In 2009 and 2010, Sarah Shourd spent 410 days in solitary confinement as one of the American backpackers famously imprisoned by the Iranian government in a vacation hike gone terribly awry. This month, the woman brings her passion about the issue of isolating people in tiny, dark spaces to the stage with The Box, a new play about the horrors of long-term penal segregation, which premiered at Z Space in San Francisco on Friday.
The show features an unusual and striking set. With six "cells" stacked three by two from which the actors perform, theatergoers can gaze directly into the cages that are typically disappeared from public view. Although digital phones have brought the brutality of police shootings into the national consciousness in recent years, the racialized violence of extended isolation in the American criminal justice system has been much more difficult to realize in a visual form.
What is perhaps most brutal about solitary is its stillness. In the box, there is no plot, no movement, and often no dialogue—just endless solitude. In 2014, Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Pardiss Kebriaei painted a picture of banal torture at ADX Florence, the federal super-max prison, for the Nation, describing the typical inmate as "a person sitting still in a small cell, slowly deteriorating in a modern prison on the outskirts of a small Colorado town."
These words came to mind as I watched the play, and made me wonder how Shourd—a survivor of solitary outside the US context—went about developing the experience for the stage. I sat down with the playwright to talk about the show and explore how it's even possible to dramatize something defined by its invisibility.
VICE: What did your process of research and writing look like?
Sarah Shourd: The research was an intense period of in-depth letter correspondences that lasted intensively six months and less intensively about two years. I traveled to thirteen different prisons around the country to visit as many of the people that I corresponded with in person as I could. The prisons I visited included Pelican Bay, Elmira in New York, Edna Mahan facility in New Jersey, one in Southern California, and the Sacramento state prison.
How did your own experiences of solitary shape the text?
At the time I began researching and writing the play, what I really needed more than anything was to take a break from talking about and writing about my own experiences. I felt like it was a really important juncture for me to connect what I had been through and the aftermath—the suffering and pain of recovering—into something much larger. If anything, that's how it was useful to me: to step outside of myself into these other people whose lives I could relate to very intimately, but who were very distinct and in many ways just as inspiring as horrifying to me.
When you were researching the play, what surprised you about people's experiences of solitary confinement in the US compared to your own in Iran?
I think that in the beginning I was really fascinated by how other prisoners did things that I found so essential to my survival. For example, how people fill the time—a lot of people told me they did a lot of the same things I did, like obsessive counting, pacing, going through every event in your life. I used to call them "the re-runs"—just to get some kind of connection to yourself and the outside world.
There are also things like how people pass notes. It took me about six months in prison to devise a clandestine method to pass notes to the other women in my pod, which is of course very risky, but some sort of human contact is so essential to survival that it's what people do. And I wasn't surprised that people do it here—it was just incredible to learn about the ways that they do it. And then the whole internal system of barter, and the makeshift and of course in many ways very warped but still beautiful community that develops.
There are these two tensions in the play that you capture really effectively. On the one hand, there is the torment of isolation, and on the other, there are the moments of connection between fellow inmates. I imagine that feeling—of potentially indefinite aloneness—would be among the most difficult to capture.
I don't think it's possible for anyone to ever experience anything close to what it's like to be in long-term isolation. I think that a lot of attempts to do that—recreating a cell, and having someone spend a few minutes in it—can be counterproductive, because we live in a world where all of us crave solitude. We're inundated with information and stimulus. So solitude can be a wonderful kind of relief...
Solitary confinement is not the same as solitude. It's losing everything that you love, everything that gives any meaning to your life and makes you who you are, and not knowing if you'll ever get it back. And I think that this play will help people imagine themselves into that a little better.
But ultimately, the goal for me wasn't for people to experience solitary confinement through this theater piece—it was for them to experience the people subjected to it as human beings.
Can we talk about the set? It's really striking.
Sean Riley is an incredible set designer. All I had in the script was, "Three guys at the bottom, three guys at the top," and he had to really work his way around some serious limitations, one of them being sight lines. Because this space was a fairly large theater, we had to make sure that no matter where you were sitting, you could see into all of the cells, and that was one of the reasons we ended up having some of the walls be translucent.
We could have done it—I suppose—by putting a camera in an enclosed space and having people watch that on a screen, but that wouldn't really be theater, and I don't know if that would have been as effective.
So in opening up the box, so to speak, we had to create a theatrical experience that in many ways is not literal. And the actors had to compensate for a lot of those limitations by making it clear that they can't see one another, that they can't interact. Two of the main characters had their cells next to each other for thirteen years, and they'd never seen each other's faces. There was also the [projected] video, and the sound—we got actual recordings from inside an isolation pod.
I think striking the balance between documentary theater and harnessing the full potential of theater was something we all had to work very closely together to achieve.
Is there any tangible way for people concerned about solitary to get involved as it gets a bit of a re-think across America?
It's very easy to feel like nothing you can do makes a difference when it comes to mass incarceration, but I hope that people realize that something that seems small—like writing a letter to a prisoner—is a political act that can result in real change. The reason that our prison system has been able to get to the point that it has is that it's completely opaque, and there's no accountability. And developing relationships, sending out lines of communication that make the prison walls more porous—that make them breathe—is, I think, an essential way to start to force that transparency to become a reality.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. The Box is running at Z Space through July 30. You can buy tickets here.
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