Actors took the stage surrounded by heightened security as the audience cheered. They were about to put on a play for Tunisia’s Carthage Theatre Days but it would be nothing like other performances.
This event would be staged completely by Tunisian prisoners, part of an outreach initiative to provide cultural activities to people behind bars.
Besides the security presence, the atmosphere was similar to that of any other theatre event. The audience featured critics, guests and family members of the performers on hand to see their relatives’ rare moments of freedom through art.
The Prison Theatre Initiative, a collaboration of Carthage Theatre Days and Tunisia’s prison administration, began in 2017 and has year-long workshops and clubs ahead of the festival.
“We are participating with 11 plays this year, eight by male prisoners and two by female prisoners in addition to one by minors in correctional centres,” said Tarek Feni, vice-director at the General Administration for Prisons. “It started with one play in 2017 which evolved to five plays last year only to have the number doubled this year.”
“This could be attributed to our faith in cultural activities and the effect of theatre on prisoners,” he added. “There are even competitions between prisons and even among prisoners for this event.”
Carthage Theatre Days Director Hatem Derbal said the experience positively affected both prisoners and theatre professionals.
“We have 11 shows with around 119 participants from the different prisons of the country who are performing on stage in a professional framework like any other professional show, which is unique,” Derbal said.
Last year, the award for best play from the initiative went to Gafsa prison’s theatrical company for its play “al-Raja” (“The Quake”), written by prisoner Farouk Jalleb. Jalleb, who also attended activities this year, said he discovered a passion for theatre while serving his 5-year prison sentence.
“The first experience was writing a poetry collection in prison and the second one was the play, ‘The Quake’,” he said. “Ever since I went into prison, I’ve known I made a mistake and have wanted to change my life. I chose to have my pen as my companion while doing my time and the prison supervisors helped find the artist in me. I also started participating in different clubs and found a passion for theatre, both performing on stage and writing.”
Ahmed Ourabi, director of the prison rehabilitation unit, emphasised the importance of prisoners maintaining the programme’s goals after finishing their sentence.
“The project began as an initiative to transform prison into a space for creative freedom and take part in one of the most important theatre festivals, Carthage Theatre Days,” Ourabi said. “Theatre is definitely one of the most expressive forms of art through which individuals can live stories, tackle issues in the text and express their dreams.”
Guests commended the programme and praised the quality of the prison theatre performances. Emirati playwright Abdallah Rachid said “theatrical activities in prison could revolutionise the world of prisons.”
“When I watched the first show two years ago, I felt the authenticity and truth in the performance of the actors. They were telling stories with this authentic and professional performance. There is life outside the story, which shows in the work of actors. Also, you could see that there is trust between the prisoners and guards,” Rachid said.
“The following edition, the performances of prisoners were better with prisoners acting like professionals. It was real theatre and this experience shows that we have a historical responsibility to work through initiatives on a national and international level. It should be an incentive to reduce prison sentences and invite prisoners to be more involved in cultural activities and events.”
Tunisian artists expressed enthusiasm for the programme, which they said brought a new perspective to the theatre.
“I have never worked in prisons before but I went to the women’s prison… I was amazed by the stories, the feeling… They were not prisoners. They were people who were able to learn fast and add their own contribution,” said choreographer and dance director Nawal Skandrani. “Today, I believe there is something we can do beyond the walls. The future is in front of us and especially we should never forget our dreams and hopes. Those female prisoners were proof.”
Ourabi said he hopes to establish a festival dedicated to prison theatre around the country.
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