Publications – Mosteanu/What theatre in prison is for?

Magdalena Mosteanu

What theatre in prison is for? A reflection on my encounter with Jubilo Foundation

Project Unlocking [1] is aptly named by Jubilo Foundation and in this brief reflection. I will try to explain why. I will show examples of how Jubilo’s methodological approach, in fact, unlocks the open-ended self-development of the prisoners. I will also ponder on the transformative power of the theatrical process for both audience/participants and the prisoners. Lastly, I will critically reflect on the re-configuration of thoughts surrounding the prison as both an idea and an institution.

       Jubilo’s methodology is radical in a sense that it invites liberating, dignifying interactions and activities of human contact on the site which very purpose is to restrict freedom, control interactions and manage the risks inscribed in human contact. Indeed, the very ‘principles of prison security, good order and control’ [2] are governed by rules, daily routines and a presence of staff instructed to ‘use force to control prisoners and prevent or manage incidents’ [3]. In contrast, theatre space and practice, generally, invites individual initiative, spontaneity, and freedom of expression. Placed on the borders of these two immiscible worlds [4] of theatre and prison, Jubilo, as a company working in prison has developed a unique approach centred around the rigour of actor training and collaboration. My account of Jubilo’s methodology is multifaceted. First, it comes from within, a perspective of a participant engaged in Jubilo’s training at Zakład Karny No 1 in Wrocław [5]. Second, it is my perspective as a researcher interested in the ethical question of human interaction and contact as facilitated by theatre and performance practices. Lastly, a point of view from a theatre-practitioner with a background in actor training and collaborative theatre-making. The ensuing observations are a result of the confluence of these perspectives.

       As a participant, I noticed the importance of actor training present in Jubilo’s approach. The structure of the sessions resembles what one would expect from a drama school acting class. The theatre space, where the I am Community workshop took place in October 2019 is a clearly demarcated studio space.

       Certainly, it resonates with anyone who was involved in, in one way or another, with actor training and theatre. Except for the floor and the windows, former being bare concrete, rather than a typical, glossy dance flooring used in drama schools, and latter restricted by the bars, a constant reminder of the layering of the two worlds: theatre and prison (Figure 1). Nevertheless, the atmosphere of acceptance and ensemble is palpable from the outset as we are greeted and introduced at the beginning of the session. Soon, the physical warm-up begins and the guest-participant bodies intermingle with convicted bodies in a conscientiously designed structure of a workshop session. Name games and icebreakers facilitate the acquaintance, centering of an individual’s breath expands to an ensemble feeling and breathing as one organism (Figure 2). Moving around, sharing and filling the space with our co-presence is enabled by the strong leadership of Diego Pileggi, Jubilo’s co-founder and artistic director. He guides the group through complex tasks of an individual as well as ensemble work, blurring the differences between the outsiders and insiders. Soon, the overwhelming and mutual feeling of nervousness dissipates. Instead, engaged individuals work together, break a sweat together and traverse the boundaries of culturally defined spaces of prison and theatre. Pileggi applies actor training holistically and his point of departure is in putting participants in action. Through receptive physical effort, self-discipline, and being here and now, the ability to work as an ensemble is gradually unlocked. Apparently ‘immiscible worlds of theatre and prison’ [6] overlap through the negotiation of the two conventions. This negotiation is capably facilitated and channelled in Pileggi’s proposal to reverse the roles: the prisoners will lead parts of the workshop and us, the theatre-makers and participants will follow. This simple measure unlocks the possibility for both the prisoners and the participants to re-inscribe and re-imagine ways of being in the world. Nevertheless, it takes a considerable amount of mutual effort and trust, built over the years of training, not to mention the abyss of the administrative work, to arrive at the point of such a workshop where the process of theatre-making enables profound insight.

       At this stage, I wish to draw attention to the reciprocity of the workshop described. On reflection, I recognise my own self-development ignited by the theatrical interactions with the prisoners of Zakład Karny No 1. To be frank, my superficial understanding of the prison in general, shaped by the representations of the penitentiary system in film, television drama and news reports was fundamentally challenged. Moreover, the very experience of working together and being a part of the process enabled internalised understanding and in-depth qualitative insight into the very idea of the prison. Without the direct engagement with the prisoners, skilfully and responsibly facilitated by Jubilo, such insight wouldn’t be possible. In fact, my engagement with Jubilo’s practice drove the critical re-assessment of my understanding of prison, as an institution and idea, and provoked a reiteration of the following question: what theatre in prison is for? 

       Perhaps helpful here, will be the voices of Paweł and Muniek, who both joined Jubilo in 2018 and whom I met during the I am Community workshop. I have had an opportunity to interview Paweł and Muniek [7] after the workshop and one of the questions I asked was: What has changed, for you, since the first meeting with Jubilo?

       In his answer, Muniek teases out the role of emotional intelligence and its impact on his wellbeing and growth:

“Najważniejsze dla mnie to co się wydarzyło i co zmieniło się we mnie to, że w pewnym sensie mogłem wydorośleć, mogłem przeżyć emocje, które w sobie tłumiłem, pewną złość, która drzemie we mnie, ból i cierpienie. Zrozumiałem, że każda emocja jest potrzebna i że trzeba dać jej wyraz gdyż wszystko się w nas odkłada i sieje spustoszenie. Zrozumiałem że nie wszystko ukryję pod uśmiechem i żartami, dopuściłem do siebie emocje, które wcześniej wypierałem, takie jak smutek, czy właśnie złość. Poznałem wspaniałych ludzi, którzy pokazali mi jak można żyć bez uprzedzeń i cieszyć się bierzącą chwilą, co staram się wprowadzić w swoje życie”. [8] 

       In the answer to the same question, Paweł reflects on a shift in his perception and the impact his engagement with theatre has had on himself and others:  

“Zmian było całe mnóstwo, od takich bardzo osobistych, bo inaczej widzę świat, inaczej widzę ludzi, relacje moje z ludźmi są też zupełnie inne… też jakby odkrycie tego świata teatralnego dało mi dostęp do nowej jakości odbioru kultury i to nie tylko w bierny sposób, ale też aktywny. Dało mi poczucie sprawczości tego, że to co robię jest ważne i że to ma znaczenie dla innych ludzi, że otwiera w nich pokłady świadomości, które też ich zmieniają. To jest właśnie proces, to nie jest coś, co można odhaczyć jak zdobycie jakiejś umiejętności. Nie wiem… Mam poczucie, że staję się bardziej człowiekiem i dzięki temu doświadczeniu mogę też wziąć większą odpowiedzialność za siebie i też tego samego oczekiwać od innych w relacjach ze mną”. [9] 

       Both answers are more vocal and eloquent than any of my analytical attempts to understand the role of theatre in prison. Jubilo’s theatrical practice has had a profound, positive impact on these men’s lives as evidenced in the answers above. In the case of Muniek, theatrical work helped him creatively channel his emotions, which consequently led to an honest and open-minded engagement with others. Paweł, on the other hand, recognises how his ways-of-seeing shifted towards a more conscious and sensitive view. His reflection on playing an active part in the culture and the impact his work has on others only reinforces my claim on the reciprocal nature of theatre in prison. Indeed, the experience of working with Paweł and Muniek ‘otworzyło we mnie pokłady świadomości, które mnie zmieniły’ [10].

       My brief encounter with Jubilo and the project Unlocking caused a re-configuration and negotiation of my thoughts surrounding ideology of and the institution of the prison more broadly. Unfortunately, as McAvinchey observes, ‘since the end of the eighteen century, prisons have been designed to keep convicts in and the public, and its gaze, out’ [11] and although the prison reforms [12] occurred since then, there is considerable political and practical opposition preventing the public from engaging with the problematics of prison systems. Having said that, companies such as Jubilo are doing their bit by provoking small shifts which cumulatively already inspire a positive change on a personal level and, I argue, have a potential of enabling a bigger, cultural shift.


[1] Since 2014, Jubilo Foundation has been developing the project Unlocking within the premises of Penitentiary No. 1 of Wrocław, with inmates of closed and half-open departments. One of the objectives of the project is to react to the problem of exclusion and marginalization of the inmates from society as well as developing their artistic awareness and possibilities of expression. Participating in the training programs and performances developed by Jubilo, the inmates have the possibility to develop themselves as well as improve social and theatrical skills. <>

[2] See the UN’s Prison Incident Management Handbook for more details on Principles of Prison Security:

[3] Ibid, p.13.

[4] Here, I borrow ‘immiscible worlds’ phrase from Caoimhe McAvinchey’s Theatre & Prison (2011), p.60.

[5] I am referring specifically to the pre-pandemic ‘I am Community’ theatre workshop which took place on 17th-20th October 2019.

[6] Caoimhe McAvinchey (2011) Theatre & Prison p.60

[7] The full-length version of the interviews has not been published yet, however, excerpts from the interviews are cited in my conversation with Diego Pileggi about the theatrical process during an event Theatre in prison – meetings with experts // meeting I: Unlocking and the theatrical process. Recording of this conversation is available online:

[8] The most important thing that has happened and that has changed in me is that, in a way, I was able to grow up. I could experience the emotions I had been repressing within myself, a certain anger inside of me, pain and suffering. I’ve realised that we need every emotion, and that you have to express it, because otherwise everything accumulates in us and wreaks havoc. I’ve realised that I can’t hide everything behind a smile and jokes, I’ve accepted the emotions I had previously denied, such as sadness or anger. I’ve met wonderful people who showed me how you can live free of prejudices and enjoy the moment, which is what I’m trying to bring into my life. (tłum. Alicja Grabarczyk)

[9] There have been a lot of changes. Some were very personal, because I see the world in a different way, I see people in a different way. My relations with people are completely different too… It is also as if the discovery of this world of theatre has given me access to a new quality of perceiving culture, not only in a passive but also active way. It has given me a sense of agency, a sense that what I do is important and that it matters to other people, that it unlocks layers of consciousness within them, changing them as well. This is indeed a process, it isn’t something that you can tick off like gaining some kind of skill. I don’t know… I feel that I’m becoming more human and, thanks to this experience, I can also take greater responsibility for myself and expect the same from others towards me. (tłum. Alicja Grabarczyk)

[10] Has unlocked layers of consciousness within me, changing me as well. (tłum. Alicja Grabarczyk)

[11] Caoimhe McAvinchey (2011) Theatre & Prison p.36

[12] For example, Osborne and Laws sought to provoke institutional change from the 1920s in the USA, similar movements could be observed in the UK at the time.