by Lesley Schisgall Currier
June 16, 2021
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Today, after 15 months without setting foot inside a prison, we returned to San Quentin to teach our first class.
We spent the pandemic creating “alternative programming” for the 14 California state prisons, Alameda Juvenile Hall, and Marin’s Community School where we work with hundreds of system-impacted men, women, and youth each year. At first, we were told we could only send in videos, so we hired some professional actors including six actors who have survived incarceration to create a series of “Romeo and Juliet” videos, a reading of the play with commentary and reflection questions. Then, we were told the prisons didn’t want videos, only packets. So we started creating monthly packets that asked the actors to explore themes through creative writing and drawing. We included a lot of reflection questions and lots of ideas for self-care: breathing, stretching, meditation, and more. Our packets focused on themes including Plague, Role Models, Friendship, Loyalty, New Beginnings, Choices, and Forgiveness.
We published writing we received back on our website and hired Returned Artist to record performances of some of the writing, creating a “Creative Writing from Inside” video which we sent back into the prisons and shared on YouTube and with our patrons. We also hired Returned Artists to participate in trainings for our Teaching Artists who work in prisons, and to help put together a resource of contemporary monologues we could take inside.
At the youth facilities, we were able to engage more directly. At Marin’s Community School, we paired Returned Artist Eric Abercrombie with four students who worked one-on-one by zoom on creative projects. Drama Therapist Suraya Keating also worked one-on-one remotely with students. At Alameda Juvenile Hall, Returned Artists Tony Cyprien and Dameion Brown were able to lead a weekly class by zoom. And at O. H. Close Youth Correctional Facility, Dameion and I led a weekly class that resulted in a performance of Langston Hughes poems, as well as a visit and information-filled conversation with members of the Returned Citizens Theatre Troupe, actors who have survived incarceration who tell stories of importance through theatre. These actors had a wealth of advice and information to share with the young men, particularly John Windham, who spent part of his youth at O. H. Close. There was a lot of laughter and head nodding during this inspirational zoom visit.
But today was our return in person to San Quentin, where we teach four weekly classes – two Shakespeare groups, one Beginning Acting group, and one Acting for Veterans group. Knowing that more than 70% of the men at San Quentin had tested positive for Covid, and that San Quentin had the largest number of Covid deaths of any California state prison did not lessen a small sense of trepidation, or our enthusiasm to return.
Tina Rutsch, Marin Shakespeare Company’s Business Manager and Shakespeare for Social Justice Manager, asked to join the group and I was happy to have her company. Typically, the Wednesday group is taught by Suraya Keating, but her schedule wouldn’t allow her to return until August, and we didn’t want to wait to get started. So Tina and I parked in the almost empty Visitor parking lot, showed our brown cards, went through the Covid checkpoint, and entered through the familiar but somehow different sallyport into the upper yard, which was unusually empty.
As we walked towards the Art Room where our Shakespeare classes are held and checked in with the officers at the Mac Shack, we started to see some familiar faces.
We couldn’t hug, although we wanted to very much. We did some fist-bumping and some long hand-shaking as we reconnected with men who were glowing with excitement to see us. We looked into people’s eyes, over the tops of our masks, and saw mostly joy and calm.
Eventually, we sat in a circle and after sharing some logistical information, we started with the simplest of check-ins. “How are you and how have you been?”
One man shared that he felt like he’d been through a war and survived it. There had been some “real shit.” Some of his friends had been sick, and two had died. It was emotionally difficult listening to good friends dying. We heard that it had been difficult for the prison to figure out how to feed everyone when the men who are typically assigned to kitchen duty were too sick to prepare food. For weeks, there was only cold packaged meals. One day there was no food at all. One man who works in the kitchen talked about how some outside caterers were brought it and it was great for him to work with them because they “treated him like a human being.” Typically, when you work in the kitchen, there is a lot of emphasis on making sure knives are not mis-used and other safety concerns.
The men agreed that Covid was no joke.
Many men were moved around a lot during the pandemic. One of the men enjoyed being in the tents sent up on the main yard, because he was able to see the stars at night, an experience he had not had in years. Another man hated being housed in the gymnasium, which is filled with asbestos.
There was no programming, and no visits, but one man talked about the silver lining of being able to phone his wife for fifteen minutes every other day, a concession to the pandemic.
One of the men in the group was new; he had just transferred to San Quentin from Corcoran Prison nine days earlier. Derek is a musician, and brought his guitar; he was very concerned about whether the group would welcome him – which they did wholeheartedly. Derek talked about how amazing it was to have a group like this where we could process; there was nothing like that for him at Corcoran, which he described as a different level of oppression. Another man, Warren, thanked him for sharing that – he remembered having the same feelings when he first came to San Quentin, and appreciated being reminded of the privileges they had by being at the prison with the most programming in the state.
After we checked in, we released some energy by playing Sound Ball, a game of tossing energy with sound around the circle. We had the ball become Covid itself, then our collective resiliency, then our collective love.
We then did a Playback exercise where each person shared one challenge and one silver lining of Covid, while others in the group acted out the shares, mirroring back to the speakers their own lives. This exercise makes us practice empathy, as we imagine the lives and feelings of other people, and also allows us to be deeply heard and seen. It was chilling seeing people act out the despair, fear, and hopelessness that was shared, and uplifting to see actors performing silver linings, particularly one older actor with a cane who danced a jig for several minutes.
After our acting exercises, we circled again to talk about how we wanted to proceed with the class. Did we want to go back to rehearsing “Othello,” which we had been almost ready to perform in March of 2020? Did we want to do something like a “Parallel Play,” a performance of original stories, music, and dance?
I shared with the men eight pages of creative writing they had sent us in response to our packets, which we had typed and put on our website. One of the men was delighted to report that a friend of his had heard someone performing a “Letter to the World” he had written as part of the “Creative Writing from Inside” video we’d made. It was so great to hear that the video was being seen, and the actor whose letter was part of the video was absolutely tickled and delighted. They asked if we could bring the video in to show them – that will take a lot of paperwork with the staff to accomplish, but we will try!
We decided that we didn’t want to resume “Othello,” that we probably couldn’t because so many of the actors have left due to release or transfer. Also, the men have a lot they want to say. One actor spoke about how what he has to say is going to be intense, and he doesn’t want to be censored. Some of the men talked about how if they say what they really want to, they will be in danger of being transferred to another prison as a punishment. The program could suffer consequences as well.
Derek, the musician, talked about how everything he’d heard today sounded like music to him – the major notes of happiness, love, and resilience; the minor notes of suffering and pain; there were overtones of the blues.
We discussed whether we would want to choose a theme for our performance. We agreed we had time to explore and we didn’t need to make any decisions today.
Some of the men seemed just as we remembered them. But a couple of beautiful bloomings had occurred during our time away. Rauch, an actor who has been in our groups for many years, has often exhibited mental stress due to intense traumas suffered as a child in the foster system. Today, Rauch seemed grounded and clear-eyed, and he had recruited Derek to join the group. JRy was also a revelation. In the past, JRa had often sat back and participated minimally, speaking as little as possible. Today JR spoke – twice – for an extended period of time. To us, this seemed miraculous. JR talked about how when he first came to Shakespeare, he would always get high. One class, one of the Teaching Artists engaged him in a conversation that “killed his buzz.” But after that, he stopped getting high before class, and now he said he is ready to participate fully, and wants to be clear-headed to do that. Another man shared a similar story – before his first Shakespeare class he smoked a “huge doobie” but he soon realized that to give Shakespeare his all, he needed to stop taking drugs.
You may wonder why men have access to drugs in prison, and that is another story. The staff will tell you that visitors bring the drugs in, but the men will tell you that the staff bring in contraband including drugs and cell phones and sell them for a lot of money to supplement their income. I have heard this confirmed by many people who are incarcerated, as well as staff who work at prisons.
On this first day, in addition to talking about what sort of performance we wanted to work towards, we also talked about how we could improve the Shakespeare group. I shared that after the murder of George Floyd, theatres had been challenged by “We See You White American Theatre” and others to look at our practices in order to root out inequities in the theatre field. Marin Shakespeare Company spent a lot of time self-reflecting about all of the work we do, and how we can do better.
I spoke about how Shakespeare was a white man writing about characters who are more than 95% white, and more than 75% men. This centers the importance of white men. I also spoke about Shakespeare’s hegemony; when we do a lot of Shakespeare plays we don’t make space for other stories. I talked about the Contemporary Monologues project we’ve been doing, hiring actors who have survived incarceration to find contemporary monologues to add to our curriculum in prisons, and I shared a handout with a few examples.
What the men wanted to talk about, however, was how we can support their release from prison. Tall wanted to make sure we knew that any number of people can write Support Letters. People getting ready to go before the parole board gather Support Letters to help make the case that they are ready to be released from prison. Only people serving life sentences go before the parole board. People with determinate sentences are released at a specific time, which can be reduced by things like participating in programs like ours. The 55,000 people in the U.S. sentenced to Life Without Parole (LWOP’s), will never have the opportunity to go before a parole board.
We had a robust conversation about Support Letters. One suggestion was to talk about the specific ways in which our curriculum allows participants to gain the self-awareness the parole board is looking for. This was a great suggestion, and future letters will include information about how theatre exercises examine power dynamics and status; making conscious choices; identifying goals, obstacles, and tactics to achieve goals; conflict resolution; and problem-solving skills.
Tall wanted to make sure we knew that multiple people can write letters of support. We did know this and explained why we have made our policy that Marin Shakespeare Company will write one letter per year. Typically, we have been able to bring in multiple volunteers for our classes – often students studying for a Masters degree in Drama Therapy from California Institute of Integral Studies where Suraya Keating is an Adjunct Professor. Actors from the group will often ask many of these volunteers to write letters of support and they do not know how to do it properly, and feel overwhelmed by the number of requests and the time it takes to respond to them. We assured the group that even if the letter comes from me or Tina, since we are in the office with the letterhead and printer, that we ask Teaching Artists who work directly with the actors for information to include in the letters so that each letter is fully personalized and speaks to each individual’s strengths.
We will reconsider our policy of one Marin Shakespeare Company letter per year, and discuss with our Teaching Artists if they feel they have the capacity to write additional letters. We tend to think that one really good letter makes the most sense, given that we are asked to write dozens of letters each year.
3:00 came way too soon. After a brief round of Appreciations, we ended class. However, just as we ended an Alarm sounded, which meant the men were not able to leave the room. We watched as an ambulance pulled up to the entrance of the housing unit across from the Art Room. The alarm gave us 20 minutes to talk informally with the men, which was great. I talked to Chris about the book he is writing about his experience with Theatre in prison, and the Acting Curriculum he is writing – based on what he has learned in Marin Shakespeare Company classes for seven years. I asked him to let me know how we could support his work and he said he would.
Leaving the prison, Tina and I were exhilarated and exhausted. It was a hot day in June and we’d had our masks on for 3 hours. We were sweaty and drained, but happy. It takes a lot of energy to connect with 15 men in an authentic way, which was what we had tried to do. It was painful to hear about the challenges they had faced, when there is so little we can do to alleviate the bulk of their suffering.
Our prisons are called the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The “R” for Rehabilitation was added less than ten years ago. We love being a part of the “R” although we recognize that for many people who have suffered the traumas that lead to prison, there was never a “habilitation” to begin with. There was never a safe childhood in a safe neighborhood with parents who could provide the basic necessities a child needs to thrive. The process of healing nurtures a person who is becoming, whereas the concept of “rehabilitation” tethers a person’s growth to their past.
Our prisons have many problems, including living conditions that can be unsafe – particularly during a pandemic; lack of nutritious food; a paucity of mental health resources. Many prisons are built in areas of toxicity where the water quality tests as unsafe. Some people who work at prisons treat people who are incarcerated in ways that add unnecessarily to the punishment of prison. There are strip searches, confiscation of personal belongings, and daily indignities that can be seen as an abuse of power.
Because of the general level of stress and unhappiness in prisons, staff at prisons have higher rates of suicide, divorce, depression, anxiety, drug use, and early death.
I believe that if prison staff were trained to support the “R,” if they believed that their job included helping people who are incarcerated to learn how to live productive lives, that prison staff could feel a lot better about their work and reduced the negative outcomes of working in a prison. I believe this could be done while maintaining practices that allow for maximum safety of staff and people who are incarcerated.
Tomorrow will be our first post-Covid Acting for Veterans class. Every day teaching in prison something extraordinary happens. Whether it’s an actor talking about how Shakespeare class made them stop taking drugs, or a formerly quiet actor opening up and speaking freely for the first time. Whether it’s a new person being wholeheartedly welcomed into the group, or another person being reminded about how extraordinary it was to be welcomed years ago. We are all here to remind each other how to appreciate the silver linings in our lives, how to appreciate ourselves and each other, so that we can live our best lives and achieve as much healing as possible.
Hurt people hurt people. Healed people heal people. We’re all in this together.