Redeeming Time When Men Think Least I Will

Jul 21, 2017   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Incarcerated performers, Shakespeare

When I arrived in the Twin Cities, I discerned that there were two fallow fields in this utterly verdant theatrical ecosystem where I judged that I could make an impact: I could start a classical theatre company or I could start a new prison performing arts program. But I didn’t think that I had the bandwidth to do both at the same time. As I started to meet people in the community, I also watched the 2016 presidential election roil across the landscape and I heard voices raised about the myriad failings of the criminal justice system; I found myself surprisingly in alignment for a moment with Newt Gingrich as well as Michelle Alexander. I asked myself a question that I know lots of you have probably posed yourselves as well: what can I do?

I remember, as I prepared to leave New York City for grad school in the weeks after the World Trade Center fell, when lower Manhattan was still on fire, when we were still inhaling those people and those buildings, wishing that I did something useful and constructive. I was not a firefighter; I was not an EMT. I am not cut from that particular reinforced cloth. I make plays. I make Shakespeare that guts the cultural church and strives to start the theatrical block party, that invites everyone on the journey.

For almost nine years, in between professional directing gigs, I have taught workshops and directed productions at two different prisons in New York State, under the auspices of Rehabilitation Through the Arts. If you are reading this, there is a better-than-even chance that you already know that about me.

With the cast backstage, just before the opening night performance of Superior Donuts at Sing Sing, May 2011.

I have been privileged to hold the room while incarcerated men make discoveries about themselves, about how they want to be in relationship with others, about how they want to engage with the world. I bring in a theatrical toolbox, and I bear witness as the men decide which tools they want to use. Walking into the prison breaks my heart at least once a week and, more than once, I have watched a guy give up, walk away, and retreat into himself, his loneliness, his anger because the pressures in that place and the strain on his connections to the outside world have overwhelmed him. More often, though, I have watched men start to open up, make eye contact, speak more clearly, find their own voices with delight and wonder, and start to ask how they can contribute, give back, repair, and re-engage. I have seen men discover that they are not the morons and idiots that the school system has promised them that they are; through theatre, through Shakespeare and August Wilson and Tarrell Alvin McCraney, through play, they discover their curiosity, capacity, and intellectual appetite. I have heard stories about visits with family improve and relationships deepen. I have watched men earn bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees. I have watched them come home, struggle through the tangle of re-entry, and find jobs, start businesses, marry, reconnect with their kids, and be of service to the communities.

I often hear that I am amazing or a hero for going into prison week after week, month after month. I am not. I get to bear this witness. That is an honor, and well worth the regular heartbreaks.

In rehearsal for Our Town at Sing Sing  May 15, 2013.

Prison performing arts programs change people’s lives. We see drastically reduced rates of recidivism for participants. Prison performing arts programs turn out to be a kind of gateway drug for college: men who have been told that they are academic failures all their lives discover that they love to learn as they make theatre, and overwhelming, the men of RTA head down the hall to the GED and college programs. They sneak back into our room when they have finished taking a test in English Lit or Sociology class.

So as I have watched America continue to tear itself asunder, and watched the dialogue descend into acrimonious chaos, as I pondered my role, it became clear that I had to start a prison performing arts program in Minnesota. I stand indebted to Katherine Vockins and Rehabilitation Through the Arts; I stand indebted to Curt Tofteland and Shakespeare Behind Bars. I am grateful for my comrades at prison arts institutions across the globe, who have shared their strategies with me as I have thought through how to begin here.

Meet The Redeeming Time Project.

We’re going to continue the work of our comrades, teaching critical life skills through the work of making theatre. Inmates who study and perform Shakespeare challenge themselves to achieve something most had never dreamed of before coming to prison: They develop a passion for learning. Their literacy and critical thinking skills improve. They explore the full complexity of humanity through Shakespeare, reassessing their past and current choices, as well as their future options, as they do so. Although RTP will work with material written by other playwrights and authors, Shakespeare will always be the firm ground on which we stand.

Sir Andrew, Maria, and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night at Sing Sing, April 2016

We need some cash to get started, as you might imagine. We’ll begin our first workshop at a facility in Minnesota this summer. We need to pay our teaching artists, purchase scripts, classroom supplies, and eventually, costumes and props. We’re raising money right now, over at generosity.com

Won’t you please help us mend the world, if you can?

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You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
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Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
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Take this of me, Kate of my consolation…
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