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Grafton prison drama program earns woman a Governor's Award

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    Phyllis Gorfain, founder and associate director with Oberlin Drama At Grafton, speaks to guests about "A Midsummer Night's Dream" during an event in 2017. Gorfain has received a 2019 Governor’s Award for Arts Administration.

    KRISTIN BAUER / CHRONICLE FILE

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All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.

— William Shakespeare

OBERLIN — William Shakespeare’s words remain as true today as when they were written. Yet, those words may be even more significant to Phyllis Gorfain and her actors.

Gorfain is the founder and artistic director of Oberlin Drama at Grafton and recipient of the 2019 Governor’s Award for Arts Administration.

The award is for an “individual who has shown sustained, impactful, and visionary leadership of an arts organization.”

Gorfain started Oberlin Drama at Grafton in 2012, and has since put on 11 plays and scenes from three others at the minimum-security Grafton Reintegration Center.

A graduate of Butler University, Gorfain earned her doctorate degree from the University of California, Berkley, where her focus was on Shakespeare and folklore. She traveled to Kenya to do fieldwork in folklore before coming to Oberlin College to teach in 1971.

In the spring of 2006, she attended a conference of the Shakespeare Association of America and learned about a program called Shakespeare in Prisons. Shortly after, she worked with two friends on a writing program they successfully ran at Grafton Correctional Institution for 18 years, reading scenes from “Macbeth.”

She decided then that she had a plan for retirement.

When she retired in 2008, she started preparing herself to bring a new program to the prison. She took an acting class and a directing class. She applied to bring her program to Grafton Correctional.

And by 2012, she was approved.

“I wouldn’t think it would be so hard to get into prison,” Gorfain joked. “It was a lot of work.”

And that was only the beginning.

Gorfain puts in 20 to 40 hours a week at the prison, holding production meetings in the car on the way there and debriefings on the way back to her Oberlin home.

“The logistics of putting on plays in a prison and doing it at the level I’m doing — full-scale plays, movement, props, arranging gate passes, training volunteers, dedication of space, bringing in other performance artists — it takes a lot of cooperation and work from the prison. I’m grateful for all of the support the prison gives from the top down.”

Gorfain is passionate about what she does and what it means.

“This is an opportunity to work with people who have had very little access to the arts in their life,” she said. “People who are craving meaningful education and significant means of expression that will promote their journeys of change and growth.”

Under Gorfain’s direction, her actors have performed Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” “The Tempest,” “Othello,” “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” They currently are working on “The Merchant of Venice” for May. She also has directed plays by 20th-century African-American playwright August Wilson, and two original works devised by the actors and developed by Oberlin College students.

“We’ve really had an amazing collaborative team,” Gorfain said.

The resident actors create costumes, make props and backdrops, compose and perform music, as well as take on many other roles.

While her family and friends seem to instinctively know why she does this, people she doesn’t know as well ask questions such as, “Are you afraid?” “Do you trust these men?” and “What is it like working in a prison?”

She answers the questions. But one of her actors provided the best insight.

“He said, ‘This is your second act,’” Gorfain said.

And he was right.

“This is me wanting to have a significant impact on my world as a retired person,” she said.

She definitely never expected to be rewarded for using her previous skills and passion.

“Does Oberlin Drama at Grafton — the actors, the participants, the audience — deserve an award?” she asked. “No doubt they are worthy of a statewide artist award. But me? No.”

Still, when she talks about what she does, one can’t help but see that she definitely does.

“When an audience comes and they see that the people who are incarcerated may have done terrible crimes, heinous crimes in some instances, but at this time in their lives they are changed people and are capable of profound achievement,” Gorfain said. “The attendees and participants will be exposed to a shared humanity, which expands all of our humanity.”

For more information, visit www.graftondrama.com.

Contact Christina Jolliffe at (440) 329-7155 or ctnews@chroniclet.com.


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