January 21, 2020 —Phyllis Gorfain, artistic director of an innovative theatre program for incarcerated men, is the winner of a 2019 Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio. Oberlin College Professor of English Emerita, Phyllis moved to Kendal at Oberlin in 2017 with her husband, Bruce Richards.
Phyllis will receive the Arts Administration award, one of nine to be handed out by the Ohio Arts Council and the Ohio Citizens for the Arts Foundation, at a May luncheon in Columbus. Phyllis founded Oberlin Drama at Grafton (ODAG) in 2012 and has directed and co-directed 11 productions, many of them Shakespearean plays, at the Grafton Correctional Institution.
“This award recognizes the collaborative efforts of ODAG. Ultimately what I do is facilitate by making art possible in places and for people who don’t have access. I feel very happy that ODAG is being recognized and celebrated,” Phyllis says.
ODAG’s collaborative efforts run deep. Typically, the production involves 15 actors, all men incarcerated at Grafton, and a dozen volunteers from Oberlin College and elsewhere. Phyllis’ husband Bruce plays a huge role, handling visitor gate passes and other logistics involved in performing inside a prison, maintaining the website and more.
The Kendal community has also played a part in ODAG’s success. Residents have donated money, built wooden sets and designed programs. About a third of the audience is usually Kendal residents and staff. In fact, Phyllis was first introduced to the Grafton prison through Kendal residents Harvey Gittler and Naomi Barnett, both deceased, who were running a writing workshop for inmates.
Kendal CEO Barbara Thomas wrote one of the nomination letters, signed by about 80 residents. “If you have not met Phyllis, you should! She is a spark of energy whose potential knows no bounds. Her work with the prisoners gives them hope for every day they meet. It puts a new focus on the meaning of life, challenges their minds, and brings new confidence and skills,” Barbara wrote.
ODAG’s next production is Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which will be performed in April or May. Performances are free and the public is invited. Because of prison security, guests must sign up a couple weeks in advance for a pass. (Visit www.graftondrama.com for updates about the spring production and instructions to request a pass.)
At a recent rehearsal, Phyllis shared news of the award with the Grafton men. Dwain, a key member of the crew, said the award celebrates not only ODAG’s collaborative effort to develop a play but also its collaborative spirit in creating a community of responsibility, a sentiment echoed by Phyllis.
“This award is a testimony to our shared humanity, and I hope it helps ODAG thrive and last because it has to go beyond me,” Phyllis says.