Every Town is Our Town

Jun 11, 2013   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Incarcerated performers

I just directed Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison.

(If you’ve visited this site before, followed me on Twitter or possibly stumbled across my path on the subway, no doubt you already know this.)

Even though the play was selected by their peers, several of the men in the Rehabilitation Through the Arts group at Sing Sing were initially poised on the suspicious spectrum at points ranging from skeptical (“this play isn’t about anything; nothing happens in this play”) to dubious  (“this ain’t MY town”) to certain a conspiracy was being perpetrated upon them (“why are we doing this white play?”).

RTA is not about trying to turn convicted felons into actors. It is about using theatre (and dance, music, visual arts) to provide the tools for rehabilitation through improved communication skills, critical thinking, robust debate, teamwork, delayed gratification and, most importantly to me, play. So many of our participants, in the five facilities where we provide programming, have never had a chance to play.

They’ve seen a peck of trouble

Many of the guys feel like they have been mistreated and misunderstood at almost every turn in their lives.  And they are not wrong.  Perhaps it is inevitable that they are suspicious. Several say, one way or another, “I’m not feeling this play.” At least one wonders why we aren’t doing the play written by one of their own; am I somehow saying that they aren’t capable of writing good plays?  And I want to say, “Can’t you just trust me for a minute? This is going to make sense once we get to work,” but I know that won’t help.

For these men, Our Town is a brand new play. They’ve never heard of it; they never saw the flat, sweet, sentimental high school production that so many of us, here on the outside, either endured or performed. At the same time, they perceive a 75 year old play to be an ancient thing. An irrelevant thing. “What is this Thornton guy talking about?”

We read the play together. A little laughter, a few questions. “What do you mean, no scenery?” “I like this better now that I hear it.”

We spend two weeks reading our way through the play, stopping to discuss themes, language, ideas, then reading some more. We talk about the relationship between the individual and the universal. We talk about whether one can appreciate the beautiful little moments in one’s life, even when one’s life is currently happening inside a maximum security prison.  We talk about interdependence with other people.  We talk about the relationship between Grover’s Corners and Sing Sing; one man concludes, “they are pretty much the same.” We discuss “human beings are shut up in little boxes” and how that resonates in a place where all the human beings are shut up in little boxes. We talk about how they feel as if they are among the dead themselves, except that they will all eventually get a chance to rejoin the living. They think they will be able to see what Emily only discovered after death.  “This is profound.”

Doc Gibbs talking to George

Doc Gibbs talking to George

Over the course of nearly five months, we work together to explore and realize the play.  We change the location of the town to Grover’s Corners, New York, “just across the Westchester line” because that makes more sense to the men; we change the latitude and longitude to Sing Sing’s coordinates. We revise the religious demographics to reflect those of the prison, and the Stage Manager now tells us not just where the Congregational church is, but also the mosque. In rehearsal, Doc Gibbs playfully but earnestly decrees that they only eat imaginary turkey bacon in his household, because otherwise it would be haram.

(I worry about whether Thornton Wilder would be all right with these small amendments and as much as I respect the sanctity of the text, I tell myself he would be because they do not alter his fundamental message; they only welcome the incarcerated audience into the world.)

About watching a rehearsal of the scene where Doc Gibbs reprimands George for neglecting his chores, one of the men writes me a note:

“I thought you wanted the father in the scene to become more aggressive, even physically aggressive. Because I know that when I was sixteen, if I started to cry in front of my father, I would have been slapped and told to stop being a punk. But you were seeking empathy and compassion. The most disheartening thing is that if someone asked me what they should do if their teenage son started to cry over words, I would have told them to slap him to toughen him up. It then came to me in an epiphany what a father and son relationship could be.”

When George and Emily flirt and fumble their way to a declaration of love at Mr. Morgan’s soda fountain, my tough guys giggle. “Hast yow!”

We talk about what love is and what pre-wedding jitters are. One of the men observes that pre-wedding jitters are different for them, because when incarcerated men get married in the visiting room of the prison, many of them have to wonder if they would marry the same woman if they were free. They have to marry the women who are willing to love them, another says.

All that marching up and down

We perform the play three times: twice for the general population of the prison, and once for an invited civilian audience of 250. While the incarcerated audience laughs at some moments that the civilian audience doesn’t, all of those humans beam when George says to Emily, “I guess this is an important conversation we’ve been having.” And while the incarcerated men are more surreptitious with their tears, they sniffle nonetheless throughout Act III.


Editor Webb talking to Emily: “Emily’s Pops!”

I hear reports from the cell block after each of the first two performances. One man relays the message, “thank you for choosing a play that mattered to the population.” The yard is echoing with men repeating favorite lines, “Then why don’t they DO something about it?” and “That ain’t no way to behave.” Wherever he goes in the prison, the actor playing Editor Webb hears, “Emily’s Pops! Emily’s Pops!” Excited and surprised, another man says, “Even the COs [correctional officers]. I had an officer say, ‘you guys are amazing.’” Yes, one man says, “old Thornton knew what he was doing.”

An early opponent says to me, “You can coach my team anytime, Kate.” Another says, “This play and this process woke me up to a lot of things I was afraid of.” A third, “This process surely works. It made me feel like somebody. I am showing my kids that though I used to be one way, now I can be another.”

The Stage Manager

The Stage Manager

One of the most vocal adversaries of the play now says, “This is a beautiful play. At first I was against this play; I thought it had nothin’ for me, but it has everything in it. I see Grover’s Corners as a corner on Flatbush Avenue. I have taken everything for granted and this play has taught me to look again.” He teasingly  tells the actress who has come into the prison to play Emiy, “You and I cannot continue to be friends if you keep making me cry like this. I have a reputation to uphold.” When I swaddle the baby doll that George Gibbs will carry during the funeral scene, this same tough dude stands next to me, and gently asks, “Can I — Can I hold the baby?”

Every town is Our Town

Grover’s Corners. A corner on Flatbush. Even the peculiar town that is Sing Sing.

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