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Research Communications

Theater transforms prisoners in playwright’s new “Puppet Man” 

By Rosie Haney
May 15, 2012  

When graduate student playwright Andrew Black was picking out puppets for a show he was producing, he discovered that the School of Theater recently had received some of the inventory from an Ohio prison.

A fan of the “truth is stranger than fiction” paradigm, the writer’s curiosity was piqued. “Most of my ideas start with, ‘Oh, that’s weird,’” he says.

The warden of the North Central Correctional Institute in Marion, Ohio, had proposed the idea of a prison puppet theater as a diversion for children visiting their fathers, Black learned. When the student delved into more research on incarceration, he was stunned to find that the state of Ohio is home to 188 prisons and 45,854 inmates. The cost to run these prisons accounts for 8 percent of the state budget.

 Andrew Black
Andrew Black

Black became intrigued by the idea of basing a new play on the subject. He read academic articles about incarceration, watched documentaries on prisons and met with inmates at the Southeast Ohio Correctional Facility to hear their stories and gain a more palpable perspective on the life of an inmate. Some of the stories he used, and the rest served to shape a realistic dialogue for the characters in his play.

When he was done he had “Puppet Man,” a play that will be performed during Ohio University’s Seabury Quinn, Jr., Playwrights Festival, which runs from May 30 to June 2. Black was awarded the Trisolini Fellowship, which supported the work with a $15,000 grant.

The protagonist of “Puppet Man” is a 22-year-old man who’s staring at a 28-year sentence and feels that his life is over. The young man finds his beliefs challenged in the unlikely theater.

Looking at Black’s repertoire, a play about prisoners seems like a bit of a departure for the writer. His other work centers almost exclusively on LGBT themes, with titles such as “It’s Murder, Mary!” But Black maintains that while this subject is different, the theme isn’t.

“Everyone is incarcerated in their own way,” he says. “Whether it’s the North Central Correctional Institute, a bad relationship or a sexual identity we might not have chosen.”

Growing up in Indiana, Black often felt it necessary to hide his sexuality, he notes. It wasn’t until he moved to San Francisco in the 1970s that he came to accept this aspect of himself.

During his time in California, Black was involved with the San Francisco Bay Area's PlayGround group, a company specializing in short format plays. He’s since had ten-minute plays produced across the country. Black won the New Works of Merit contest sponsored by the 13th Street Repertory Company in New York City, and his play “The Second Weekend in September” had its world premiere at the City Lights Theatre in San Jose, Calif., in 2010. His second-year play, which was featured in last year’s Seabury Quinn, Jr., Playwrights Festival, was read at the National Theater of Ghana in summer 2011.

Black plans to relocate to Indianapolis after his June graduation from Ohio University, and then will celebrate the world premiere of his play “Strange Bedfellows” in Orange County, Calif., in August.

“Puppet Man” will be performed at 4 p.m., Saturday, June 2, in the Baker Theater, Kantner Hall.