Thursday, November 3, 2011

Shows for Fall semester 2011

The actor-inmates at Bowling Green have finished The Government Inspector and moved on to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Government Inspector convulsed both the prison audience and the outside guests. I describe it as the funniest play you've never heard of.

The guys in the company are committed to making their fellow prisoners laugh. They toyed with Macbeth, Brecht's Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, A Few Good Men and Inherit the Wind. The men all got one vote, even if they were new to the company, and the vote was fairly close. All of the plays rejected this semester will appear in Fall 2012 as options.

I could have been happy with any of the shows. Arturo Ui, however, intrigues me greatly, and I'll probably not have an opportunity to direct it if I don't do it in prison. I directed Caucasian Chalk Circle at the women's prison at Vandalia, Missouri -- and years ago at NYU -- and am eager to dive into more Brecht.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Discussing The Government Inspector

How does Gogol's play, The Government Inspector, reflect prison life? The questions was posed by Professor Robert Henke of Washington University when he came to discuss the play with the men at Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, Missouri.

The first answer was very funny and ruefully true -- There are a lot of dumb guys in prison, like Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky (including both guards and inmates). There are also people like Hlestikhov, who is an opportunist. And people like him who are incredible bullshit artists, sometimes so skillful in their fantasies that they themselves begin to believe them.

Like the village in Government Inspector, prison is all about power and hierarchies -- who must be obeyed, who is better than another. Some of the power trips lead to abuse of power. There are also situations where a reputation or something assumed about a person can give him power he in no way deserves, or even intends.

And it's always all about the money: Who has money? Who takes bribes? Who gives bribes? In prison it may be cigarettes or stamps or favors, but there is coin in this realm, as there are in others.

I began to think about Herbert Blau's famous production of Waiting for Godot at San Quentin, where the audience understood all too well what waiting can do to a person. Or our production of Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus at MECC at Pacific, Missouri. One actor talked about Oedipus as an ex-con, someone who had committed a terrible crime and who had suffered in payment of his violation of society's rules. When he needed shelter, no one wanted to take him in. He was a pariah. And like Oedipus, the ex-con brings with him great gifts for the city that accepts him and includes him in their community.

Perhaps all great drama should be performed in prison. The world inside a prison reflects and refracts the world outside the barbed wire. The power is more obvious in tragedy, but comedy is also great and will suffice (apologies to Robert Frost).

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Life is tough

Letter to a friend:

Life is tough for you, my friend the addict. I've been told that part of any addiction is being addicted to excitement. I've always felt something odd when I was with you, but I never could articulate it, so I never understood it. Now I realize it's the lust for excitement.

I realize that addiction is what helps you talk so glibly, sometimes fooling me, sometimes not. I knew it was part of the grandiose plans and the boasting, but I'm still pretty clueless.

Damn, I guess I should have been a social worker instead of a theatre director. You've got me in over my head.

I wonder what I can believe of all the things you've said. I do believe you're going away for a few days to get clean. And I do think there's hope for you.

I wonder if your parents and grandparents really are alcoholics and drug addicts. Or is that just one of your excuses?

And why on earth did you come to see me carrying a soda bottle of Squirt and vodka? And announce it as you came in. Was it a poke with a sharp stick? I guess there is very little that shocks me, and lots of things make me sad. You make me sad.

Good luck, buddy.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Green Eggs and Hamlet

Reed Brown, an old friend and colleague, wrote a short play that combines Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss to create a new sort of Hamlet. Very, very funny. We're performing it at a benefit party for an organization that helps women getting out of prison.

We rehearsed this afternoon for the first time. I was amazed that one of the actors from our 2000-2002 production of Hamlet couldn't finish many of the most famous quotations, "To thine own self ..." and "Frailty, they name is ..." I knew most of the famous lines before I ever read Hamlet. I was finally able to really sit down and read the play when I was thirty, and I laughed out loud at all the lines I knew. For me, Hamlet was just a series of quotations hung on a very complicated plot.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Talking about the weather

As I walked across the yard to this evening's rehearsal, a middle-aged inmate was coming out of medical and walking the same way I was. I said, "Good evening." He, shyly? gruffly? said, "Good evening." I asked what he thought of the brisk wind we had all day, and he said, "I haven't seen a hurricane like this since I left Texas." I laughed and talked about the power being out at our house until noon yesterday. He talked about the two nights of major rain storms. He turned off at the B-side gate and we said good night. Then he stopped, turned, and in a clear, strong voice said, "Thank you." I stopped and asked, "For what?" He replied, "For talking to me like I was a human being." I didn't know how to reply. His comment was so simple and direct and powerful. I smiled and said, "Any time." If I allowed myself to cry inside prisons, I'd have cried for this man.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Locked down -- terribly inconvenient

Rehearsed The Caucasian Chalk Circle from 1-4pm, as usual. The actors were released at four, but returned to our classroom, as the institution was in cease movement. One actor, a longtimer, warned that we probably wouldn't have Spoken Word poetry class tonight because an emergency exercise for staff had begun, and would take hours. How many hours? Lots.

After the inmates were finally called to their housing units, I packed my bookbag, signed out and headed for the door. The lobby officer told me the institution was on lockdown and I could not leave the building. I protested and asked what anyone could do to me for moving across the yard. He assured me that I'd be OK, but he'd be blamed for not "controlling" me and would be in no end of trouble. So I went to the activities office and spent half an hour happily xeroxing poems for next week's Spoken Word class.

The officer came down the hall to the office to tell me I needed to gather my things, that I was going to the Visiting Room. He asked me to wait at the door while he got the chaplain from his office. I asked the two guys at the door, an officer and a white shirt, how soon I could go to dinner. The bowl of Cheerios I had at the motel this morning was wearing off quickly. Was beer and popcorn being served in the Visiting Room? Even pitiful attempts at humor go a long way in prison.

The Visiting Room held sixty or seventy people, all hungry, all cranky, all frustrated. It was 5:00. Some folks, like me, had planned to leave at 4:00; others were scheduled to work until 9:00. Some lucky people had money and got food and drink from the vending machines; others had packed their suppers and ate in front of the rest of us. I knew from experience that the water fountain in the Visiting Room is vile, so I just tried to chill out.

I removed extraneous stuff from my file folders, wrote a letter to my mother, consolidated all my attendance records, and worked on possible cuts to the script. The inmates were called to dinner, house by house, around 6:30; they must, by law, be fed. Staff and VICs, however, are fair game -- no unions at this institution.

Finally, at almost 8:00, we were freed, one by one. I was the second from the last to be called. I feel lucky to be old and experienced -- I hadn't complained, hadn't paced, hadn't lost my cool.

I just got in my car, stopped at McDonald's for french fries and coffee (the Mexican restaurant was still open, but they have nothing on the menu that can be eaten while driving), and drove the almost two hours back to St. Louis. Too tired to eat when I got home, I had a drink, read the paper, and went to bed.

Now I can't sleep. Too many stifled emotions.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

10 Lessons I've learned from prison actors

Last night at the University City Public Library, I talked about my prison experience. These were my conclusions:


1. Audience members take the experience of a play home with them, which creates a ripple effect in society.

2. Theatre speaks to our deepest emotions.

3. Students teach the teacher.

4. Great literature reflects our lives in a very powerful way.

5. We all have a right to be seen and to behave like people, which theatre can provide.

6. Understanding great works of literature can help people become part of the larger community, even if they have been, or currently are, social outcasts.

7. Theatre can create not only a team, but tolerance, understanding and friendship.

8. Theatre is valuable in and of itself, and as a tool for teaching life skills.

9. Theatre can have great meaning in a person’s life.

10. Theatre can show us we are not alone.