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Bard Features

Emerging as a Playwright in Prison: Manuel Borras Oliveras ’08

Manuel Borras Oliveras ’08
in the Bardian

Only 10 playwrights—out of nearly 600—have been accepted into the Public Theater’s prestigious 2013 Emerging Writers Group (EWG), a selective program created to nurture the work of new playwrights. Manuel Borras Oliveras ’08 is one of them. “Being accepted into the program was one of the most satisfying experiences, in terms of being acknowledged for my writing,” says Oliveras, who takes nothing for granted, having come to playwriting via an unconventional route: while incarcerated, as a student in the Bard Prison Initiative.

With EWG, Oliveras has attended writing retreats; participated in “speed-dating sessions” with agents, directors, and actors; and met established playwrights such as Suzan-Lori Parks (Venus; Topdog/Underdog) and David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly). “It’s the environment you want to be in,” says Oliveras. “It’s school for me. I tackle it like I tackled Bard College, soaking up as much knowledge and education as I can.”

Oliveras grew up in the Bronx. Conditions in his neighborhood were harsh. He made it to 11th grade before he dropped out of school. At 17, Oliveras ended up in prison. “My life drastically turned at that point. I did not really know anything about my future, other than the fact that I was going to do a lot of time,” he says.

Awaiting sentencing in the city’s detention center, Oliveras’s head raced. He realized that his only option was to make the most of his time—17 years. Once in prison, he immediately enrolled in a GED class and threw himself into the schoolwork. “I felt like I could redeem myself a little bit, instead of only bringing tears to my mother’s and family’s eyes,” he says. “When I obtained my GED, it felt monumental. I knew then that I wanted to pursue education as far as possible.”

Oliveras began applying to college-in-prison programs. Unfortunately, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act repealed federal Pell Grant funding for incarcerated students. Within months, New York State’s thriving network of postsecondary correctional higher education programs collapsed. So Oliveras began a journey of voracious independent study through books in prison libraries. “I was reading philosophy, history; I read a lot about my culture. I read Puerto Rican writers: Miguel Piñero and Julia de Burgos. My mind started expanding. I read about Pedro Albizu Campos, Che Guevara, the Black Panthers, and other influential people who had been through struggles like me.” He built friendships with older prisoners who were motivated to make the most of their time—starting and running community and educational programs on the inside.

When he was moved to Sing Sing in Ossining, New York, Oliveras enrolled in a theology program for college credit run by Mercy College. After he completed the program, he had no further opportunities for higher education until being transferred to Woodbourne Correctional Facility. “At Woodbourne, I saw a flyer for the Bard College program [the Bard Prison Initiative]. I immediately signed up. I wrote an entrance essay. Close to 200 guys applied. I thought, ‘Thank God I went through the theology program, because it taught me how to structure an essay.’ My essay got me an interview with Max Kenner ’01 [BPI executive director] and Daniel Karpowitz [BPI director of policy and academics, and lecturer in law and the humanities]. Only 11 of us were chosen. I felt so honored,” says Oliveras. “Bard came in at a time when other programs were leaving. I’m eternally grateful to Bard.”

Oliveras appreciates the quality of his Bard education, especially the focus on exploring ideas through writing. “It opened up my worldview,” he says. “It introduced me to writers like John Dewey, Plato, Shakespeare. I met professors who had written books, and I could sit down and talk to them. At those moments I felt totally free.” He was awarded an associate’s degree in 2006 and a bachelor’s degree in 2008.

During this period, Oliveras found himself taking writing very seriously. He cofounded Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) at Woodbourne, a program that uses theater as a transformative tool, and applied what he was learning at Bard to his drama projects. “I kept reading plays and seeing what others had done,” he remembers. “I mimicked what they wrote, then I eventually started telling my own unique story.” He was the lead writer for Starting Over, a group-written play that was performed at Woodbourne and Sing Sing, and is being turned into a film as well as slated for production in New York City. Through RTA, Oliveras met Arin Arbus, associate artistic director of Theater for a New Audience in New York City. She read his work and encouraged him to submit it to theaters on the outside. Arbus showed a writing sample—“Dear Friend,” which is a letter to a man being incarcerated for the first time—to Mark Plesent, producing artistic director of the Working Theater in New York City; based on that, Plesent commissioned Oliveras’s full-length play, Song to a Child Like Me. The play’s first public reading, attended by his sister and other family members, was held at the Working Theater while Oliveras was still on the inside.

In September 2010, Oliveras was released. Balancing a full-time job as a housing advocate for Common Ground (a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness in New York City), he still writes every day. “In prison, I led a monastic life fully immersed in writing and studies. Out here, I need to work, pay bills, cook,” he says. “I had to relearn all this. It takes time. But I separate at least two hours a day to write. Never neglect your writing, or the work suffers.”

EWG provides playwrights with a stipend, master classes with established playwrights, a biweekly writers’ group led by members of the Public’s Literary Department, opportunities to attend rehearsals and productions at the Public, tickets to shows at other theaters, artistic and professional support, and at least one public reading of their work. Oliveras marvels at meeting with playwrights he once read in A-block. He’s aiming for a full production of one of his plays, and hopes to be able to write full time. “It takes a lot of courage sometimes, using what I’ve learned,” he says emphatically. “There were moments that were really tough. The change wasn’t overnight. It took a lot of things. I had to grow up to be a man in prison."

Read the spring 2013 issue of the Bardian:

Post Date: 05-29-2013