“Does anyone ever realize life while they live it, every, every minute?” Emily asks in “Our Town.”
“No,” replies the Stage Manager. “Saints and poets maybe.”
How about prisoners?
Twenty inmates of Sing Sing Correctional Facility, which was built in 1828, are performing this week in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” which debuted in 1938.
This production, which just successfully completed its Kickstarter campaign, is the latest to be directed by Kate Powers, a theater professional for 20 years specializing in the plays of Shakespeare, who first started working with the inmates in 2009, as part of an organization called Rehabilitation Through The Arts. RTA began in 1996 by working with inmates at Sing Sing and has expanded to five other prisons in the state.
While the recidivism rate for the general population is 68 percent, Powers has written, only about 10 percent of inmates who have participated in prison arts and education programs return to prison after being released.
I talked to Powers about how theater in prison has “changed lives” — and not just those of the inmates.
Jonathan Mandell: How did you get involved in putting on shows at Sing Sing?
Kate Powers: I originally came to this work because I had heard Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars, talk about his experiences working in prisons. Moved by Curt’s stories of the kind of change and discovery his men experienced, I sought out Rehabilitation Through the Arts.
Before you started working at Sing Sing, what did you know, or thought you knew, about life in prison?
I don’t think I knew much about life in prison. I’d seen SWAT and HAWAII 5-0, so I knew that the bad guys went to prison. I think I probably knew what many Americans think they know, which is what the media tells us: that these guys are the worst of the worst. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Turns out we incarcerate the wrong man sometimes and it can take decades to work that out. Also, without excusing their crimes, it turns out that very few humans are as bad as the worst thing they’ve ever done. The men who join our program have all said, one way or another, “I don’t want to be that guy anymore; how do I become a better man?”
You’ve written that the inmates have performed in plays by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Suzan-Lori Parks, August Wilson and Stephen Sondheim. Would there be anything off-limits?
The men have done Of Mice and Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Macbeth, West Side Story and plays they’ve written themselves. We look for plays that have a message for the population. Superior Donuts talked about a cross-racial, cross-generational friendship, and about the idea that change is possible, for instance. If a play is just bleak or lacks any kind of message about human nature or human behavior, the guys would probably pass on it.
How did you pick Our Town?
Selecting the play this year was tough. A couple of the men on the selection committee were instantly drawn to Our Town, but some of the others were strongly opposed. “Nothing happens in this play,” one very smart, very thoughtful man said. I asked him to read it a second time, noting all the references to the stars, to the eternal, to birth and to death. When I came in the next time, he was very excited to do it. But it took the men awhile to warm up to the play. At first, they couldn’t see what this play had to do with them. Over several weeks, we watched the documentary OT (about kids at a high school in Compton doing the play), and they gradually came to see what the play has to say to them as both incarcerated men and as humans.
Does “Our Town” have any special resonance for the incarcerated?
I’ve asked the men the following questions: How does one live in the moment when one is living in prison? How do you pay attention to the present when you are wishing 20 years would fly by? How does one stay attuned to the magical within the mundane when it might be a survival strategy to tune out? The idea that one can start to appreciate the beautiful in the mundane, that one can work to pay attention to one’s life right now, may help to ease the misery of incarceration. One of the guys has spoken about watching the sunsets more carefully, about noticing the geese on the hillside within the prison, and how that can lighten the strain.
There are some famous stories of theater turn around the lives of the imprisoned – Charles S. Dutton and Jean Genet probably the most famous examples. What effect has theater had on the men who have participated at Sing Sing?
Our program is not about turning the men into actors, but about using theater to build listening skills, critical thinking skills, tolerance for multiple points of view, conflict resolution tools, trust, community. I’ve taught workshops in acting, directing, Shakespeare, clowning and physical comedy at Sing Sing. It turns out that theater can do exactly what we all hope it can do; it changes lives.
How has it affected the theater professionals who do the teaching and directing?
It’s thrilling to see theater actually changing lives, sometimes in the course of a single work session, but particularly over a year or two, as a man starts to discover trust or learns that there are times when it is safe to let down his guard. I have one gentleman in the program who asked me, two years ago, to help him learn to laugh. He grew up in a very strict home, and laughter was not allowed. He didn’t know how to do it. But just last night, during our warm-up, he was fooling around and laughing easily.
Update from Kate Powers: Opening night: men gave tight, bright, clear performance; inmate audience listened v. carefully, wept surreptitiously.