They went and died about it: Staging an incarcerated cemetery

Jun 6, 2013   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Incarcerated performers

You can’t take an intermission at Sing Sing, and you cannot have a blackout.

Well, this year, a blackout was not available to us because the lights never go out in the room where we presented the play and because the circuits in that space couldn’t handle the wattage of stage lighting. Also, there are only four movable instruments inside the facility to my knowledge, and they are the very state of 1961 electrics art.

A view of the Big House: Sing Sing Correctional Facility

A view of the Big House: Sing Sing Correctional Facility

These two facts (no intermission, no lighting) left me with an Our Town challenge. How would we make the transition out of the wedding scene at the end of Act II and into the cemetery in Act III? How would we travel from “a perfectly lovely wedding” to “the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long”?

In prisons around this country, there are ‘potter’s fields,’ where indigent and isolated inmates are buried when they die while incarcerated. While it is starting to change, for a very long time, a prisoner did not get his name on his grave marker; he merely got his prisoner number. Burial was complete.

Also, we incarcerate more people per capita than any other country in the world. And the way that the media and the entertainment industry talk about who we incarcerate embodies the lizard brain spirit of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” In effect, we namelessly bury those who are convicted of crimes in this country, unless their crimes are of the white collar variety. Then we interview them, voraciously read the books they publish and welcome them back to civil society with renewed television deals and sympathetic nods from the talking heads. But perhaps I digress.

Back to solving that transition between Act II and Act III.

One thing I have available to me at Sing Sing is a lot of bodies. More bodies than one could ever afford in a non-profit production. So I knew I wanted a big cemetery. I wanted to see not just the named characters that we’ve followed through the play, but also those unnamed dead that we forget or never knew bout in the first place. I knew I wanted to acknowledge those disappeared men who die while incarcerated.  During the tablework phase of rehearsals at Sing Sing, the incarcerated actor playing Editor Webb said, “We’re just like Emily in Act III. We’re the dead. The only difference is that hopefully, when we come home, we can make different choices.”

We really investigated Emily’s journey back to “live all those days over again” and wrangled with why that should be so profoundly painful. I asked the men, “If you could go back to the day before you agreed to do whatever got you to Sing Sing, if you could relive that day, that last truly free day, knowing that it would still end up with you getting involved in what led to your conviction, would you do it?” The answer was a resounding “no.”

So I asked several men who are part of the theatre group, but who were not available to be in this play because they are in college right now (my favorite way to lose actors, by the way), if they wanted to play ‘dead guys.’ They were in. They thought it would be easy. Show up and sit through Act III. There were a lot of zombie jokes for a bit. Ha-ha.

In collaboration with actress and facilitator Kate Kenney, who was also playing the role of Emily Webb, we worked with the men to create a Suzuki-inflected slow walk with a focus on looking for that “something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” We talked a lot in rehearsals about how one can live one’s life “every, every minute” when one is incarcerated, when it might be a mental health best practice to tune out; we explored the relationship between one man’s suffering in prison and the life of the universe. I asked each of those ‘dead guys’ to enter the playing space very slowly, walk to a chair in the wedding congregation, lift that chair in a painfully slow arc over his head and slowly to proceed to his ‘grave,’ thinking all the while about what might be the eternal part of himself.

The Stage Manager among the unnamed dead

As the stage manager introduced us to the cemetery and talked about the search for eternal within the human, the unnamed dead slowly, one by one, began to move. When we performed the play for an incarcerated audience, last Wednesday and Thursday, there was some initial laughter as the ‘walking dead’ began to appear. This was partly the same laughter that you get when high school or college kids recognize their friends onstage; this was partly ‘those guys look funny’ laughter. But it abruptly stopped as the first of the unnamed dead slowly sank into his chair, his grave, and the wave of dead continued to move inexorably across the playing space. Gradually, the named dead (Mrs. Gibbs, Simon Stimson, Wally Webb, etc.) began to emerge, “here’s your friend, Mrs. Gibbs …” The numbers of the dead seemed relentless, as old as history.

When we performed the play for the population of the prison, the unnamed dead, in their state green uniforms, were wearing, of course, exactly the same thing as the audience. Which made the audience very potently the continuation of the cemetery itself. Suddenly there were 200 dead men, looking across at one another.

It was a beautiful moment of stagecraft, I confess, and each time we ran it in rehearsal or in performance, I caught myself holding my breath.

Emily, played by Kate Kenney, among the dead

Howard Sherman, in his beautiful and generous appreciation of our project, wrote, “But as these nine men sat and stared out, unspeaking, I could not help but see them as prisoners and actors all at once, locked away for crimes I knew nothing of, for how long I did not know. Were their lives over, as in the play? Was the play itself their escape, or even a sign of their eventual redemption?”

Those were just some of the thoughts we were hoping to elicit.

  • Beautiful, I can only imagine how powerful that sea of green bodies must have been in that moment.

  • Sara Morsey

    Having been a fan of Shakespeare Behind Bars (Curt Tofteland) for years, i am always struck by how the inmates play the women in the plays. I wondered about this immediately when I read about your play. I see you had women in the play…how many…who. Did any of the men play women? why? why not?

  • plainkate

    Hi, Sara, I am a big fan of Curt’s work at SBB as well, but each program and each facility is different.

    We had three actresses come in to work with the men at Sing Sing (Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Webb and Emily). There are a lot of issues around having the men play female roles; RTA has done this in one of the medium security facilities where we work, but at Sing Sing, neither the participants in our program nor the population are ready for it. It would be somewhere between uncomfortable and dangerous for the guys at Sing Sing. We’ve only recently gotten to a place in our classroom work where some of the men feel comfortable to read a female role.

  • beth2027

    I read Mr. Sherman’s post and he tweeted your post. I am both intrigued and touched by this program and the whole idea of theatre in prisons. I think it’s a great thing and I applaude you for taking the time to do something like this.
    It makes you wonder if they had discovered the world of theatre earlier in their lives, might their choices have lead to different outcomes. And if they are released, how theatre might fit into their lives in the outside world.

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