Simple plays, dramatic change for inmates

On a morning in May, there was a great frenzy at Roumieh Central Prison, east of Beirut. Dozens of anxious prisoners were about to receive some high-profile guests: musicians and singers the Chehade Brothers, violin player Rabi Abou Serhal, and Michel Eléftériadès, the founder and owner of Elefrecords.

For the inmates of Roumieh, it was a welcome break from the monotony of seemingly never-ending days spent between shabby walls in a gloomy, grey atmosphere.

Originally built to accommodate 1,500 people, the penitentiary holds more than 3,500 inmates, according to a report by the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights.

The guest performers had accepted an invitation from Catharsis, a not-for-profit organisation specialising in drama therapy, to launch a new activity room.

It marked the culmination of five years of work, which saw the previously dreary everyday lives of inmates transformed via the drama therapy provided by actress, drama therapist and Catharsis executive director Zeina Daccache.

"Zeina restored our humanity," says inmate Atef. "People see us as criminals and think we are receiving the punishment we deserve. Drama therapy has enabled us to become aware of our situation as human beings. Even Zeina's guests have started to look at us differently… with kindness."

The workshops - which included classes such as drum therapy - have helped inmates like Khalil to change.

"Drama therapy enabled me to make peace with myself, and then with my family, which I had refused to see for several years," he says.

Four years ago, the inmates marked their first year of drama therapy with a presentation of the theatre play, 12 Angry Lebanese - adapted from Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose - which focused on the inmates' problems and demands. Performed within the prison walls, the play was widely acclaimed. A documentary on it won awards at several international film festivals.

The success saw Daccache's workshops being replicated in Baabda Women's Prison, where some 40 women later celebrated their first year of drama therapy with Scheherazade, a show inspired by 1,001 nights spent in the "kingdom" of the inmates.

For Daccache, who has been committed to social work since her teenage years, the shows are a source of pride.

"There should be no barriers around art and culture," she says. "It should be accessible to people from all levels of society, even the most marginalised individuals."

She adds: "Who said that theatre should be performed only on conventional stages, and that prisoners should be deprived of drama and therapy, when they are the ones who need it most?"