Behind the scenes, behind bars

Apr 1, 2011   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Incarcerated performers

I used to imagine that incarcerated actors would have no schedule conflicts.  That they would be available to rehearse at any time.  That they don’t have anything else to do.  I was as wrong as I could be.  I marvel at how busy the men who participate in Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) are: they all have their work assignments, scattered throughout the prison, as law library clerks, gallery porters, chow hall workers, plumbers, recreational aides; many of them are in school, whether it is the pre-college, college or master’s programs; there are advocacy and counseling, mentoring and study groups; there are those wonderful, all-too-short-yet-sacrosanct visits with family and friends.

Cultivating patience

It can be difficult to adhere to a thoughtfully constructed rehearsal schedule because

  • I might arrive at the prison to discover that some one has been stabbed, and therefore half the facility – and half the men in my program – is in lockdown;
  • I might learn before I set out for the prison that the whole place is in lockdown, and that rehearsals – indeed, all programs – are on hold for the duration;
  • One of the actors might be on a conjugal, or ‘trailer’, visit with his wife and kids; alternately, a couple weeks ago, one of the incarcerated actors in my show was ‘too worn out’ from his trailer to come to rehearsal.  Hold off on the nudge, nudge, wink, wink routine, though; even as the other men made jokes about how he needed the blue pill for his next trailer, he actually caught a terrible cold from his wife.
  • One of the actors is on keeplock: he has committed an infraction, gotten into it with a corrections officer, or been caught up in a small anticipatory sweep, and is consigned to his cell 23/7 – someone else will jump up to play his part, but the freshly minted understudy might live in a different cellblock from the actor he’s covering, so they may never see one another to share info on the work;
  • One night this winter, I arrived at the schoolhouse within the prison to discover that, save for two correctional officers, I was completely alone.  I sat in our classroom for more than 45 minutes of our precious two hour allotment by myself, wondering what was going on and whether anyone might eventually arrive.  About half the company finally did; due to an incident earlier that day, dinner had been delayed and everything was running late, but sometimes there is no explanation at all;
  • The first warm day.  Hard as it is to believe on this snowy April 1st, it was 76° F one Friday a couple weeks ago.  While the rest of New York City frolicked and flirted with the apparent arrival of spring, the vibe inside Sing Sing was decidedly wonky.  Warm spring days are no fun when you can only look at them through prison bars; everyone was disgruntled and unfocused that night.

Logistics

Another challenge when working with the incarcerated is the idea of follow-through.  Each of these men is on his own journey away from his crime and towards rehabilitation.  Some of them are not very far along that road, and others have traversed worlds.  I don’t want to generalize, but it is often difficult to get a swift and direct response from the men about the next steps in a process.  For example, getting our set built for Superior Donuts.  Oy.

Several years ago, RTA staged West Side Story at Sing Sing: the counter from the drug store in WSS can be recycled/modified into the counter of Arthur Przybyszewski’s donut shop.  Great.  How big is it?  No one can remember.  Can we measure it? Where is it?  It’s in this remote storage area of the facility, and weeks go by before a couple of RTA guys can get permission to go there to measure it.  We cannot determine dimensions for a whole host of other set pieces til we know what we have in that unit, and whether we can then draft, cajole or inveigle the wood shop to help us build the rest.  It’s a bit difficult for me to be certain who is handling this, who will get the answers we need.

The elements of production

In tandem with producer and RTA founder Katherine Vockins, I am become set designer, costumer designer, properties artisan as well as fight director, stage director and facilitator.  Every element of production has to be cleared with the administration of the facility and Katherine has a gift for this as well as a seemingly endless supply of mindful patience.  When costuming inside Sing Sing, one cannot dress the incarcerated actors in black, blue, gray or white, because the correctional officers wear those colors.  (So much for that concept production where everything is shades of gray, except for the sprinkles on the donuts!!)  The two cops in our production may look more like forest rangers than police officers in their khaki duds.  Clothing being what it is, namely, a potential security risk, an officer must be present for costume fittings.

The men can borrow some items from various locations throughout the facility, but about half the props will have to come from the outside, and will have to be cleared.  We can have no glass coffee pots in this particular outpost of Superior Donuts; heck, we have to get clearance to have some donuts.  In fact, most of the donuts will be papier maché, constructed and painted by RTA’s art class; we will get a gate clearance in order to bring in half a dozen actual donuts for each performance, for those moments in the play when they become practical.  Which is to say, edible.

I have to remember – and the warmth and energy that the men bring to our rehearsals helps me to remember – that putting on a good production is ancillary to our principal goal, which is to help the men express themselves, learn how to trust, to communicate, to build community, to work towards a long-term goal, to plan, to think critically, to collaborate, to help them rejoin the company of the larger community.

  • Flloydkennedy

    Ain’t it grand – to think that THIS is what theatre can do – as you put it so beautifully – “which is to help the men express themselves, learn how to trust, to communicate, to build community, to work towards a long-term goal, to plan, to think critically, to collaborate”. This is why theatre is so important, why it will never die, and you are a beautiful example of why we theatre makers can’t stop ourselves from doing it.

  • Anonymous

    It’s one of the most thrilling things about this work: it is theatre actually changes lives. Sometimes within the span of our two-hour work session; sometimes over the course of the seasons as a concept suddenly lands with new resonance for an individual in the program.

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