YUMA — When visiting the “Alcatraz: Life on the Rock” exhibit, don’t be surprised if some of the displays move on their own and talk back to you.
Eight students from Arizona Western College’s theater program have moved their “stage” to the Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park for the semester. The theater majors are adding “living history” to the exhibit, which is a project of the National Park Service and its concessionaire, Alcatraz Cruises, and has been travelling throughout the country, with its most recent travel location being Yuma.
AWCTheatre Professor Chip Straley shared that when Tina Clark, who curates the state park and its exhibits for the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, asked him if he would be interested to have his students be a part of the exhibit, he was nothing short of ecstatic.
After recalling a time when he had the opportunity to witness living history in action himself in the late ‘80s during a Shakespeare festival in Maryland, he thought, “Why wouldn’t we do this?”
He explained that in addition to helping to enhance the exhibit, it will also prove to be an invaluable learning experience for the students who hope to pursue theater in the future.
Students spent time researching people at Alcatraz from prisoners to guards and wardens and their families and Clark worked to find costumes for the students to fit their chosen characters.
As a teacher, Straley said he is interested in developing the students’ abilities so they are able to be in close proximity to audience members and still project a believable portrayal of what life could have really been like for those at Alcatraz.
“As performers, it can only help them,” he said. “It compels them to think outside of a script and it lets them live the life of someone they researched.”
Straley said that students were chosen for the internship based on their dedication to the AWCTheatre program.
“They’ve worked hard on other shows. Each of them have been in several performance productions and they’ve also done more than just acting — as systems directors and stage managers — they have worked the entirety of the theater.”
Students will also be required to write a 15-page paper about their experiences and on their characters as well as give an oral presentation after the project is complete.
Heritage Area Director Charles Flynn agreed to allow the students to take part in the internship at the park, where students will be given a stipend for their 12-hour work weeks. Also through the project, they will also receive three credits for AWC as an independent study opportunity.
“We hope this is a beginning of a partnership that will benefit both the college and the two state parks we are managing,” said Flynn.
Scott Risberg, who played an Alcatraz prisoner named Greg Gardner on Monday, said that he is enjoying learning more about the history of the prison and about his character.
A great escape artist, Risberg said, Gardner was known for fleeing from prisons and his captors until he finally ended up in Alcatraz.
Matthew Brooks, who played prisoner Herbert Farmer, said that he works hard to ensure the stories of his prisoner are captivating to those that visit the exhibit.
“A lot of people are genuinely interested in this so I do my best not to make anybody bored and have them walk a way,” he said. “Theatre is what I’ve always wanted to do and this is my first real job in it and it’s been really cool for me.”
Samantha Cundiff, who played guard George H. Gregory’s wife, Velma, said that is the first time she has participated in a living-history-type assignment.
While she said that it is sometimes difficult to stay in character when she’s working one-on-one with visitors, it is ultimately strengthening her acting skills.
Rachel Barker, who has played warden Edwin Swope’s wife, Nettie, said they were required to study their characters extensively so that they could be sure to answer questions visitors to the exhibit may have.
“We get questions from every different aspect you could imagine, from what the climate is like to how many kids you have,” she said. “We have to stay on our toes.”
Although she wants to go into more of the stage management aspect of theater in the future, she said that this is a great opportunity for her.
“Anything I can do to get extra experience — doing living history and community theatre shows and college theatre shows — they’re just so different and there’s so many variations,” she said.
The exhibit is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through April 14. Admission for the exhibit is $4 for adults, $2 for children age 7-13, and free for children 6 and younger.