Even though I am in prison three times a week, I am only just beginning to understand what it feels like to be incarcerated. What I do know is that the men with whom I work with Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) at Sing Sing Correctional Facility feel like they have been thrown away. They know that society at large thinks of them as little more than vicious animals, rightfully caged. They feel forgotten, invisible. They are used to being addressed with contempt, and as a mass of not-quite-humanity; many of them were treated this way long before they were incarcerated. The men tell me how much it means that a few civilians come in to teach them, work with them, see them as actual people.
At least once a week, someone asks me a question to the effect of “why do you go in there to teach theatre to those hardened criminals?” For one thing, they are not all so hardened; some of them have a brave front, but tremendous vulnerability, tremendously deep wounds.
Then I say, “who do you want coming home?” Even among these men who are often serving 25 to life, most of them will eventually come home. So who do you want coming back into the community? The man who has been thrown in a cage and left to stew in his own hurt, anger and bitterness, or the man who has had the opportunity to develop trust, communication skills, critical thinking skills, compassion and a sense of community?
The director in me wants to make it all better, but I can’t. I often wish I could bring them baked goods or knit them hats, but these things are strictly prohibited by the Department of Corrections. So when the men on the steering committee for RTA selected Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts as our production for this spring, I suddenly thought of a gift I could legally bring them. Maybe. If I could work it out. I could give them the gift of recognition, of human interaction, of shared experience with someone who has not been tarred with the prickly Class A felon brush.
Through the magic of Twitter, that breaker of barriers, that creator of dialogue and access, I spoke with Michael McKean, who created the role of Arthur Przybyszewski first at Steppenwolf and then on Broadway. I invited Michael to come speak with the men in RTA at Sing Sing, and he said yes.
When I told the guys that Michael was going to come for a visit, they looked at me through veiled eyes. One or two nodded in acknowledgment: “message received,” but until they saw the blue of his eyes, they were not about to display their enthusiasm or excitement. Too used to disappointment, they seemed to imagine all the ways this could go wrong.
Last Friday night, after a small mountain of paperwork was expertly scaled by Katherine Vockins, Executive Director of RTA, and the administration of Sing Sing, Michael came to prison with me.
It is my custom to greet each man individually when I enter our class and rehearsal room, rather to lump them once again together in a collective hello. I asked Michael to join me as I made my way around the room, so that I could introduce each participant in the program, so that Michael could meet them and they could meet him. As he walked up to the incarcerated actor — with the tell-tale disheveled beard — who will be playing Arthur at Sing Sing, Michael warmly took his hand and said, “We are Arthur.”
We invited Michael to join us in a warm-up game of ball. He gracefully jumped into our playful fray.
(Anyone who has rehearsed anything with me in the past 19 years will tell you that playing ball is an integral feature of my rehearsal process; 98% of those who have worked with me will tell you how much fun it is. The unhappy 2%? I don’t really want to work with them again anyway.)
Then we sat in a circle and talked shop for two hours. Michael conversed with the men, peer to peer, about the play, about how he got involved with the project initially, about process.
Michael said he was drawn to the play because “redemption is our favorite story. Arthur exists without the kindness of the world, and he is able to find a way to redeem the 40 years he’s lost.” You better believe that resonated. All of the men listened actively as Michael spoke; S., who is playing Arthur, only took his eyes off Michael long enough to take some notes.
At one point, he mentioned a textual question on which the men had challenged my interpretation, and he unwittingly agreed with what I’d been telling them since about the third day of rehearsal. I made a silent gesture of celebration. Everyone laughed, and one of the men looked at me, smiling and said, “How vindicated do you feel?”
We’re at that point in the rehearsal process (just a couple weeks to go before we perform this play for the general population and then for an invited civilian audience) when the strain, the nervous energy is starting to mount for the men of RTA. They are role models within the prison; they feel a responsibility. They also suffer from domino-like bouts of group anxiety; if one guy is having a rough night at rehearsal, struggling with words or choices, pretty soon a few guys are having a rough night, and then it’s just a rough night.
A few nights before Michael’s visit, I asked the men, in an attempt to refocus or harness that nervous energy, what messages, themes or ideas they want to share with the population when we present the play. One man quoted the play’s Max, the cantankerous Russian, “People still can, can always change later” by way of expressing what he wants to share. My assistant director said that when he first read the play, he couldn’t believe a white person would ever do for a black man what Arthur does for Franco, but then he thought about the RTA civilians who come in to work, and he realized that cross-racial kindness and friendship can happen. Other men talked about the depth and possibilities of friendship, and Lady’s line, that if you are still alive, “You still have time.”
Hope is gold
Michael reinforced a lot of messages and ideas that the RTA facilitators work to instill in the men, but it wasn’t his agreeing with my colleagues and me that was so great. What was great was that he took the time to come; what was great was that, for the men, this person they had seen on television and in films decided that they were worth talking to, came to see them, share with them the experience of building a character, of working through self-doubt during rehearsals, of the redemption that is possible when you tell a good story well. Hope isn’t sentimental, Michael said, “Hope is gold.”