by Lesley Schisgall Currier
Today was the first day back for the Friday Shakespeare group. As it turns out, almost all of the men in this group are either in one or the other classes this week, or turned up for them anyway. This is a phenomenon specific to San Quentin. At other prisons, if you’re not on the roster, you can’t be in the room for class. San Quentin tried to institute this rule several years ago when they adopted SOMS – Strategic Offender Management System. SOMS is a computer program that tracks everyone about someone who is incarcerated, including where they are supposed to be at any time. There are some great benefits to SOMS, and it could be used as a powerful research tool, for example to track the correlation between people enrolled in arts programming or other programming and disciplinary write-up or recidivism rates. Hopefully, one day the CDCR will use SOMS for this purpose. Today, it is supposed to ensure the staff knows where people are at all times. But SOMS doesn’t deter men at San Quentin from joining groups the computer system won’t assign them to. Some men have jobs that overlap with a portion of the class time, so they cannot be assigned to the class. They still show up and participate, even though they are not eligible for RAC credits. Of course, we are not supposed to allow this, so I probably shouldn’t be writing about it.
San Quentin, however, is like no other California State Prison. Situated in the knee-jerk liberal Bay Area, it is usually served by hundreds of outside “volunteers” each day who provide dozens of different programs. We are considered “volunteers” (although our Teaching Artists are paid) because the CDCR does not hire us. San Quentin also publishes the only prison newspaper; the media center is a large trailer at the far corner of the main yard where staff doesn’t patrol often; it is an oasis for many men to pursue intellectual freedom. San Quentin is the only prison I’ve seen with a tennis court, donated years ago by Marin Tennis Club, whose members come regularly to play with the men.
The geography of San Quentin allows for individual liberties as well. San Quentin is the oldest California State Prison and sits on three different levels: highest is the area with the chapels, Art Room, main dining hall, housing units including Death Row, and administrative offices. Below, is the main yard, Education and Media centers, more housing units, baseball field, basketball courts, and tennis court. Below that, is H-unit, with six housing units and its own dining hall and other facilities. Although to get to the area where the four chapels are requires showing an I.D. at a small officer-manned building called Four Post, once you are in the chapel area, it is another oasis for people who want to get away from the main housing and yard areas. A wonderful Shakespearean actor named Carlos used to be assigned to garden duty for the rose garden outside the chapels, and we would often see him sitting on a 5-gallon bucket behind Four Post, no doubt enjoying the relative freedom of not having to interact with the general population. Fortunately, Carlos has now survived incarceration and is working in construction while acting part-time with Marin Shakespeare Company, and working for prison reform.
Today started slowly, with only five men in the room. They reminded me that Friday is canteen day, the one day of the week men have an opportunity to stand in line and spend their own money to purchase “extras” like food and hygiene items. Food purchased at canteen is not a luxury for some men who do not get enough nutrition from the regular prison diet. Many men in prison are noted for their cooking abilities, which often involve ramen made in a coffee maker seasoned with whatever the men can find. Even though people who are incarcerated in California are paid only pennies per hour for the work they do, spending money on canteen can have a huge impact on a person’s quality of life.
As we waited for more men to join the group, I asked what the men thought about Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday the day before, with today the first official national celebration.
One man responded that the majority of White America “wants to be OK with stuff that’s happened that they want to not recognize.” Juneteenth for him was just a way White America could feel better about itself while not actually changing anything. This actor, who spent his youth in abusive foster care situations said, “America can’t right their wrongs with me, but they want me to right their wrong with them.” Society did not protect this young man, but now society wants to be forgiven it’s sins. “They raised me to go to prison, and then got mad at me when I did.”
Another actor was slightly more optimistic. “Young people need to know that it took two years for people in Texas to find out they were free.” This actor saw the recognition of Juneteenth as a step toward truth and reckoning.
The discussion turned to how we can use theatre to shed light on the truth. “We can use theatre for anything we want to use it for,” said one actor. I repeated a point I’ve made with this group in the past: These men have a tremendous platform to educate the world about things that are important to them. The theatre they create is recorded and shared on YouTube. I get frequent emails from college professors who show these videos in their classrooms, and college students who study them and write research papers about this work. They have been seen by people all around the world.
We started throwing around ideas for our upcoming performance. Creativity was blossoming.
As more men joined the group, we got up on our feet, creating statues representing each other’s feelings when we are being creative, and group statues representing “Creativity.”
I then introduced the idea of Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, specifically an exercise Boal calls “Forum Theatre.” A couple of the men had heard of Boal; one had just been reading about him. We did a modified Boal exercise where we identified an issue. The issue the men chose was lack of water in California; we are experiencing a terrible drought. I asked the men to identify two characters who could play a scene about this issue. They chose to have a farmer, and a government official telling the farmer he couldn’t have more water. The men improvised a scene. I then asked them to repeat it. I also asked someone to be prepared to say “stop” when the scene got to a place where one of the characters could make a different choice. When the scene was stopped, I asked the audience members to suggest a change that one character could make. When a suggestion was made, that audience member was asked to step in to play the character, and the scene continued. Actors started calling out “stop,” suggesting a change, and stepping into the scene
When the exercise ended, we discussed the changes that had been made. In the original scene, the farmer kept asking for more water and the government official kept saying no. In subsequent iterations, the government official offered a bottle of water, then two gallons of water, and then a swimming pool full of water. None of these was enough for the farmer. The next government official asked how they could compromise. At this point, an actor stepped in to play the farmer who tried to negotiate getting enough water to grow a marijuana crop, so that he could pay the government official for more water for his other crops.
After the exercise was over, the group kept talking about ways to resolve the problem. One actor talked about how desalination efforts around the world were working, and also creating useful salt as a useful by-product, while helping the oceans. Another talked about how spreading plastic on a field, as farmers in Israel have done, can help make a little water go a longer way because there is far less evaporation. We discussed the idea that the farmer could have offered to invest in a public information campaign to encourage his customers to use less water so that there would be more available for his crops, thus keeping food prices down. Someone asked if there are too many farmers. Another person asked if there are too many people. Another person spoke about how the government pays some farmers to throw food away. One very wise comment – from the previously quiet JR – was that the government saw this drought crisis coming for years and showed a lack of discipline in not investing in solutions in advance.
The conversation then turned to how we could use this kind of exercise to help us write our play. I suggested that if there are issues we know we want to explore in the play, this exercise could help us see many different perspectives. Actors could also write scenes inspired by this exercise. And/or we could do an execise like this with audience participation as part of the production.
The audience participation idea sparked a lot of interest. The actors started envisioning doing a performance in the round, to mirror the circle of our classes.
The actors spoke about how much they loved the workshops we had done pre-covid with groups of students on Sunday mornings. Those three-hour workshops allowed actors and outside guests to get to know each other, and work together in small groups to create scenes, statues, poems, songs, and dances around a theme like parents or forgiveness. The students often came in with little knowledge of prisons. One student was so nervous about entering the prison prior to a workshop that she threw up in the San Quentin parking lot.
On the long walk up to the entrance, I talk to the students about mass incarceration in the United States. I tell them that this country has almost 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. That in the early 1970’s before mass incarceration began, the U.S. incarcerated just over 300,000 people, as did the Scandinavian countries combined. Today, the U.S. incarcerates almost 2.2 million people, while Scandinavia incarcerates around 300,000. I don’t believe that Americans have suddenly become way more criminal in the past 40 years; rather it is our criminally unjust policies that have led to what I consider the national shame of mass incarceration. There are many terrible facts and figures about mass incarceration. One of the worst is that a Black man born in the U.S. today has a 1 in 4 chance of being incarcerated during his lifetime. It is impossible to argue that mass incarceration is not a form of systemic racism.
But the bulk of our workshops involves exercising our shared creativity. We read some Shakespeare. We talk about our feelings. We talk about our similarities and differences. Using only our bodies, voices, and imaginations, we create art together. The students leave saying things like “that was the most impactful three hours of my life” and some have changed their college majors and career paths. All of the students leave with a much richer understanding of incarceration and the people suffering under the injustice of mass incarceration.
The actors also talked about how much they appreciated a practice we began a few years ago; when outside guests come to San Quentin to see a performance, we now spend the first 20 minutes or so in an exercise that engages men in blue with outside guests, talking and writing a poem together.
JR had the great idea that if we performed our upcoming paly in the round, instead of the Question and Answer format we have been using, with the actors onstage responding to questions from audience members, we could do Q&A’s in small circles with audience members interacting more personally with one or two actors.
This brought up the topic of audience response to the actors’ work. Another great suggestion was made by Tall that Marin Shakespeare Company ask audience members to write reviews of the performances, so that the actors could get feedback and suggestions for artistic growth. Positive comments might also be useful when going before the parole board. We will make this part of our practice moving forward, and I think audience members will enjoy writing reviews and the actors will be excited to read them. As Tall said, this will help them gain “more insight into ourselves.” We can also ask for reviews when recordings of the performances are posted on YouTube.
The conversation progressed with more ideas about how this work could help men in prison and others. One man asked if we could build a residence for actors getting out of prison. I told him I’ve spoken to a lot of people about my dream of creating re-entry housing for actors. Instead of having to attend AA or NA meetings, as happens in many re-entry facilities that focus on people with a history of drug and alcohol use, people recently released from prison would have to do Drama Therapy. I also reminded the men how much they have to offer to society and particularly system-impacted youth. Chris really liked that term “system-impacted youth,” which he hadn’t heard before.
At Marin Shakespeare Company, we are very conscious about the language we use. We recently created a Language Guide for working in prisons. It’s a people first approach. We don’t use words like “inmate” or “prisoner” because no one should be defined by having been convicted of a crime. Instead we say “people who are incarcerated,” and ”people who have survived incarceration” rather than “formerly incarcerated person” or “ex-con.” We put the person first, which is particularly important in a society that has a practice of locking up so many people and treating them as if they are sub-human. We believe that language carries a low of power, and people first language mirrors the people first approach that we take into prisons. We always approach the actors in our classes as creative beings. We treat people as they show up in the moment, and don’t define them by the worst thing they ever did in their lives.
So I told the men how great it would be for Marin Shakespeare Company to facilitate their sharing their wisdom with the world when they leave prison. Chris wants to create a corporate training program, that includes golf in the afternoon. I suggested Rauch might teach a Drama Therapy class for youth in foster care; he didn’t know if he would be able to do that but when I suggested he co-teach with one of the Drama Therapists who facilitate our classes at San Quentin, I think I actually saw his eyes become a little starry, as he imagined a future for himself he had never envisioned before. Eric Abercrombie, who they all know, is mentoring youth in writing and recording original music as part of our theatre’s program for system-impacted youth at Marin’s Community School. We are hoping to support John Windham, who they know, in mentoring young men released from O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility. I reminded the men that their lived experience, and the time the they have put into self-reflection and self-healing is incredibly valuable, and that the world needs them.
We did another round of Boal-inspired Forum theatre exercise. This time, the topic chosen was violence against Asian Americans. The scene involved one man who had just witnessed an elderly Asian person being beat up, and another man confronting the first man about why he did not intervene. This led to a discussion about by-stander intervention.
I mentioned that in the past when we’ve created original theatre, we’ve often asked the men to think about a time in their lives when they have learned a lesson, as that makes for a good dramatic arc – I was living one way, I learned something, I changed. This Boal exercise is a way to create drama around social issues – there is a problem, there are multiple solutions, so what are going to do about it?
At the end of the class, after a round of appreciations, there was another Alarm. The men told me that the Alarm on Wednesday had been because of a drug overdose, and the medics saved the man’s life. This led to a discussion about how much the men appreciate the first responders. During the height of Covid at the prison, first responders came from states all over the U.S. to Sand Quentin to help when the pandemic was at its worst. One man spoke about how even after Covid, there have already been two times his building was quarantined due to Norovirus. Infectious disease is an ongoing concern at San Quentin. I also learned that one of the men in our group is currently in quarantine and unable to program because an officer in his building had tested positive for Covid. Last I heard, only 60% of the staff at San Quentin had agreed to be vaccinated, compared to 90% of the eligible population of Marin County.
Ironically, that evening, my husband and I had dinner with old friends, who raise grass-fed beef. Their greatest concerns are water and wild fires. Mac was talking about local government officials and how much power they had over the decisions about which farmers would get water during the drought. We’re all people with similar fears and challenges, trying to live our best lives. Some of us have grown up in relatively safe neighborhoods with parents who were able to provide for our basic needs and give us a decent education. Others have grown up in poverty or worse, with parents facing overwhelming challenges, and an abiding lack of hope for a better future.
Theatre isn’t going to solve all of our problems, but we can use theatre for “anything.” The men at San Quentin are using theatre to heal themselves and each other, to wrestle with some of society’s greatest problems, and to share their wisdom with the world.