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Stories from prison to stage -- a project of Lehigh University and its theater program.

Lehigh University Students Take Research on Incarceration to a Virtual Stage

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BETHLEHEM PA - During a summer of protests and civil unrest, Bethlehem area students are bringing issues and experiences within the prison system to the stage.

"We want to create a theater piece that focuses on the pipeline to prison that exists in marginalized communities," explains Lehigh fellow for the Beyond Bars Project, Aidan Galbraith.

"Rather than reforming the system, we want to make it so that the circumstances are so prisons aren’t necessary in the first place," says fellow, Dom Ocampo, "And that these forms of punishment aren’t used in the first place."

As part of Lehigh University’s Mountaintop Summer Experience, students with the ‘Beyond Bars’ project are continuing research started in 2018; connecting mass incarceration with art and culture.

Usually presented during the university’s Summer Project Expo, this time, with all on-campus summer programs cancelled through the end of July, students from all 25 Mountain Summer Experience Project teams are adapting to CDC guidelines and conducting work virtually and remotely. But the team from ‘Beyond Bars’ says, they’re using the new normal to their advantage.

"We’ve talked about recording the full--like on zoom you can record the full live performance," explains Beyond Bars Project associate, Eliza Howard, "So we’re trying to make it as accessible to as many people as possible through a variety of media."

"One of the aspirations we have, given COVID and the fact that we’ve been forced into this virtual theater realm is that it can reach more people and we have access to that wider audience," Galbraith says.

The students plan to create a jukebox of virtual performances that are based on stories, interviews and research from within the Northampton County Prison system.

"We decided to go with a neo-futurist approach and for those of you who don’t know, the neo-futurist style is a practice that would most likely be compared to a jukebox," explains Lehigh University associate, Leah Canel, "So, if you imagine to a jukebox, seeing the list of music choices that are available that you can play and queue up, giving the jukebox information that you would like to hear a certain piece then hearing that piece and experiencing the piece as a result of giving your input of which [piece] you’d like to play. And so we’re going to be a jukebox theater type of project."

Galbraith explains, "We do have plans to get in contact with formerly incarcerated folks. Unfortunately, due to COVID, we can’t actually go into the prisons and be apart of those discussions with people who are currently incarcerated."

Students say they are excited to share the final project online with the public at the end of August and hope their work will inspire audiences to get involved and make a change where they can. For these students, inspiration has already started blossoming...

"The process of building this project is so exciting," Canel says, "because even if it doesn't work and doesn't change the mind of anyone and everyone who listens and feels its a waste of time, the four of us (Dom, Eliza, Aidan and I) are people who are now educated about the carceral system and the issues that are within it."