You may be surprised to learn that Arthur Miller’s tragedy for the common man, a play about a guy ‘who had all the wrong dreams,’ who is caught up in someone else’s definition of success rather than trusting what he knows about himself, and who ultimately resorts to an act of (self) violence in a misguided effort to preserve his dignity — it resonates richly inside a medium security prison.
I just finished directing Death of a Salesman at a men’s medium security prison. I have been teaching and directing with Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) for nearly six years, almost exclusively at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, which is a maximum security prison for men. Earlier this spring, I got an urgent call from our Executive Director about a small crisis at another facility; could I please help?
It would be hard to overstate the number of challenges this Salesman encountered.
Initially, the group had selected Twelve Angry Men. But it turned out that, in medium security, they couldn’t find enough angry men. At this facility, the turnover in the population is tremendous; more men get released to parole and community supervision from here than from almost any other facility in New York State. So a lot of men are much more focused on preparing to go before the parole board than they are on anything else. And then, a lot of men are understandably much more focused on that shining, golden date which the parole board has bestowed upon them. They cannot see that attending a workshop or putting on a play, where they can refine their critical thinking skills, their conflict resolution skills, their ability to work as a member of a team, their ability to commit to something that is hard, that asks a lot of them, is of value to them at a time like this, when they can smell freedom wafting across the concertina wire.
Mid-process, the group took the decision to switch from Twelve Angry Men to Death of a Salesman. Then the volunteer actress who had agreed to play Linda Loman withdrew from the project because of an outside conflict. The director discovered that she was drawn to the role of Linda, but she wisely saw that, since she hadn’t acted in nearly 30 years, she couldn’t direct the play and play the role at the same time.
This is when my phone rings. Would I be willing to step into the middle of the process, the middle of rehearsals? Would I take over directing this project while the original director stays in the room and joins the cast?
She’s been the lead facilitator at this prison for as long as I’ve been the lead facilitator at Sing Sing, and she’s got very strong opinions about the play. Naturally. Since she’s been directing it. We talked through how we would transition from one director to the other, how she could model the actor / director relationship for the men, how she would have to trust my vision for the play, even when it might be different from hers. It all sounded very enlightened; we facilitated the hell out of it. Only it didn’t go that way. We struggled, more and less successfully throughout the process, to find a way to collaborate. She believed that I wasn’t supporting her; I judged that she was constantly challenging me, undermining me in rehearsal. We struggled, some days, to be civil, but we both did our absolute best to keep our conflict with one another outside the prison walls. We held onto our shared belief in the value of the work.
More difficulties arose; I cannot discuss each of them in detail. I can tell you that the incarcerated actor playing Willy Loman discovered, about halfway through the process, that he couldn’t rise to meet the role; he quit suddenly. I reshuffled the cast, moving Ben to Willy, and Bernard to Ben, bringing an understudy into the company as Bernard. The new Willy worked diligently to get his arms, his heart and his mouth around all of Willy’s words, feelings and conflicts. The new Bernard was nervous and excited; beaming joy is rare in prison and just as beautiful as it is on the outside.
I can tell you that, for a variety of reasons, we lost actors for several rehearsals at a time; we unexpectedly lost a significant and valuable chunk of rehearsal time late in the process.
I can also tell you that the incarcerated actor playing Biff, who knows his release date (later this summer), was unfocused, missed a lot of rehearsals and was trailing far behind everyone else in learning his words and engaging with the process. He and I ultimately had a conversation with the leadership team (RTA has its own steering committee at each facility, comprised of men who are the literal or figurative elders in the circle). He was defensive; he was angry. He said “whatever,” and “just forget it,” and a few more colorful phrases. The group was torn between not wanting to leave a man behind vs. wanting to respect the hard work that everyone else had contributed to the production. The men urged Biff to stay with it. How would he deal with difficult challenges on the outside if he walked away from this? How would he know what he was made of? So he stayed. He worked much harder than he ever expected to. But by the time he doubled-down, he was a far enough behind that he was never able to completely catch up. The show never quite recovered.
I’ve worked with the men of RTA to make truly stunning theatre and I’ve worked with them to make rough, immediate and occasionally deadly theatre. This Salesman was rough and had long stretches of deadly, to my perception, with some beautiful but isolated moments when we briefly crossed over into holy theatre territory. I was stressed, anxious, disappointed; I was worried for the men, that we’d done all that work and had to settle for a little bit of a hot mess of a production. I judged that I had failed them.
When we processed the experience together, a week after our last performance (at which, I have to add, the incarcerated as well as the civilian guest audiences leapt to their feet in acclaim), the men of RTA told me that our rehearsals are their “moment of peace,” their “safe haven place,” and “here and on a visit are the only times when I am really me.”
K said, “It’s the little things; you don’t realize. I am back in my unit and I laugh at something you said. When I am working out, and a muscle gets tight, I remember what you say during the warm-up, and I say to myself, ‘hello, legs, it’s okay; I got this.’” S. said, “you loosen us up.” On a recent visit, his mom asked him what was different about him, that he seemed lighter. He said he didn’t even realize how closed off he has become, until his experience with RTA started to open him back up.
B. shared that he came to prison “as an adult” in his mid-30s, unlike so many of the men in the room, who came in their late teens. He can still remember what it feels like to be liberated, and that in his current life, behind the walls, “RTA is the only experience that makes me feel normal.”
We talked a lot during the process about creating one’s own definition of success, rather than unquestioningly accepting society’s definition, which might not align with one’s skills, joys and hopes. Some of the guys talked about how they got into ‘the life,’ how someone older and cooler told them what was what, once upon a street corner. In prison, Death of a Salesman turns out to be a story of hope, because Biff ultimately makes his own choice, aligned with his own desires, rather than embracing a kind of success that feels like a trap to him.
In discussing the challenges that incarcerated Biff had faced, the actor who had played Willy said, “If you have six months to parole, can you be successful in this work? We have to be men of our word now. If you want to know what you are made of, RTA will tell you.”
Finally, M., a long-time member of RTA first at another prison and now at this facility, said that while he has understood the transformative power of the work, the rehabilitation opportunities that the process affords him for a long time, he came to realize during this process that “RTA’s not just about me; it’s about giving back to others. I never thought about that when I was at home. When I get out, I’m always going to have to take that extra step to help others now.”
The jails are, indeed, full of fearless characters, Willy.
Or, even as they have their fear, they also have determination to change and to grow. I see that I have to revise my own definition of success.