The power of theatre: from Rikers Island to Gustavus

Posted on November 7th, 2017 by

The Gustavus cast of "Our Country's Good" rehearses in preparation for opening night on November 16.

Robert Galinksy is no stranger to the redemptive power of theatre. In fact, he has spent the last few years running theatre workshops with young people incarcerated at Rikers Island and has seen the difference it can make. A successful playwright himself, Galinsky’s experience made him the perfect fit to engage with the Gustavus cast of Our Country’s Good, opening November 16 in Anderson Theatre.

Our Country’s Good, written by Timberlake Wertenbaker, tells the story of several prisoners on their way from Britain to the penal colony of Australia in the late 1700s. En route, the officers decide that there should be a play onboard  involving the prisoners. The ability of theatre to change how the prisoners see their world is an important theme throughout the work. As Wertenbaker once said to the New York Times, “I’m trying to write about how people are treated, what it means to be brutalized, what it means to live without hope, and theatre can be a humanizing force.”

Brandon Raghu ’19, who plays Midshipman Harry Brewer, says Galinsky’s experience in today’s prisons helps the cast bring an added sense of reality to the production. “Robert’s profession is working with teenagers and how they have been mistreated by the justice system. In this particular show, we see how the ‘convicts’ are mistreated by the officers. Creating that real life injustice with Robert and working with an inspiring vision will be beneficial for both the actors and the audience,” he says.

Galinsky, whose newest play (The Bench) just opened off-Broadway, will be on hand at Gustavus during the final dress rehearsal and opening night of Our Country’s Good. He hopes to convey to Gustavus students that the youth he works with are really just regular people.

“Great theatre is based on people overcoming things no matter who they are or where they are from,” he says.

While the play takes place more than 200 years ago, the themes of justice, racism, sexism, and hope for redemption are still relevant. Seham says when choosing productions for Gustavus students, she is careful to choose plays that can provide an important lens to look at events and attitudes that exist in today’s society. The focus of Our Country’s Good on the justice system also gave Seham a chance to reach out to Galinsky, who she knew would be able to communicate an important viewpoint about a world that many students are not as familiar with.

“The students can imagine how the convicts felt, but Robert is able to give them specific examples of individuals he worked with. Their brutalization did not begin with the prison, but was intensified by it. They had been dehumanized in multiple ways. Theatre and writing gave them a way to feel worthy of attention, subjects instead of objects, human beings instead of statistics,” she says.

During Galinsky’s visit he will participate in a talk-back (open to the public) following the performance opening night. Our Country’s Good runs at Gustavus’ Anderson Theatre November 16-18 at 8 p.m. and November 19 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased via gustavustickets.com or by calling 507-933-7590.

 

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