Theatre behind the walls


“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; participants in my class 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 class 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 (  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 Charles told me this spring, “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.

Scene from Starting Over at Sing Sing, March 2010, photo by Michael Reilly

The men at Sing Sing have performed plays by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Suzan-Lori Parks, August Wilson and, yes, Stephen Sondheim.  This spring, we staged a play called Starting Over, which was written by a group of men who participate in RTA’s theatre program at Woodbourne Correctional Facility.  With dramaturgical assistance from RTA facilitators, the men at Woodbourne spent over a year researching, writing and staging their own family stories – of marriages in trouble, heartbroken mothers waiting for their sons’ release, boys with fathers in prison growing up with wrong-headed ideas about respect and manhood, families that are estranged, confused and worn down by long trips to remote prisons.  The RTA participants at Sing Sing were very keen to share this play with the general population because they learned so much from working on it: Billal said, “my visits have improved just since we started rehearsal.”  They performed it twice for the general population, and a third time for invited civilian guests.

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.  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.  We held a physical comedy and clowning class this spring, taught by a professor from NYU who also happens to be a very goofy part of Big Apple Circus’ Clown Care Unit; for an hour and forty minutes each week, we were all laughing, leaping into improbable situations, saying ‘yes’ to whatever scenario presented itself, exploring status, practicing our pratfalls and our hair pulls.  For an hour and forty minutes, we were any class, anywhere, taking big risks in safety, and none of us were trapped behind those walls.

Dino, an alum of our program, now paroled and working as a community organizer in Queens, told me that on RTA performance nights, he felt like he was free.  Even when he was walking back to his cell, knowing that he got to do the play again the next night allowed him to feel as if he had been released from prison.

I am currently teaching a directing class at Sing Sing in collaboration with director Jeff Glaser, and I wish you could hear the thoughtful and nuanced conversations we’ve already had about vision.  At the beginning of this post, you read a few of the answers to “Why theatre?  What purpose does it serve?”  I am not sure I can adequately convey how curious, hungry, and eager these men are to learn; how profoundly appreciative they are that the other volunteer facilitators and I come to play.

There is no air conditioning at Sing Sing, and the ancient schoolhouse where we have class is grimly hot on a June or July evening; the sun pummels us through the barred windows while it peevishly considers setting across the Hudson River.  It might be a lot more comfortable on a summer night to be out in the yard, where there is at least the potential for a breeze, but 25 men in the RTA program decided they would rather be in the schoolhouse, taking the literal and figurative heat in a directing class.  Ka said that he’d rather be with us, exploring the work and learning whatever we have to share, than out in the yard, doing nothing.  After Starting Over opened, he told me that we were now family; this past Wednesday night, I called the men “my brothers in sweat” as we got to work.

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 three years, two-thirds of the approximately 650,000 souls released from prison in 2010 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.

As Kenyatta said, “You kind of have to be more honest.  Looking into yourself teaches you things about other people … the thing with RTA, with the arts in general, is that it makes you think differently; it opens up different pathways in your life, in your mind, the way you process the world.  Art allows you to think differently so that you can behave differently so that you can get different results.  To me, that is the definition of rehabilitation.”

Now that inspires me.

  • June 27, 2010
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