I spent my Easter Sunday in a medium security prison, with men who are serving long-term sentences, as they rehearsed for their upcoming production of The Tempest.
They had ideas about set and props, about blocking, about what the lines mean. They had opinions about what they want their next project to be. One asked me for writing advice. Another told me about all the writing he had been collecting in his notebooks. One showed me his drawings. One told me about knitting club, where they make scarves for homeless people to wear. Another brought in the dog he is training for the first part of rehearsal, to share with his friends.
Some of them had created almost dance-like movement to illustrate the storm that opens the play. One was busy creating music and sound effects for the show, and teaching others to play them. One earnestly warned me that he had changed the word “terribly” to “horribly” in one of his lines because he has had some tooth-related issues and can’t pronounce certain words very easily. Another complained that some of the administration isn’t as well-educated as he is. They clarified that yes, there are rules, and no, it’s not all fun and games to be where they are.
They remembered my previous visits, when we talked about what “home” meant to them, or when I worked with them on lines for Winters Tale, or when we did some simple focusing games and Feldenkrais exercises. We told them that I’m considering directing the next show, and they asked about my commitment level. They don’t need anymore pass-throughs.
One of them asked me why I wanted to direct theatre in “a room full of criminals.” His wording made me laugh, but then I saw that he was completely serious. I laughed because I don’t see it as a room full of criminals; I see it as a room full of humans. I told them that I could tell that I was in a room full of people who are committed, curious, and hungry. After some jokes about how the prison doesn’t feed them enough, they acknowledged that yes, they are hungry — for the work, for the creative outlet, for the collaboration, for the challenges. They want to be pushed. They want to find the depth. They want to find laughter and lightness along with the poignancy, because that’s something we all need.
After leaving the prison, I took some time to eat a packed dinner by the side of the Columbia River, at a beach about a 2-minute drive from the prison — two minutes from those lives (and many others who I haven’t met) packed into a concrete box, where they sometimes get to spend time in an enclosed yard. They haven’t seen the horizon in years. Two minutes to a place where I could watch the water flow, and eat food that I had picked out, and where families were grilling and playing music and chatting with each other as their kids gathered sticks, or waded in the water, or played in the grass.
Our communities are poorer because so many people are locked away, with their enthusiasm and creativity, with their desire to connect and contribute to the world around them.
Why do I go? I go because it’s an honor to go, and I don’t want to blow that opportunity — the opportunity to know these men, to see them, to share laughter and storytelling. I go because they make me laugh and make me think. I go because humans are complex, and “there but for the grace” of God or luck go I, or my students, or my friends, in different circumstances, or in times of bad decisions but somehow our bad decisions (for the most part) didn’t wind around into such dire consequences. I go because they teach me things — about myself, and about humanity. They shine light on my assumptions. I go because I am privileged to know them. I go because most people can’t, or don’t go, but somehow I’ve been lucky enough to be invited into their world.
I go because I can.