The prison chapel at the Lorain Correctional Institution was full of inmates when the lights went out. Instead of riots and disorder, the returning lights displayed a scene unlike any the prison had ever seen before.
At the front of the chapel, 10 inmates presented a four-act play. Under the guidance of Dr. Daniel Cleary, professor at Lorain County Community College, the inmates worked for months writing, designing and rehearsing ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’.
“We started writing the play in April and began rehearsals in June,” Cleary said. Cleary is the executive director and president of Northeast Ohio Community Outreach Project (NEOCOP), which brings a classroom environment into the confines of prison.
During the months leading up to the play’s performance, Cleary and his inmate students had changed gears. What started as a poetry class evolved into a playwriting experience. Cleary broke his class into three groups and had intended for each group to write a one-act play.
Eventually, the three acts merged into one, with the inmates writing one more act to form the original play.
Cleary was able to take his experience as a professor at LCCC and bring it to the prison.
“I started teaching the basics of playwriting like plot, pacing and the like,” he said.
Not only was Cleary able to take his college classroom experience into the prison, but he was also able to bring what he learned at prison back to the college. This was the first time that he was able to take charge of a play from beginning to end.
“I have a better idea of what is possible on stage and a better idea of what to tell students to watch out for by giving the actors more latitude,” Cleary said.
He learned the importance of giving the actors more leniency when playwrights are creating their play. The language must be natural and stage directions don’t need to be intrusive.
“You have to leave room for the actors to bring their own creativity to the role,” he said.