Last Sunday was a very special performance in a prison in Tracy, CA...
I know the healing power of theater well, it’s absolute magic. I can’t believe I have an opportunity to combine my great loves of theater and therapy— and in particular my love of Shakespeare, which I even performed professionally briefly, about 20 years ago.
Two years ago I did Marin Shakespeare’s training in social justice for their work with incarcerated folks. For the past two spring seasons, I’ve participated in their Returned Citizens troupe, supporting men to tell their stories through autobiographical theater.
To my great surprise, in August I got a phone call from the director of Marin Shakes, offering me a job because they had funding to expand their programing to other CA prisons. Not only that, but I would be paired with a woman who I’d met at the training and with whom I’d been volunteering for the past two years. She’s been the theater director at Piedmont High for 20 years, is also queer and is now one of my favorite people on the planet.
I also volunteered for a year in San Bruno jail with a program called One Family, where dads get parenting classes and we’d bring their kids in for family visits in a room with no guards present. That was intense and important and heartbreaking.
In my integral counseling psychology grad school program, a few times when there was a choice for a project I researched the psychological impact of incarceration on families.
Needless to say, I was beside myself with the invitation to work with Marin Shakes with a new program at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, CA.
For the past three months, we’ve spent Saturday afternoons with the "Shakespeare class,” doing what is unofficially drama therapy. I have been able to get supervision so that I’m learning a ton about how to do what we’re doing, from another amazing woman who’s been doing this for 15 years and with whom I volunteered for the past two years, and who was my professor for child therapy class.
The men get program credit for attending our class. For every hour they’re in class with us, they get an hour off their sentence. For every 40 hours, they get a week taken off their sentence. Later when they’re up in front of a review board and can speak about their experiences, naming programs that they’ve successfully completed can help their case. Of course it’s all in the hands of the review board and there’s no predicting what will come of their sentences in that moment.
So yesterday was the culmination of three months’ work. We’ve been driving the 75 mins to Tracy every Saturday for three months and created a version of Henry IV part 1 that was under an hour, performed by the men in Shakespearean language mixed with some modern language to explain. They completely rocked it!
We couldn't bring in weapons and they weren't allowed to touch each other so we needed a creative solution for the battles. One of the guys was a former wrestler and came up with incredible fight choreography.
As for the therapeutic aspect, we're constantly tying themes from the play to the men's lives. Each week we have a theme based on something from the play: redemption, expectations, betrayal, trust, conflict, etc. For example,
we do check-ins and they have to share something personal in a theatrical way. Each week the way we check in varies—i.e. two guys next to the one checking in act out what he shares, or the one checking in forms two others into a sculpture, etc. Or they share stories about their relationships with their fathers and then people create sculptures of the themes from the stories. Henry IV was perfect, the story of a son letting his father down with a life of thieving and drinking and then turning his life around. We also tie acting skills to life skills, building empathy, listening skills, ensemble. Damn— these guys really had each other’s backs.
Sadly, none of the men were allowed to invite guests from the outside. Not too surprisingly, all of our guests from the outside were white (mostly queer) women. There were about 20 incarcerated men who came to the performance, a few staff of the prison, and a reporter from the outside.
One friend remarked, she was brimming with tears from the first moment of the show, she could feel how invested all of the men were.
The guys brought the story to life with so much passion. They had worked hard to understand Shakespeare, to learn their lines. They collaborated across racial and gang lines— breaking rules that ordinarily keep them segregated. As one of my guys was telling me, both segregation and the ways they are treated by the guards in CA is far worse than in NY prisons, where riots in the ’70’s set a tone for inmates having a voice and some power.
In an improv a few weeks back, the men acted out what happens if an incarcerated person asks a guard for more food. It was so violent and abusive, we teachers were speechless.
We had a Q&A after the show and the comments of the viewers were very touching. The field of transformation and the bonding between the guys was palpable, and the audience seemed drawn in to reveal themselves as well.
One audience member said he had lacked the self esteem to try the class but now is inspired to join us for the next round.
When our guys were asked what skills they got from Shakespeare class, one remarked that taking direction from two women is a good practice and offered much gratitude for the respect, dedication and commitment we’ve shown them. They’re not accustomed to being so esteemed, he said.
Lastly, I’ll share some of the feedback from the managing director of Marin Shakes:
"While I’d been looking forward to the fight scene, I was so enthralled with the show from the down beat (the men who introduced the show commanded such immediate presence and character!) that I didn’t remember until the fight scene happened that 'oh, right, this is the part I was excited about!'
In that cavernous space, having the performance held so close to the audience was a great call, and having some scenes take place in the audience really heightened the investment we had in those moments. I also really liked how the men set the environment for the robbery in the woods, with the animal noises and a feeling of rushed calm. In fact, come to think, they did a really good job of creating environment throughout the show.
And, of course, my favorite part is hearing how impacted these guys are by the work itself, by your willingness to show up for them, their ability to see more in themselves than they had believed to be there, and the impact it has on guests from both the inside and outside.
Thanks again for your incredible work. The men's ability to bring the show and themselves to such life yesterday speaks volumes about what you bring into the room.”
And as I share all of this, I’m always trying to be cognizant of the privilege I enjoy as a white woman and as a free person. And I share my guys’ stories with a deep bow to them, since they cannot be the ones to share it with you.