Superior Donuts at Sing Sing Correctional Facility

Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Ossining, NY. May 2011.

On the verge of donut greatness

How can I describe my experience directing Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts with men inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility?  Thrilling, challenging, profoundly moving, frustrating, fun, exhilarating, playful, instructive, just like rehearsing any play with a dedicated company anywhere.  Except that it isn’t.

These men have all been convicted of serious crimes; they are incarcerated in a maximum security prison.  Most of them have never seen a play other than those staged by the group to which they now belong: Rehabilitation Through the Arts.

RTA at Sing Sing has a steering committee comprised of six men who are developing their leadership skills through running the program inside the facility; it was the steering committee that selected Superior Donuts from a short list of plays that included plays by Shakespeare, August Wilson and Agatha Christie.  Of course, they only told me that their choice was Superior Donuts after scaring my aesthetic socks off by claiming they wanted to stage a dreadful, hoary old murder mystery; they tell me the look on my face was priceless.

The process

We rehearsed three nights a week for nearly five months.  Sometimes in a room in the Sing Sing schoolhouse (think slowly crumbling 1940s-era cinder block elementary school anywhere), and periodically on the slightly raked stage of the Sing Sing auditorium with the cacophony of several other classes, church services and programs going on in the background.  Some of the men in the program are working their way up from functionally illiterate; some of them are finishing the master’s degree program.  Some of the men are veterans of RTA and have worked on many productions; three of my cast members had never been onstage before.  I was frequently reminded that habits I take to be self-evident had to be taught, such as writing down one’s blocking.

RTA is not about making actors or about great productions; a great production is a bonus and an opportunity to share a story and some ideas with the population.  The real accomplishment is in the journey each man takes.  They are able to develop critical thinking skills, conflict management, tolerance for different points of view, long-range planning, commitment to and follow-through with an activity; they are able to explore and experience trust in a scene partner, in their cast mates, in a director.  The RTA member playing the lead role of Arthur took a tremendous leap this spring in accessing his emotions, in processing frustration with himself, in working towards a goal, in leadership by example, in dismantling a carefully cultivated façade and being more honestly himself.

The RTA actor playing Officer James Bailey told me early in the rehearsal process that he had grown up in a strict household, and that he needed my help to learn how to laugh; the scene where he fought with his partner was ultimately hilarious, and then he had to discover how to hold for laughter.  He was strikingly candid about his abject terror at standing in front of an audience; he also said that next to the birth of his daughter, he had never experienced as much joy as he felt in working on the play.

The production

The men performed Superior Donuts three times: twice for the general population of the prison and once for an invited civilian audience of 270.  It is fascinating to watch each audience watch the play; the incarcerated audience receives the play very differently from the civilian audience.  Different lines are funny; different moments are moving.

My incarcerated assistant director tells me that if the inmates don’t like the play, they have been known to start shouting for the correctional officers to take them back to their cells: “Early go back, early go back; this play sucks!”  We didn’t have that with Superior Donuts.  The incarcerated audiences groaned in frustration each time Arthur lost his nerve to make a move on Randy, the ‘milky-gray lady cop’; they roared with laughter when Randy told her partner, James, that he is ‘like a fuckin’ after-school special’; they raised the roof during the fight between Arthur and Luther.  They recognized Luther and Kevin as people they have known or have been.  As Arthur says of Franco’s book, the inmates were ‘swept along by the story.’  One inmate spectator told me that he had been at Sing Sing for ten years, and that “this was the best play they’ve done.”  When I asked him what made it the best, he said, “I felt like we were right in it with them.”  The men in the play told me that back in the cellblock, there were lively discussions about hope, about the possibility of change, about friendships that cross racial boundaries.  Yay!


With the cast backstage, just before curtain


One of the actors in the  production told me that he thought the civilian audience would applaud if they just stood onstage and turned out not to be monsters.  I conceded the possibility, but told him that he and his colleagues had the opportunity to move the civilian audience, to share the ideas and themes of the play with them as well, and that they’d be able to feel the difference between polite golf-claps and true applause.  The civilian audience came to the production polite, courteous and expectant, but they laughed and gasped and I saw more than a few tears.  (They also laughed at the Starbucks and Whole Foods jokes in a way that the long incarcerated simply cannot.)

One unifying thread:  standing ovations all three nights.

Sean ‘Dino’ Johnson, an alum of RTA who now works with Council for Unity, has told me that on performance nights, the men performing in the play don’t feel like they are in prison.  They are rock stars on the cell block on those nights; they feel free.  The final performance, when 270 civilians arrive to watch their work and speak with them, is bittersweet, he says; it is exhilarating, but the usual post-show funk is enhanced by several orders of magnitude.  It is important and transformational for these men to be recognized by the civilian audience for their accomplishment, but immediately after the civilians depart, as the costumes are counted & packed, they are simply prisoners once more.

The next part of the journey

RTA wisely spreads out the post-show activities and plans workshops so that there is always a next thing for which to prepare; a week after the last performance, we’ll have a cast gathering in the chow hall at Sing Sing.  The men will prepare a meal to share with the RTA volunteers, and we’ll give them certificates to commemorate their various achievements, from prop master to light board op to actor.  A week later, we’ll have a processing session where we’ll share our thoughts about what worked, what didn’t, what we could do better, what each man learned, how he grew through the experience.

In Superior Donuts, Max tells Arthur, “People still can, can always change later,” and when Luther tries to shrug off his unseemly influence on 21-year-old Franco, Arthur says, “Right, because you and I, we only made good decisions when we were 21.”  In a room filled with men who made bad decisions when they were 18 or 19 or 21, we were keen to convey hope and the possibility of change.  Like the character of Arthur, who has cut himself off from the kindness of the world through fear, we wanted to share the value of possibility and transformation with all of our audiences, incarcerated and free.  Franco challenges Arthur, “Don’t you even believe in possibilities?”  In the company of RTA’s production of Superior Donuts, you bet we do.

Here are the first and second of two segments that ran about RTA, Superior Donuts and Sing Sing.

Response from civilian audience members

“Kate, thank you for an extraordinary evening. I can’t wait to have some time to talk with you about the entire experience.   Your work on Superior Donuts was Superior Directing and we more than appreciated it. So thank you and big congratulations. You must be in major adrenaline drop mode. And I was thinking of those actors and their shift back to their other reality. It kinda made for a sleepless night last night actually. The whole thing was incredibly moving on a lot of levels, which I feel sure you often hear.”

– Actress Sandy Duncan

“This morning it feels like last night was the kind of experience I’ll not stop revisiting for quite a while.  I am so grateful to have been a part of such a special evening.”

Barbara Wolkoff, SDC

“An astonishing evening, complete with an understudy going on in the role of Franco with stunning success. What a remarkable piece of work, Kate! I especially liked meeting the inmate-performers after the show, and being escorted by several other inmates to see their artwork exhibit. Rehabilitation Through the Arts sure looks as if it is fulfilling its mission.”

Ann Sachs, Theatrical Intelligence

“The performance of Superior Donuts last Friday was amazing and powerful; you did a fantastic job directing! You really bring out the best in those men and you should feel very proud that your production could rival any professional acting company.  I very much wanted to meet the stage manager so please send my congratulations to Ace and the entire production team.  The show ran flawlessly and I am sure you know how much I appreciate that as a stage manager myself.”

Lori Wekselblatt, coordinator, Theatre Design / Stage Technology Program, SUNY Purchase

“By the end of last night’s play, I was emotional in a very good way.  I think it was a summation of seeing your work, your work being amazingly good, everybody else’s work, it being very good and what I imagine was genuine change (which I think is rare).  I don’t know any of them, but imagine their lives sank to some dark lows and that society had given up on them.  To see the results of what happens when one (you!) gave them a chance was amazing.  If I were the governor, there would be 10-20 more gentlemen in free society today.  As much as I would like that, it’s probably best that I’m not a governor.”

– Curt Elsasser, friend of the director and mensch

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