jada ended up playing the role of the prison guard. I picked her randomly. As we played out the scene I noticed she played the role passionately and with ‘zero tolerance’ and very little compassion for the ailing prisoner. She wouldn’t budge or give him an inch in his plea’s to see a doctor urgently or be taken to hospital.

 When the class was nearly over we had a debriefing and a discussion around all our personal observations and feelings following the class. Jada became quite emotional and posed a question to the rest of the class around their intention to really use Boal and TOP to agitate for change. Alex later told me that for several of the students: “Boal represents a means to address some specific and clear personal oppressions.”

I was struck by the complexities of Jada, as a black activist from the Southside of Chicago, who evidently related strongly to Danny’s story and background, playing the role of a familiar oppressor to her community. Her portrayed lack of empathy and almost cruel stance is significant of her perception and experience of such figures of institutional authority and racism.

Jada sent this response to Alex after the class:

“…last night the class was awarded with the gift of perspective and it got very real for me and others in the classroom. I hope everyone was able to take something from the experience and I’m hoping for more engagement from some of the quieter voices in the room.”
Alex commented that Jada really responded to the class, and   “She has a vision of what performance can do within the context of black oppression, which as you know is huge!”
Danny and  I distributed flyers and contacts for The People’s Commission, at the end of the class urging them to get involved. Overall it was a successful and personally rewarding workshop.


An Introduction

I am starting this blog in order to keep abreast of my practice and research in the field of Applied Theatre. Also to document, and to remember to write. So much of my work involves action and practice writing about it can fall by the wayside.

My PhD thesis, ‘The Impact of Applied Drama, Dissemination through Live Performance, with Attention to Affect’, used the vehicle of theatre in prison as a case study, to explore the effects of applied theatre and the use of live performance as a tool to disseminate these effects- or ‘affects’- in other words, the less tangible impacts of theatre on those who experience it. My research was more concerned with the process of the dramatic interaction rather than the product and noted that current evaluation techniques were not designed and failed to acknowledge unexpected  benefits of projects, small but significant success which occur in the context of pre-determined objectives.

I used live performance to disseminate my findings and also to introduce a new form of evaluation and dissemination. I developed an ‘affective registry’ to document my research and then wrote and performed a short 20 minute play containing my findings- the idea was to have the audience viscerally and ‘affectively’ experience some of the experiences felt by me and the men I worked with in the prison.

The performance was a success and Professor James Thompson from Manchester University referred to it in the introduction to his book, ‘Performance Affects’, (2009):

James Thompson, Performance Affects, 2009
James Thompson, Performance Affects, 2009

‘I had the privilege to see a performance by Ellen Burns called The Visiting Room in an old science library, in Belfast. This was a performance response to an applied theatre project carried out by Ellen in Maghaberry Prison, in Northern Ireland. Here was a performer and applied theatre practitioner experimenting with a means to present, comment upon and locate her experience with a group of late life-term prisoners. What was remarkable about this performance is that as an audience member I was made aware of her voyage through the project, her differing engagements with the prisoners, and the challenges of the work without being told of outcomes, the results or the firm successes. It was sensate- sounds, light and text evoked felt complexity- and modest- it made no grand claims to social change, but suggested shifts in perspective and new qualities of attention. Overall the book is seeking out new examples of practice, rather than knowing exactly where they will be found. Sat behind a high desk in an old library in Belfast, as Ellen carefully drew up the blinds, I was excited by seeing something of what it might look like.’

Since graduating in 2012, my work has taken me further into prison theatre, acting as Artistic Director of  HMP Maghaberry Theatre Company in Northern Ireland, under the inspiring tutelage of sadly passed Mike Moloney, with the Prison Arts Foundation.


We produced several Forum Theatre shows and I conducted workshops on a weekly basis with a core group of men. I also continued my teaching at Queen’s University, Belfast, acting as a mentor, guest lecturer and a module convenor.

Most recently I have been working between Belfast and Chicago. I am currently based in Chicago. As well as guest lecturing at the School of the Art Institute Chicago (SAIC), I have been working extensively with James Chapman of the Illinois Institute for Law and Community affairs, see website. Subsequent to meeting on a working group for Roosevelt University Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation, in the summer of 2014 he asked me to work with several ex-prisoners who had served lengthy sentences in Stateville Prison, Illinois. These men have been performing A Day at Stateville, a performance reading about conditions at the prison, for several years. I came on board to develop a Boal based interactive audience post-performance element. Following a summer of workshop preparation we presented our first performance in Aurora, Illinois at a community picnic and the audience reaction was fantastic.

First performance at Aurora, Illinois.
First performance at Aurora, Illinois.

We have performed the reading with the interactive element over 20 times across Illinois. Chapman’s ‘Changing Minds Campaign’ is now re-focused on developing a People’s Commission, a grass roots community forum established to challenge and change current legislation involving human rights issues for prisoners. Why We Need the People’s Commission

Meanwhile the Belfast Chicago Applied Theatre Initiative (see our Facebook and Twitter pages) has been formed as a non-profit organisation, with partner Josh Schultz, in order to further develop this work. We are currently looking for funding opportunities to bring about a transatlantic collaborative Applied Theatre venture combining the men from A Day at Stateville and a comparative group of community and professional actors from Belfast. The production and collaboration may take the form of workshops and performances in both Belfast and Chicago and will provide an opportunity for cross cultural exchange and comparison between the two cities and citizens, who while being very different have a lot in common and much to learn from each other.

It is my intention to blog here and keep you updated with my own work and that of BCATI.

Thank you,

Dr. Ellen Anne Schultz