POTSDAM — When Rivka Rocchio took her position as assistant professor of theatre at SUNY Potsdam in 2016, she also brought her desire to take her skills as a community and cultural development specialist into local correctional facilities.
In 2013, while attending graduate school in Arizona, where she received her M.F.A in Theatre for Youth from Arizona State University, Rocchio was invited to join others in teaching humanities in the Arizona Department of Corrections Perryville.
She said as a community cultural development theatre-maker interested in the arts as a means of cross-cultural communication, the experience found her a community that could appreciate the skills that she had as a theater artist and could make use of them in their already existing artistic work.
She has done prison programming that has ranged from spoken word/slam poetry competitions, staging previously written plays, writing new plays and drama workshops, all based on the abilities of the inmates in the room, she said.
“So since then, since 2013, my level of consciousness, about the prison state and the prison industrial complex and what prisons are and do to our culture, has really shifted and my appreciation for what arts programming inside can do has grown immensely,” she said. “So when I moved here in 2016, I knew that going to prisons and doing arts programming inside would be part of my life here.”
She reached out to the St. Lawrence County jail and the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision-run Riverview Correctional Facility in Ogdensburg.
While she was able to get started right away in the county jail, it took about eight months to get inside the state prison.
By summer 2017, once inside, she offered a general theater workshop with 12 inmates and left it to them to decide what they were interested in doing.
Aside from asking for credited courses — which Rocchio said she was able to achieve last month through a Second Chance Pell Grant, which will offer a B.A. in sociology to inmates in Riverview thanks to a partnership with the state Department of Education and St. Lawrence University — the inmates sought the chance to exchange as artists with people on the outside.
“They didn’t want their work to get trapped behind the walls, which really resonated with me, because often times when I go in and I am doing workshops, particularly workshops where they are creating things that I take out, it’s like, ‘Who is seeing this? Am I the only person who is witnessing the work that’s happening?’” Rocchio said.
A year later, Playwriting Across Prison Walls brought that artistic exchange to life.
Rocchio’s 10-week playwriting workshop, which is voluntary to inmates, is a two-and-a-half hour a week, in-person class with drama exercises and improvising and other lessons that ends with inmates each writing a short play of up to 20 minutes that goes through what Rocchio called a “pretty significant revision process,” after which she casts the plays on the SUNY Potsdam campus with students.
“So I audition SUNY Potsdam actors and cast them into the roles and then I produce the play festival, which happens on our campus in the fall, and then there’s an in-person audience, or was an in-person audience,” she said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. “There is usually a talk back afterwards and then I live-stream on Facebook, so that the playwrites, their families, can watch their work, which is another layer of impact, which I think is really wonderful.”
Performances would also be put on in the two correctional facilities for the playwrites and general jail population.
But that has all changed with the COVID-19 pandemic.
March 13 was about the last time Rocchio said she was behind the prison walls. She had seven inmates in her workshop, three of them veterans of the class.
She told them what was going on and extended them her school address to continue the workshop, having them send her drafts of what they were writing, but said it was nearly impossible to teach the class to inmates unfamiliar with the workshop when not in person.
Only two of her veteran students remained on board.
“So in knowing that I’m not going inside to teach and then I’m losing contact with that community, I thought, how might we continue to pull from the community,” she said. “Thus the online playwriting workshop sort of developed as a way to open up this opportunity to other folks who might be interested.”
The online workshop, which has 41 people signed up right now, is being run through a private group on Facebook and Google Classrooms and, to get involved, interested parties can reach Rocchio by private message on Facebook and she will add them to the group and they will get the link to Google Classrooms.
Content for the workshop will begin being offered May 11 but will be asynchronous, with videos that people can watch and do exercises. The first deadline is May 18, she said.
“I would say that the community that we’re developing will be an ongoing community and the pieces that are written will go through a vetting process and we’ll have selected pieces that will be staged in the fall by students at SUNY Potsdam,” Rocchio said. “So there will be a production that comes out of the catalog of plays that folks write.”
And although the future is uncertain as to whether the college campus will even be open in the fall, Rocchio said there will “definitely” be a performance.
“Even if we are remote, we will do a virtual reading of the plays,” she said. “The point is, in some way, even if it is a small way, we’re sharing the experience of creating and generating and being and finding joy and beauty in this moment together and if you are looking for a creative or an artistic outlet, this could be a great way to get involved with folks who are inside a space that’s meant for social healing and beauty and who wouldn’t want that right now?”