The Last Rehearsal

Mar 9, 2020   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook

Travis and I drove up to the prison on Sunday evening to meet up with the men for a last work session on their pieces, in the multipurpose room where they were set to perform. This room is part library, part lecture hall; the Wiccans, the Catholics, and the Nation of Islam all share harmoniously in the use of it. It feels more like a space in a suburban junior high than it does most of the prisons I have seen.

It was clear to me how much it meant to some of the ensemble members that we had made the extra trip, how that reinforced for them both their own value as well as the importance and proximity of performance. We were a focused group, but the energy was also supportive and trusting; everyone was leaning into each man’s piece, practically willing him through, should he chance to stumble over a line.

Wednesday night, we performed the work for 108 men in that multipurpose room. Our regular escort, Officer Dour, is on vacation, and an officer with whom I have previously only had a passing acquaintance joined us. We’ll call her Officer Keen, I think. When she screened us through the metal detector, she told us that she had heard one of the monologues eight times that afternoon. That each time the ensemble member lost his way, she encouraged him to start over. She had asked him what he knew that was similar to the experience of the character in the monologue. So we have a precocious acting coach on the correctional staff.

One beautiful, small thing is that men who started the workshop closed off and skeptical readily own their fear and anxiety by the time we come together to warm up for a performance. RTP bought them all polo shirts, color-coordinated to the miniature theatre companies in which they cast and rehearsed their pieces, in purple, hunter green, and orange. Our new facilitator, Katie, said she was wondering why I did that, when they are not allowed to keep them, until she saw them all checking their reflections out in the glass wall of the library, reflecting on how many years it has been since they got to wear anything that was not state-issue. It makes the occasion more special for them.

The men in the ensemble all rose to the challenge of the work, taking sometimes small steps forward and sometimes giant leaps. The men in the audience were enthusiastic, sometimes talking back to the work, but in context and in support. After the performance, I asked the guys how it was to hear their words performed by someone else in front of an audience; M. said, “I suddenly worried, right before T. began to speak, ‘what if it’s not really funny?’ I was so relieved when they laughed with you.”

Officer Keen asked the Associate Warden if she could get her shift changed, so that she can join us in the Visiting Room on Monday, when we perform for the families.

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