Listen In

Jul 7, 2012   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Incarcerated performers

In Acting II at Sing Sing this summer, we’ve been working on developing points of concentration, physical awareness and sense memory, discovering the dramatic action and building a character.  In this regard, our class is much like Acting 201 just about anywhere.  But we’re also looking for life skills, for mindful ways to interact with the rest of humanity, for critical thinking, for empathy and compassion, for a means to leap over some mighty big hurdles.

I’ve tasked the men with exercises which are familiar to theatre folk everywhere, like closing one’s eyes and listening.  Really listening.  As I cleared the gate last night, here’s what I heard: keys jangling, bars clanging, correctional officers chatting, the whoosh and the rattle of an industrial fan which creaked as if it might spin apart, more keys in an old iron lock, a drawer shutting, a gate closing, a bench creaking, a walkie-talkie squawking beyond the sullyport, a train careening past the barred windows, a CO whistling.

As I left the administration building, heading towards our airless classroom, I heard birds chirping, a lawn mower, the crack of a bat as it made contact with a ball in the A block yard, men cheering, men shooting the breeze with hot, lazy laughter, the hum of an industrial air conditioner cooling some room I’ve never visited, an engine running, footfalls on the concrete.

We did a check-in last night in class where I asked each person to think about how he was feeling, where he was at, and then imagine what item, person or creature he would be at a cook-out.  One of the men said he was a piece of charcoal, hot in the grill; another was the six pack of soda no one remembered to put in the cooler; a third was the ice, melting; a fourth felt like the last paper plate, with the flowers around the border and a grease spot in the middle; another was the pavement, just taking the heat.  I was the Frisbee that just landed in the water.

Next up was a Viola Spolin improv on physical focus, called ‘Seeing a Sport.’  The first group leapt into the work, finding specificity and nuance.  One man observed of them, “I think they were watching a Knicks game, because they all got kinda disappointed at the end.”  The second group struggled to find their focus, but we had a good discussion about where it went awry and how they might have bailed themselves out as they found the exercise flailing.

We’re reading from Michael Shurtleff’s Audition, which I love and have reread many times since I found it as an earnest, artsy high school junior.  Last night we talked about finding the love in the scene.  About the idea that there is a fact of a relationship: he’s my brother.  And then there are the details that actually inform the relationship: did he take care of me when no one else would? Did he beat me up? Do we get together every weekend? Have we not spoken in a decade?  Some of the men struggled to grasp how to portray multiple layers of feeling in a relationship.  I asked, “where is the love in this room?”

There were a couple of Spicoli-like laughs and a long moment of silence.  Then J stood up, walked across the circle and embraced P. “This is my brother, so here is some love.” Great!  Another long pause.  “I’ll start,” I said.  “I bring the love that I have for all of you, the love that I have for the progress, discovery and change that happens in this room; that motivates me to schlep up here in all kinds of weather.”  I mentioned that they could be out in the yard, where there was a whiff of a breeze, instead of in the schoolhouse, but that something brought them here instead.  That gave permission somehow, and different men spoke about their love for learning, for growth, for wanting to change, which, with a little help, led us to the tentacles of love that reach out of the room and back into each of their lives.  The people for whom they want to make the changes, and the love they feel for them.  Finally, men began to speak about the ways in which they support and encourage one another, the way the elders in our circle help to guide the new guys and the realization that this, too, is love.

One of the men has told me separately that one builds defensive walls around one’s self in prison, and that becoming institutionalized, to him, is starting to perceive that as normal.  That the volunteer facilitators of Rehabilitation Through the Arts bring a little bit of the outside in with us, that we remind the men that there is life on the other side of their bids, and that we chip away at that sense of institutionalization through our engagement with the men.

On my way out, I heard a page turning, an eye opening, a heart unfolding.

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You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
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--The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene i