Professor showcases hard realities of incarceration through theater


When Ashley Lucas’ father was sent to prison, “it was earth-shattering.”

“It was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” said Lucas, associate professor of theatre and drama, and the Residential College, and director of the Prison Creative Arts Project. She was 15 when her father was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The experience with incarceration inspired her career bringing the arts to prisons.

Lucas grew up in a loving home. Her parents valued education and read to her every night at bedtime, and she attributes her love of learning to them. In middle school, she wanted to play basketball. However, she was too short, so she tried theater. She has loved it ever since.

When her father entered prison she saw how chronic stress and the monotony of prison life affected him. She saw how prison can steal an individual’s identity and the liberties people take for granted.

Ashley Lucas is director of the Prison Creative Arts Project. (Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

“We have an astonishing amount of freedom to do the things that we want to do, and nothing makes you more conscious of that than spending time in prison,” she said.

She channeled her newfound knowledge into her work in theater. On a long shot, Lucas applied and was accepted to Yale for undergraduate studies. There she studied English and theater. Eventually she earned a joint Ph.D. in ethnic studies and theater and drama from the University of California, San Diego.

Her academic work includes a one-woman play she wrote and still performs called “Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass,” which highlights how incarceration affects prisoners’ families. The play speaks to the struggles of having loved ones in prison, and it hits home to those with loved ones serving time, she says.

Prisoners themselves also love it.

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“It spoils you to perform in prison. People in prison are so excited to see a performance because they’re taught that nobody cares about them, so when someone comes in and tells them they’re worthy of respect, there’s a weight that is so pressing and immediate,” she said.

Lucas came to U-M as director of the Prison Creative Arts Project in 2013. She helps run the volunteer programs that bring writing, theater and the visual arts into prisons. This includes teaching PCAP classes, participating in the training and coordinating of volunteer workshop facilitators, and supporting the Linkage Program, the project’s work with re-entrants.

One of her favorite initiatives is a student exchange program with the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro in which students collaborate with Brazilian theater students and faculty, and participate in theater work in prisons, hospitals and favelas (low-income settlements). It is these experiences that she is able to share with volunteers, prisoners, families and students that makes her job worthwhile.

“The things we’re able to do at the university have a meaningful impact on so many different lives. That’s the greatest gift of PCAP,” she said.

Q & A

What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

I love when formerly incarcerated guests come to speak to my students. People who have lived inside prisons have much to teach us about power, institutions, freedom and the arts.

What can’t you live without?

My cute husband, Phil Christman.

Where is your favorite spot on campus?

The Duderstadt Gallery during PCAP’s “Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners.”

What inspires you?

The survival and creativity of people in prison.

What are you currently reading?

“My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor, “The Happiest Song Plays Last” by Quiara Alegría Hudes, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs.

Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?

My graduate school mentors Jorge Huerta and Ana Celia Zentella as well as PCAP’s founder Buzz Alexander.



    on January 23, 2017 at 11:15 pm

    I met Ashley Lucas (Christman) on a plane from Austin, TX to El Paso TX in 2007 following the death of my husband in WV & relocating to Bertram, TX to my son’s home. She became one of my treasured friends along with her dear Mother. I’m overjoyed her dear Father is now out of prison. God bless them abundantly.

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