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by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times

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Gay playwright Michael Allen Harris' world-premiere drama Punk is set in a prison's separate unit for gay, bisexual and transgender inmates. Harris got the idea after a fellow playwright friend forwarded him a short-film documentary exploring the topic.

"Queer people in prison are often forgotten about, or they're never considered. There are people who live their life within the prison system—good, bad or indifferent—what they did or who people think they are, they're still human beings," Harris said. "I would like for questions to be raised on how we can reform prison system policies and the prison system as a whole."

Punk started out just as a 10-minute three-character drama. But after a relatively quick development period through an associate company of The New Colony, Punk was expanded into a full-length play for the theater company's mainstage season.

"I wasn't really interested in telling a story about the suffrages of queer people in prison or a play about the prison system. What I was curious about was that these individuals had made a life and were able to navigate the system that is super hyper-masculine and in an environment where they are preyed upon," Harris said. "The biggest thing that I would like the audience to walk away with is broadening their sense of empathy… ( It ) is very important especially in these polarizing times because of our political climate."

Harris sets Punk in a GBTQ unit at an American maximum security prison. Yet tensions rise when Travis, a young inmate serving a life sentence for the murder of a gay man, asks to be transferred to this special prison unit.

Like many productions developed by The New Colony, Punk featured improvisation exercises for the actors and director to build up their roles.

Actor Daniel Shtivelberg portrays Travis in Punk, and he really appreciated the many developmental workshops and rehearsals to help craft his complicated character.

"[Travis] is obviously very troubled and excitable. He gets really angry and can spark really quickly," Shtivelberg said. "As an actor, I don't try to judge him. Travis is not the best of people, but what has been fun through the process is trying to find the lighter moments and the times that Travis really cares about others. He cares deeply about his daughter, his girlfriend, Emily, and then finds a lot of care through the prison unit he is in as well."

Also in the cast of Punk is transgender actress Evie Riojas, who portrays the transgender inmate Sonya.

"It's really important that when writing a trans character to have trans input involved through as much of the process as possible," Riojas said. "We don't get many parts, so having those opportunities taken from us before we're even given the chances can be disheartening."

Riojas joined the cast after the initial developmental Punk workshops, but was still able to generate her input to the character.

"The New Colony is really cool and I actually feel a little spoiled with this project with them being my first go at theater," Riojas said. "Their process is really in-depth and a team effort. It's cool not only to watch my character grow and change into a full-fleshed out person, but everyone else."

Riojas was also able to correct a few instances of Harris' dialogue in Punk that didn't feel authentic to her.

"Little things involving the character where I was able to feel comfortable with the group and say, 'Hey, this might not necessarily be something that I would want other trans people to come and see and experience,'" Riojas said. "Tiny little nuances within the script and stuff like that. We were able to build the best possible character of a trans woman in a men's prison."

Both Riojas and Shtivelberg had praise for Punk's dramaturg Ryan Oliviera. He was on hand to provide articles and other information for the cast and crew, including helping to set up interview for the ensemble with a trans woman who spent 25 years in various Illinois prisons.

"Working with The New Colony has been a blessing. I love that they cater to new work and that they're looking to tell stories that largely aren't being told," Harris said. "I always felt supported by the company with my ideas and I felt like I could always be brave in the rehearsal space—I also felt like I was in a safe space as well."

The New Colony's world premiere of Punk continues through Sunday, Nov. 5, at The Den Theatre's Upstairs Main Stage, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Previews ( $15 ) run through Sunday, Oct. 8. Regular-run performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays with 3 p.m. matinees on Sundays. Regular-run tickets are $20; visit .

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