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At the Playwrights Project, an empty stage is a powerful tool.

The nonprofit taps into the experiences people who have faced tremendous odds, empowering them to educate others on worlds their viewers may know little about. For those in the audience, it’s an opportunity to connect. A stage is a time machine, a recorder, an instrument and so much more.

The Playwrights Project team, led by executive director Cecelia Kouma, serves as a megaphone to amplify the experiences of the people they work with by creating original plays based on their stories. The group has collaborated with inmates at Donovan State Prison, kids in the juvenile detention system, military veterans, people who live near the border and others with a distinctive perspective.

Post-performance, they hold a panel to discuss the themes and stories in those plays, giving audience members a chance to share their own experiences and further connect with play-makers.

“Ultimately, theater is about creating empathy and building community,” said Kouma. “We want to empower people to believe their stories are unique and worth communicating, so they build connections to each other and build a healthier world.”

The plays can have a powerful impact on participants. When Playwrights Project worked with maximum security inmates at Donovan State Prison to bring inmates’ stories to life through original theatrical works, for example, officials reported that the program improved behavior in those inmates.

“Of those 10 in the program, three got moved off the yard and into a lower level of security. I just got a letter today from one of the participants who has been there for 36 years and hadn’t been in any programming and is so motivated now. People in the program were sharing their stories with their cell mates and feeling so positively about what they created,” Kouma said.

They plan on returning to the prison to work with more inmates, giving them a welcome change from what Kouma said can be a “dehumanizing” experience behind bars.

The Playwrights Project has many more programs and performances in the works, including a site-specific piece with women from Second Chance, a southeastern San Diego-based program that helps people transition back into the workforce after time spent homeless, in prison or rehab.

You’re reading the Culture Report, Voice of San Diego’s weekly collection of the region’s cultural news.

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Alex Zaragoza

Alex Zaragoza is a freelance writer covering arts and culture in San Diego and Tijuana. She also writes the column "There...

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