A 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.