It’s clearing up. The stars are coming out.

Mar 4, 2013   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Incarcerated performers

The individuals on the play selection committee all said that they wanted a comedy, or at least a story with some lighter moments in it.  Over the course of several months, my colleagues and I made almost three dozen suggestions that fit the committee’s criteria, which include having a dozen or more roles for men and as few roles for women as possible. Early on, I suggested that if you want a comedy with twelve roles for men and two roles for women, Shakespeare’s your man.  No one writes comedies for twelve men and 1-2 women anymore.

(Thank goodness for the larger theatre community!)

A few committee members were very excited by the idea of a Shakespeare comedy. I mentioned that directing Shakespeare is one of the things I am very best at in this world. Another committee member said he felt as if I was “shoving Shakespeare down his throat.” I told him I was sorry if he felt I was forcing it on him, that wasn’t my intent, I didn’t need to direct Shakespeare with this group, that I direct a lot of Shakespeare other places, that I just thought it fit with the overall mission of the organization.

The selection committee encountered some challenges. Often times, two members of the committee would read a particular play, but the other members couldn’t get to it. Of the two who’d read it, one liked it and the other didn’t. With another play, the same thing might happen, but this time it was two other members who read it, so no one person had read both plays.  In this slightly slipshod fashion, we burned through a lot of viable candidate plays.

Finally, the committee picked Twelve Angry Men.  Which is not a comedy and which the group has done once before.  “Okay,” I said, “but do we have twelve men who can make it to every rehearsal? All twelve jurors are onstage for the entire play.” The committee considered this and then said that no, we probably only had 5-6 men who could handle being onstage the whole time, who could carry a show, who were ready to commit to attending every rehearsal.

Then they quickly selected another play, written several years back by a member of the group. Again, not a comedy, and this time, also, not a great script.  Philosophically compelling, but dramaturgically, a hot mess.  I challenged the committee about repeating this play so soon after its last production. “Shakespeare festivals don’t do Romeo & Juliet this often,” I said.  It would also be difficult for me to direct it, because I also couldn’t see the intrinsic value of the piece. “If you tell me that you are absolutely passionate and committed to doing this play, I will do my best, but I will need your help, because I cannot see it.”  This led to a lot of constructive and challenging discussion about what happens if the director doesn’t care for the play the selection committee chooses.  Eventually, I said that it might mean they need to pick a different director for that project, but I wasn’t persuaded that they really WANTED to do this play.  I felt like they selected it because the time was getting short, and we needed a title.

“Yep.  That is exactly what we did.”

Okay.  So.  At my suggestion, the selection committee went back to the list with which we had started, and picked out two plays that had gotten short shrift but 1-2 enthusiastic votes in the cavalier reading process. Those two hardy survivors were Tartuffe and Our Town.  There were two votes for Tartuffe and three for Our Town.  But one very smart, very thoughtful and also outspoken committee member said of Our Town, “That play is awful. Nothing HAPPENs in that play.” I was surprised to hear him say that, and encouraged him to read it once more, tracking the number of mentions of birth, death, the eternal and the stars. The next time I saw the committee, the decision was unanimous and enthusiastic: we would produce Our Town.

But we hadn’t made it to Grover’s Corners quite yet.

Just because the selection committee had come to a decision, it didn’t mean that the acting company was happy.

“Why are we doing this play? This is a white play.”

I was getting ready to direct this production of Our Town at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, under the auspices of Rehabilitation Through the Arts.

Some of the guys in my program are very impatient.  Some of the guys see a conspiracy in every shadow.  And who can blame them?  Many of the guys feel like they have been mistreated and misunderstood at almost every turn.  And they are not wrong.  Several of the men have led wretched lives, thwarted at nearly every turn; perhaps it is inevitable that they suspect almost everything. 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.

The selection committee does their very best to share their experience of choosing the play with the rest of the men. *Cool stares.*

I talk a bit about the production history of the play, how it has been in near-constant production in cultures and languages all around the globe, since it was first produced on Broadway 75 years ago. “So?”

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 watch the documentary OT, about a group of kids at Dominguez High School in Compton who put on the school’s first play in 20 years: Our Town. The men laugh as the kids get to ‘crunch time’ a few days before the performance; they sing along with the television when the kids in the documentary attend a memorial service for one of their own, killed in a drive-by; they nod or look down then the kids talk about absent fathers, expectations of failure. They hear a kid say, “Our Town is so ghetto.”

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I bring in twenty pages of images of African American and Native American people from the earliest years of the 20th Century:  doctors, baseball players, newspaper men, families in their Sunday best, farmers.  One man says, “I never knew black people dressed like this.” We talk about the black townships; we discuss whether we need or want to change the name of the town so that it makes more sense to us. The men decide we don’t.

We spend five work sessions 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 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.”

I let out a big ol’ Linklater-style sigh of relief. Okay. Let’s get to work.

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