Dec 19, 2017   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Incarcerated performers, Shakespeare

Years ago, when I had made it through the early rounds of elimination for a Fulbright, I was scheduled to have a telephone interview with the Director of the UK Fulbright Commission. I remember receiving very stern written instructions that I was not, under any circumstances, to prepare a statement of any kind; the Director would hang up if he perceived that a candidate was reading a prepared statement. I was discouraged from anticipating his questions, and told simply to wait for the phone to ring. At one point during that fateful call, the Director asked me how it would benefit the American people if I were to be awarded a Fulbright.

“I will come home and make kick-ass Shakespeare for the American people.”

I panicked and caught my breath immediately after I said it, literally grasping at the air in front of my face. I had just said “kick-ass” to the Director of the UK Fulbright Commission. Thus much for that.

(Later that year, at the US Ambassador’s House in London, I asked the Director why I had been selected. He said, “You are so passionate about your work.”)

Sir Andrew, Maria, and Sir Toby Belch at Sing Sing, April 2016

Yesterday, lovely people, I saw some kick-ass Shakespeare in the visiting room at MCF-Moose Lake, and I could scarcely contain my pride for the men speaking it. Travis said that his face hurt from smiling so much.

Tom Roy, the Commissioner of Corrections, met us as Travis, Ted, and I walked into the facility. He was very keen to see what we’ve been up to. I suddenly realized I had to get my ‘I’m the founder’ game on and make our case to him, even as we went through the metal detector and entry search.

The men were in good spirits as they made their way into the visiting room. We checked in, we warmed up. I took a moment to tell them how proud I am, how grateful that they took a chance on what we were offering. Then we waited. We had all imagined that the visitors, their family members, would start to trickle in, but there was a delay. It’s prison. Delay is practically de rigueur. I perceived that the men were doing their best to conceal anxiety and worry as the minutes ticked by. I perceived that I was doing the same.

Finally, here came their family members. The men burst into smiles and leapt to their feet. I was struck by how happy the men without visitors were for the men who had visitors. I didn’t see any pouting; I saw warmth and support, handshakes and laughter.

There is a ‘hug rug’ in the visiting room. If an incarcerated man wishes to hug his family member, this is where it has to happen. On this rug, in front of an officer. This ensures that no contraband is passed between them, of course, and from a security point of view, it makes perfect sense.

Just as we thought we were about ready to start, the Commissioner and the Warden disappeared, asking us to please wait a few minutes. Um. Of course. When they returned, they brought an older gentleman with them; he was the retired Commissioner of Corrections. Current Commissioner Roy thought that this might be pretty great, apparently, and so he wanted the retired Commissioner to join us.

The performances were solid.

The men were on their game, wrestling with the dilemmas at the core of their texts, trusting the work we’ve done together this fall. Each of the men made the words his own, spoke in his own voice. Gone was any of the early fear that “there’s a right way to do Shakespeare.” Ted said that when they dove into their ensemble piece, “O for a muse of fire,” he felt a rustle of energy through the audience. “We weren’t expecting to hear all their voices raised as one. Everyone leaned forward.”

I nervously watched the audience as much as I watched the guys. I saw focus, attention, curiosity, a few tears in the audience. I saw focus, attention, tremendous pride in one another’s accomplishments among the men.

Ted wanted to leap to his feet, he said, but he judged that he would be putting his toe on the scale if he did so, as a board member of The Redeeming Time Project. But then he didn’t have to, because the Commissioner leapt to his feet, followed by the family members. I am apt to forget, because I don’t see it in the classroom, that one of the many impacts of this work is on the family members. Wives, mothers, and siblings discover a new reason to be proud of their incarcerated loved one, perhaps after decades of shame and disappointment, when they see them tackle Brutus, Becker or Prince Hal. When they see others seeing their loved one as a person with talent, intelligence, and determination.

J’s dad shook every man’s hand, after visiting with a son he hasn’t seen in four years. The Correctional officers shook the men’s hands. Our soft-spoken Ted posted himself just past the hug rug, so that he could shake each man’s hand before they left the visiting room at the end of the day. The men who didn’t have visits volunteered to go back and be searched first so that those with visitors could linger a few minutes longer. I saw collaboration across generations, across cultures; I saw community in action yesterday. I was thrilled for the men and honored to have facilitated it.

Commissioner Roy shared with the room that he got into this work because he wanted to put humanity back into Corrections. He told the men that they had reaffirmed that humanity yesterday.

Kick-ass, you band of brothers.

Sharing a laugh with five of the six members of the steering committee at Sing Sing in 2013

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