Editor’s Note: While recording a podcast interview about this post, approximately two hours after the post went live, Amazon Payments finally came through with their approval. Now, two days later, Kickstarter has come through and the project is open for donations. Please click here to support Our Town at Sing Sing.
I have a sad, stupid, bureaucratic little story to tell you — No, wait, come back! It’s more like a sad, stupid, bureaucratic story with a heart of gold.
I work as a facilitator, teacher and director with Rehabilitation Through the Arts . RTA started at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 1996; today, the program works in five New York State prisons, providing workshops in theatre, dance, creative writing, voice and visual art. At each of the facilities, a handful of volunteer facilitators leads workshops and classes eleven months each year, helping our incarcerated participants to find their voices, cultivate empathy, improve both reading and critical thinking skills, develop non-violent communication strategies, learn delayed gratification and experience a sense of accomplishment, while better understanding the human condition through making art.
RTA’s flagship project is the spring production each year at Sing Sing. We perform the play twice for the general population of the prison and once for an invited audience of community guests. This is no less than transformative for the men involved with the project. Their peers see them in a new light; they become thought leaders and, indeed, rock stars within the prison. It’s usually pretty transformative for the civilian audience, too. ~220 people discover that these men are people who have accomplished a thing, not monsters who belong in cages.
This year, the play is Our Town. I am directing it. Normally, we perform in a room that most closely resembles a 1950s high school auditorium: it features a wide proscenium stage, absurdly high off the floor of the auditorium, concrete floors, cinder block walls, molded plastic chairs welded to the floor, two lifeguard-like chairs for corrections officers to sit above the crowd, watching. The acoustics are terrible; the moat of distance between performers and audience is daunting. But that, uh, space is unavailable to us this year, so we are performing the play in the prison’s Visiting Room. I saw this as a teaching opportunity: everyone reading this knows that theatre doesn’t have to live behind a proscenium, but the men in the program mostly only know the theatre they’ve seen or participated in behind the prison’s 18-foot high walls.
So we are performing Our Town in a three-quarter thrust, with universal lighting, without a backstage. The men were baffled at the beginning of the process; reading Thornton Wilder’s stage directions, one said, “what do you mean, no scenery?” So while we are taking Mr. Wilder absolutely at his word, using the A/C vent and the vending machines in the Visiting Room as our backdrop, while we have discovered our own Grover’s Corners inside the peculiar town that is Sing Sing (where “human beings are sort of shut up in little boxes” resonates in a whole new way), we needed to build platforms on which to play, for sight line purposes.
The lumber estimate was twice what we had budgeted.
Kickstarter Comes to Sing Sing (or does it?)
We decided to launch our first-ever Kickstarter campaign to supplement our meager budget — to build the platforms, to rent and build some costume pieces (indeed, I spent last night sewing, as did the actress who’s playing Emily), to help pay for postage to mail out invitations to the civilian performance, to print programs, to defray some transportation costs. About a month ago, I set up the Kickstarter campaign, working with my husband to edit together a video of the men talking about what the work means to them.
You haven’t seen it?
Of course you haven’t.
Because since April 19th, we have been caught in an Orwellian loop with Amazon Payments (through which Kickstarter funnels the raised funds). They have asked us to submit our employer ID number, our bank account information, our email address. Fine. We did so. The difficulty is that they have asked us to submit one piece or another of this information 19 times as I write this. 19 times, ladies and gentlemen.
We had intended to launch our inaugural Kickstarter campaign more than three weeks ago. Our performance dates are May 29, 30 and 31. We have lost three weeks of valuable, nay, even critical fundraising time to the Matrix-like inefficiency of “our payment team doesn’t have telephone support so that they can get their work done more efficiently,” and “I can see that you were able to log into your account and provided your information. It does look like your verification is currently pending. We will communicate your account status within 24 hours.”
I know; I should’ve moved on to another site to fundraise long before now, but I’ve been busy directing a show, pulling and building costumes, designing sound cues, and trying to pay my rent. And I kept thinking that, at any magically real moment, surely Amazon Payments would get it sorted out and we could launch our campaign. (But they haven’t, and stop calling me, “Shirley.”)
I haven’t shared with the men the staggering and repetitive stupidity of the struggle to get the campaign off the ground; they have enough frustration in their lives. No children will go hungry because Amazon Payments has dropped our account into some antiquated pneumatic tube. The show will still go on. But I’ve had to restage because we couldn’t afford to build all of the platforms we had hoped, and a tiny, overextended staff is reaching ever farther with less.
Amazon Payments, for 23 days, for 19 computer-generated form e-mails, through several faxes of documentation, for 3 long (and apparently, pointless) conversations with otherwise courteous and apologetic customer service reps, you have asked me to “submit the requested information” and you have thanked me “for compliance with the verification process.”
Kickstarter, you’ve offered no help at all with this morass of a process: “Please contact Amazon Payments with any questions.”
In Our Town, George Gibbs discovers only after treating Emily Webb to a strawberry ice cream soda that he hasn’t got any money on him; Mr. Morgan tells him, “I’ll trust you ten years, George Gibbs, and not a minute longer.” Amazon Payments, I can’t trust you for the length of one email.