Guest Blogger: Kate Powers Does Theatre Up the River

Document4A couple of weeks ago, my sister-in-law, Dawn, blogged about her theater work in prisons.  So when I found out that my fellow director, Kate Powers, is still actively directing at Sing Sing (and knows Dawn), I asked her to please share her experiences with us.  My limited knowledge of prison theater consists of Beckett’s production of Waiting for Godot at  Lüttringhausen Prison as well as that amazing season of Oz with Betty Buckley. Kate is not only creating art but being of service.  Theatre is an amazing outlet for those who want to grow.

So without further ado…

“Theatre inspires me.”

“Theatre teaches me about myself, and helps me to understand why other people do what they do.”

“Theatre relaxes me.”

“Theatre teaches me empathy.”

“Everyone in my life was a backstabber or a deceiver.  I never knew what trust was until I started making theatre.”

I didn’t say any of these things; actors in my latest project did.  Many directors learn from their collaborators or are moved to think differently because of an encounter with a particularly gifted, or especially irksome, actor.  The individuals in this production rock my world regularly and have revealed many of our received ideas to be built upon ignorance, fear, salaciousness and indifference, but not on reality.  I work as a director, teacher and facilitator for Rehabilitation Through the Arts, or RTA (www.rta-arts.org).  I work with men who are incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison north of New York City.  Sing Sing gave us the phrase ‘the big house’ and it is the origin of the euphemism ‘up the river.’

RTA was founded at Sing Sing in 1996 by Katherine Vockins and now operates in five New York State prisons, offering incarcerated individuals the opportunity to participate in theatre, dance, visual arts and creative writing classes, workshops and productions.  RTA is about using the arts as a tool for social and cognitive transformation.  What that means is that theatre is rocking the big house.  The guys in the RTA program are thought leaders within the prison; they are role models.  The superintendent (aka the warden) loves the theatre program because he sees what a profound change it rings.  RTA member C once told me, “You have no idea how much more walking away we do than everyone else in here;” theatre, he said, had taught them that they don’t need to take the bait when another prisoner is spoiling for a fight.

The men at Sing Sing have performed plays by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Suzan-Lori Parks, August Wilson, Tracy Letts and, yes, Stephen Sondheim.  This spring, we will present Our Town for the general population of the facility and for an invited civilian audience.” We’ve just started rehearsals, with several lively discussions about how one can be open to the beauty in one’s every day world, when one’s every day world is a prison.

In the midst of rehearsing a play, doing table work, discussing characters and motivations, exploring staging possibilities, it turns out that one can discover trust, learn compassion, find one’s voice, learn how to negotiate conflict, how to disagree without fighting, improve one’s cognitive skills and reading comprehension.  One can learn organizational skills.  One can discover what it is to be seen, heard and accepted for who one is, and not for the mistakes one has made.

Some people balk at the idea of this program.  People have protested to me, “I wish I had free Shakespeare classes!  Why do those murderers get that?”  So here’s the thing:  the recidivism rate for the general population of convicted felons in this country is approximately 68%; this means that, within two years, two-thirds of the approximately 650,000 souls released from prison in 2013 will be back in the system.  They will have violated their parole or committed another crime, not because they are ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ or beyond redemption, but sometimes just because they didn’t get any information about how to proceed in any other way with their lives.

The recidivism rate for individuals who participate in prison arts and education programs is more like 10%.  Yep.  10%.

So this isn’t some special treat.  This is art giving people tools with which they can change their lives and head in new directions.  These are skills that they can ‘take over the wall.’  This is theatre actively making my community and yours safer.  This is theatre making an actual, quantifiable, measurable, life-altering difference.

Now that inspires me.

Home: My Refuge

Document1Home: My apartment, New York City, and the theater.

It’s the place where I feel safe and comfortable. It’s a  place where I feel free to be me.  It’s where the foundation is sturdy and where the cracks are fixable. It’s the place where I can a step into the foyer/vom or onto the tarmac and feel relief. It’s the place where I wouldn’t think twice if I need to take a little more time and exertion to make it even homier. It’s my refuge.

I have to remind myself that whenever I feel a disconnect from a place that I call “my home”, it’s time to address it. So I ask myself the following questions:

  1. Why am I no longer comfortable?
  2. Why do I not feel safe?
  3. Is it time to move (on)?

If the answers have legitimate reasons that can be explained in a logical concise way, meaning they are not “Cause”, “ach, I don’t know, “Grr’ (though, that can be logical and concise), I have to then make a decision that is best for me.

There’s nothing wrong with moving on if no one is going to get hurt in the process. And really, home is where the heart is and if there isn’t any heart, there isn’t any warmth. And if there isn’t any warmth, I gotta go.

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It’s a great month for theatre:

The 39 Steps at Parkside Players (Check out Ian’s post)

Cheryl King in Grapefruit as part of the Wired Arts Fest at The Secret Theatre.

 

Guest Blogger: Dawn Slegona McDonald on Becoming Our Best Selves

photo (1)My sister-in-law, Dawn, is flying the flag against gun violence and is involved in making a difference for our future. However, her activism didn’t just start with the senseless deaths in Connecticut last year.  She has been a strong proponent for those in need via…theater. I think Dawn is a wonderful power of example and an awesome mom.  And without further ado:

On becoming our best selves…

A number of years ago I spent some time in a shelter for runaway teens. Later on I found myself in a home for battered women and their children.  And finally I landed in prison.  Now before your imagination races away with you let me tell you that I am in fact not a runaway, or a battered woman or a former criminal.  I am a teaching artist who uses theatre as an educational tool in community settings.  Or in many cases settings that are removed from the community and from society in general.

For many years I pursued an acting career and found that it did not satisfy the part of me that wanted to make a difference in the world, the part of me that just wanted to do good with my life. In 2006 I was lucky enough to see a play that was written and performed by a group of high school girls from Harlem. It forever changed the way I view theatre. The girls beamed with pride as they took their curtain calls and I later learned that they had been part of a program designed to foster leadership skills in young inner city women using playwriting and performance. I also learned that every single girl in the play had been accepted into college – something that for their school and neighborhood was an unexpected accomplishment. I decided then and there that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to use everything I love about theatre to teach and to help people better their lives. I received my Masters degree in Educational Theatre from NYU and began teaching workshops in schools across New York City, in shelters, in prisons, and even in a rural school on the island of Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa. I’ve used theatre to teach literacy, to teach public speaking and on a more human level, to teach skills we need as humans – discipline, teamwork, critical thinking and empathy. To me, theatre must have meaning, and in an ideal world the viewing and creating of theatre will teach us a valuable lesson about ourselves.

People who oppose my prison work often complain that “prisoners doing plays” sounds like a waste of time. I usually explain that it is so much more than merely doing plays. It’s teaching prisoners skills they will need when they re-enter society. But first I ask these folks a question a very wise woman once asked me: “They will be getting out someday”, she said. “How do you want them?” Do you want them to have sat in prison becoming bitter and angry?  Or do you want them to come out having had an experience that made them want to be better people?

I may sound naïve or overly romantic, but I believe that learning through theatre can make us all better people.  We expand our worldview, we learn to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we learn what we are capable of and we grow from the experience.  I feel blessed to have made this my life’s work.  And even more blessed that I can share it with my child, who is my one and only student these days.  I am a stay at home mom, but a teacher still, using theatre and the arts to encourage my son to grow into his best self.

What Shade of Success am I?

imagesSo believe it or not, I  moonlight as a Mary Kay Independent Beauty Consultant.  I know. As if I don’t have enough on my plate but I do love make-up and reversing the signs of aging as we read.

Last month we received an email from our National Sales Director about taking control of our lives and living the way we deserve.  Don’t live in our dreams but be willing to take action. That’s always a tad hard but I think  if we move away from our fears, we feel empowered.  For me, my default is to rely on fear as a way not to move forward. As a result, I have to have people in my life that will help me take the action steps. I have different people for different segments of my life. Those people are my mentors.  They are my trusted guides. If it wasn’t for them, I know that I probably wouldn’t have stayed in theater (my true passion); wouldn’t have created this blog, wouldn’t have written out a business plan for Theatre Beyond Broadway. I wouldn’t have done anything. I am kind of lazy in some respects.

My two professional mentors are Ken Davenport (Broadway Producer: Godspell and the upcoming MacBeth with Alan Cummings) and Michael Roderick (Broadway Producer: The Scottsboro Boys). They help me take the small actions to build on one another. They ask me questions. Sometimes I can clearly and concisely answer them or sometimes (and this happened last week) I just look at them with a blank stare. I have to figure out what I want and what am I willing to do.

  • Am I willing to be inconvenienced to be successful?
  • Am I willing to do things that maybe at first make you a bit uncomfortable?
  • Am I willing to step out of your comfort zone?
  • Am I willing to dream audacious dreams?
  • Am I willing to say enough is enough?

The answer is yes. I will do what it takes to be successful in the world that I love. Plus, if I didn’t, I would be stuck in my dreams and in my head…there’s a lot of noise in there.

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The 39 Steps open in two weeks! Hope you can make it. Read Ian’s post!

Performances
Fridays, February 22 & March 1 at 8:00 pm;
Saturdays, February 16, 23 & March 2 at 8:00 p.m.;
Sundays, February 17 & 24 at 2:00 pm.

Admission: $14 / $12 for Seniors

http://www.parksideplayers.com/