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Founder of Oberlin Drama at Grafton Honored With Governor’s Award

Men participate in Oberlin Drama at Grafton led by Phyllis Gorfain. [Courtesy: Phyllis Gorfain]

When Phyllis Gorfain retired from teaching English at Oberlin College she didn’t really retire at all. Her next act was creating and running a theater program for men in prison.

She piloted a project in 2012 at the Grafton Correctional Institution with the help of a few Oberlin students. That program blossomed into Oberlin Drama at Grafton or ODAG, which focuses primarily on works by Shakespeare, such as “Othello,” “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Men living in Grafton's Reintegration Center have the opportunity both to act in plays and observe them.

“Shakespeare in particular deals with extreme situations and people making very profound mistakes and learning from their mistakes,” Gorfain said. “The men bring many more perspectives to Shakespeare because of their own extreme situation, both in prison and what brought them there.”

Gorfain leads the all-volunteer program with the help of students and faculty from Oberlin College. She is this year’s recipient of the Ohio Governor’s Award for Arts Administration for her work leading ODAG.

Phyllis Gorfain

Her advice to others working in the arts is to collaborate.

“It expands the art and it expands one’s own artistry,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether we accomplish great art; it’s whether we make great journeys.”

One of her favorite memories from working with ODAG is about an actor reluctant to play the role of Desdemona in “Othello.” No other men volunteered for the part, the love interest of Othello, and this man certainly did not want to shave off his mustache.  However, when it came time to perform he not only shaved off the mustache but he also grew with the character.

“Occupying Desdemona’s position had given him a feminine presence in his life that he had missed for 35 years,” she said. “That was to occupy a position of being loyal, of having total compassion, unconditional love, respect, understanding, and he found he had those qualities in himself.”

ODAG’s next production is an abridged version of “The Merchant of Venice” slated for May.

Gorfain receives her Governor’s Award for the Arts at a ceremony presented by Ohio Arts Council and the Ohio Citizens for the Arts Foundation May 15 in Columbus.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.