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© Allison Usavage

ReEntry Theatre Program

The Employment Through the Arts ReEntry Theatre Program brings together people who have been incarcerated with civic artists to develop material for a performance. (happening April 22, mark your calendars!) Employers from across Tompkins County are invited to the performance to experience the creativity and personality of people who they may not normally interact with in the community, and hopefully lessen the feeling of risk in hiring an employee who was previously incarcerated.

We talked to Sarah Chalmers, Director of Civic Engagement at the Civic Ensemble and Co-Director of the Program (with Civic Ensemble Artistic Director Godfrey Simmons Jr.). We photographed the participants working with some professionals on theatre exercises and doing a reading of one of the participants’ work.
© Allison Usavage

What is the program?

It’s an 8-week, 16-session program for people who have been incarcerated. So whether that’s jail or prison, last year, last week, or 20 years ago… anyone who’s ever gone through that experience is eligible for the program.
Through those 8 weeks, participants will work with civic artists to develop material for the stage. The content of the pieces is really up to the participants. The civic artists provide the knowledge and the expertise to help them develop that material. We’re inviting employers from Tompkins County to attend the performance, where they will be exposed to people who have been incarcerated when they are being creative and just being who they are.


Who is it good for?

The program has many layers. For the participants, at the very simplest level, it’s an opportunity to be in community with people who have had the same experiences, learn about the diversity of those experiences, and mentor each other in creating some theatre. As we know at Civic Ensemble, the use of theatre in community provides participants with the opportunity to connect with their humanity in a way that many efforts to help people just don’t. It’s just one aspect of something we can do to improve people’s lives.

The ultimate goal of the program is for participants to expand their network and be able to do something creative. They’re not trying to get a job, they’re not asking for anything, they’re just sharing their creativity.

For the employers, it’s an opportunity to be in community with people who we wouldn’t normally meet. It can help community members who have maybe not been exposed to people who have been incarcerated in a real way, to know them as people.


© Allison Usavage
What kind of change is the program trying to make?

Diversity and inclusion are buzzwords. We want to have that right? We talk about those two words all the time, but it’s very hard to put that into action and know what that really means. This is about a change in perception for people. For people who have been incarcerated, a change in perception of themselves and what they’re capable of and what can happen when they’re treated as equals in our community. And in the perception of the people who have been incarcerated, specifically by employers, to help mitigate the feeling of risk that employers have when considering hiring someone who has been incarcerated.

How did it start?

A wonderful woman named Lisa Ellin, who has a degree in community justice and who was new to our community, brought this idea to us with her friend Joan Friedman, and we all worked together to develop the program. That’s how it came to be!


How does the community support the program?

I’m going to go back to inclusion, because when we create something like this we can’t do it in a vacuum. I don’t know anything about being incarcerated. Before we launched we talked to some people who had been incarcerated and asked for their input.
Also, in terms of funding, we’ve had a great response. It’s something that this community appears to recognize as a necessity: there’s people in our community with valuable gifts to give and they’re not being seen.

What struggles have you encountered?

I anticipate that a struggle will be engaging with employers. That’s not to say that employers wouldn’t see it as important, but it’s seen as a risk.
Not having been incarcerated… it’s only a struggle if we don’t recognize it, but Godfrey and I are leading the program, and we will be working to continuously check ourselves and any assumptions that we’re making and making sure that we’re meeting people where they are.


What should we be celebrating?

Many of the people that I’m interacting with on a daily basis might not feel like there’s a lot to celebrate. There’s a lot of hardship and poverty and exclusion. With that said, Ithaca is a wonderful, beautiful place and the people here are working very hard for other people. The ideal of the good life, the American dream… we all have a different idea of what that means, but that, historically, has not been for everybody. I celebrate having and building a network of people who recognize that and want to do something about it.


How can we participate?

Come to the performance on April 22 at 6:30 pm at the Hangar Theatre!

Also, we can always use financial assistance with this and the other programs of the Civic Ensemble. And, spread the word. Get involved, whether it’s with us, or coming to community meetings, going to collective impact meetings, going to the police community relation meetings that are happening at GIAC. Anybody who’s not sure about how to get involved, give me a call! I have some ideas.

Or learn more about the ReEntry Program and the Civic Ensemble at


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