TEXT BY PETER D. KRAMER | PHOTOS BY PETER CARR
‘Our Town’ in Sing Sing
Seventy-five years ago, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” first spun its simple spell on Broadway.
Three generations later, the story of daily life, love, marriage and dying in Grover’s Corners, N.H., is still the among the 10 most-produced works on American high-school stages. Every year, one or two schools in the Lower Hudson Valley can be counted on to turn to Wilder. This fall, productions are planned at Valhalla, Lakeland and Brewster high schools. It may be the only visit to Grover’s Corners these students make — a universal rite of passage that, a generation from now, might conjure a fleeting flash of recognition when their own children stage the play: “Oh, right … Emily Webb …”
The classic play’s message, however, is timeless: Savor life’s little moments, take time to notice things, live in the present.
While Wilder tackles the universal and the eternal, directors still have to translate that to the ears of contemporary actors. When we learned that a group of inmates was staging the play inside the walls of Sing Sing, we were intrigued to see how incarcerated men would take to “Our Town,” encountering the play as adults, not teens. We set out to capture their journey with the play, in rehearsal, performance and beyond, as the lessons learned in bringing Grover’s Corners to life behind razor-wired fences could bear fruit when these men are eventually released.
VIDEO: In rehearsal | VIDEO: What arts deliver | VIDEO: Choosing to change |
VIDEO: Prison saved my life | VIDEO: An arts-altered life | VIDEO: In performance |
VIDEO: You have to live | PROFILE: Actress Kate Kenney | PROFILE: Director Kate Powers | PROFILE: Producer Katherine Vockins | BY THE NUMBERS |
Finding Grover’s Corners — and light — in Sing Sing
Darkness and light.
There is plenty of both in “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
From January to May, men who live in one of the darkest places imaginable — Sing Sing Correctional Facility — got a glimpse of light by rehearsing and staging the classic work, under the auspices of Katonah’s Rehabilitation Through the Arts.
“Our Town” might seem a strange choice for a theater program in a men’s prison. On its face, it is largely about a girl from New Hampshire at the turn of the 20th century who learns too late to savor the light held in life’s simplest moments.
There would appear to be little to treasure about life in Sing Sing, where inhabitants want time to rush time along.
“In here, time is magnified because everything in prison is a waiting game,” said Jermaine Archer, who played the Stage Manager, the play’s narrator.
“You’re waiting for your cell to open. You’re waiting for them to feed you. You’re waiting for them to let me into the yard. And we’re all waiting to go home. Of course you’re wishing 20 years flies by,” he said. “But this play tells you to stop and pay attention.”
At a pre-show pep talk, director Kate Powers drove the point home.
“What’s this play about?” she asked the cast and crew.
“Our town,” they said.
“Yes,” she said. “And it’s about paying attention! We can make a change. We want our audience to pay attention, to watch us and pay attention.”
Chances are, if people remember anything about “Our Town,” it’s the adorable soda-fountain scene when, over strawberry ice cream sodas, Emily Webb tells off George Gibbs for being stuck up. He takes her words to heart, decides then and there to marry her, then discovers he doesn’t have the money to pay for the sodas.
But to capture the light best, Wilder wrote the darkness of Act 3, when Emily, now married to George, dies in childbirth and is borne up the hill to the cemetery and laid to rest among her people: the Herseys, the Gibbses, the Webbs. Surrounded by the town’s dead, Emily begs the Stage Manager to let her go back once more to the world of the living. Begrudgingly, he lets her relive — but not change the events of — her 12th birthday. She quickly realizes that the living aren’t so much living as surviving.
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? — every, every minute?” she asks the Stage Manager.
“No,” he says. “The saints and poets, maybe — they do some.”
Director Powers played Mrs. Webb when she was in high school, near Buffalo.
“So many high schools do this play and I know why they do it,” she said. “But with respect, it is a very unusual 16- or 17-year-old who can really get their arms around the fundamental questions of the play. People tend to think this play is the soda fountain scene, about a young couple falling in love, an American valentine of a play. It’s heart-breakingly wrenching stuff.”
The message hits home at Sing Sing.
“This is a group of people who really get regret,” said Powers.
“I said to them ‘If you could go back to the day before you agreed to get involved with whatever landed you in here, if you could go relive that day — but you couldn’t change a thing that happened afterwards — would you do it?’ And they said, ‘Absolutely not. No way.’”
Then they hedged, she said.
“‘If I could change it…’”
She quickly reminded them: “But Emily can’t change anything because it’s done. It’s over.”
Later, Powers recalled, “one of the guys said ‘We’re kind of like the dead in the cemetery in “Our Town.” The only difference is, eventually, we get to go home and make different choices.’ ”
‘Who do you want coming home?’
That inmates in a maximum-security prison are doing plays might rankle survivors of violent-crime victims and their loved ones.
Virginia Perez, a Westchester County legislator representing Yonkers, understands that feeling. Her brother, Martin, was murdered.
“At the beginning, I was angry,” she said. “I was like ‘These guys are not here to play fun and games. My brother is not here to see his daughter be in her kindergarten play, so why are these guys participating in a play.’ But after meeting prisoners face to face, you get a different perspective.
“We have to try creative ways to stop and correct their behavior. If we do that, we can save the lives of two people: of the prisoner by helping him turn his life around, and of the potential future victim,” Perez said.
The men in “Our Town” have been convicted of armed robbery, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon and murder. But RTA volunteers don’t ask what their crimes are. All they ask is that they come to the program with a desire to change, to be open to the artistic process that can teach them life skills they’ll need when they are released.
Former Sing Sing warden Brian Fischer, who retired as state prisons commissioner in April, is an RTA champion. He was named “honorary mayor of Our Town” at one of the Sing Sing performances.
“We can’t forget the victims,” he said in an earlier interview. “But as a society, we need to invest our energy in making (the inmates) better people because they’re going to go home. They did wrong. They admit it. Their punishment is going to jail, not being punished in jail. That’s an important factor.”
The financial investment is small. RTA’s annual budget is $225,000, the bulk of which is provided by foundations, benefactors and grants.
Founder and Katonah resident Katherine Vockins said one-quarter of the budget comes from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in the form of out-of-pocket expenses — for transportation, scripts, sets and costumes — at the five prisons where RTA operates. According to department spokeswoman Linda Foglia, the state’s annual outlay for RTA is around $50,000, about what it costs New York taxpayers to house one inmate for one year. At Sing Sing, the state spent about $13,300 last year on RTA expenses, Foglia said.
Current Sing Sing Superintendent Michael Capra sees the value: “RTA gives (the men) a sense of a win, a great win. They are a talented group of people, some of the cream of the crop here at Sing Sing, certainly some of our success stories.”
Director Powers — a Fulbright scholar whose business card reads “Smart, Classic, Provocative, Truthful Theater — said she hears it weekly: Why should convicted criminals be having fun, putting on plays?
“My answer to that is: Who do you want coming home? Do you want a guy who has been parked in a box to stew in his own misery for 25 years? Do you think that’s going to be good for the community? Is that working for anyone?” she said.
“Or you can have a guy who said, at some point in his incarceration: ‘I don’t want to be that guy anymore. I want to be a better man. How do I do that?’ And give him some opportunities and some tools.”
The tools RTA has to give — collaboration, problem-solving, memorization, critical thinking, perseverance — can help the men learn to make different choices.
Seeing character traits in the mirror
Founded in 1996 as a theater workshop by Vockins, RTA now has volunteers teaching creative writing, dance and movement, visual art, Shakespeare, improvisation, voice, scene-study and monologues in five maximum- and medium-security prisons in Westchester, Sullivan and Dutchess counties.
The nonprofit’s philosophy is that, since more than 95 percent of inmates are released after serving their time, the arts can prepare them for life after prison, not by making them actors or even, as some suggest, better con men. Going to rehearsal regularly models the outside-the-walls task of going to work regularly. Working on a scene — say, between Doc Gibbs and his son, George — mirrors the collaboration of co-workers on a project, and the parenting skill of talking to a son.
Sean “Dino” Johnson, 48, an early RTA member, has been out of Sing Sing for a decade and now leads gang-prevention programs. He serves on the nonprofit’s board.
“Before RTA, I couldn’t say more than two words,” Johnson said. “I kept my circles very small. I didn’t like dealing with a lot of personalities. I’d sit in the corner and just watch everybody else.
“When you start studying characters, you realize the traits you have in your own character,” he said. “At night, away from the stage, I began to analyze myself as a character and how I acted on the stage of life. It gave me a stage where I could figure out who I wanted to be, what character traits I needed to develop.”
Making the decision to join RTA often comes when a fellow inmate takes a man under his wing. Johnson befriended Clarence Maclin who befriended Jermaine Archer who befriended Marcelle Smith, who played George Gibbs in “Our Town.”
“It’s a legacy, a gift they hand down,” Vockins said.
The RTA mantra is that these men are not their mistakes, their crimes. If they approach with the right attitude and intentions, and follow the rules, they can take part.
Omar “Sweets” Williams, 45, from Wyandanch, on Long Island, who played Dr. Gibbs, called joining RTA the hardest step of his life.
“I was scared of failure, scared of embarrassment,” he said. “But to see certain people take steps to better themselves, it makes the guy who might have been a little scared or pessimistic about taking that jump, it affords him that freedom or takes away that scariness that he would have had. He says ‘I can do it. If they can do it, anybody can do it.’”
Charles Garner, 38, from Buffalo, was the play’s stage manager (not to be confused with the Stage Manager character). He played prosecutor Jack Ross in “A Few Good Men,” but prefers working behind the scenes.
“One of the reasons I joined RTA was to work on my people skills,” the soft-spoken Garner said. “The closer I’m getting to being released, the more I need to work on those. What prison does, if you don’t interact, especially with people on the outside, your people skills, your interpersonal skills, they diminish.”
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Choosing to join RTA doesn’t guarantee admittance to the program. A five-inmate steering committee decides who gets in, which workshops are taught, and — in what Powers calls “a hot, sloppy process, because the guys are still getting the leadership concept down” — which plays will be performed.
The choice of “Our Town” was met with anger.
Inmates have a “government name” – the one the system uses – and a prison name, the one they choose.
At Sing Sing, the tall and serious Samuel Morris is called “Minister.”
Minister was not happy.
In January, after rejecting several plays, the committee chose a play by a former Sing Sing inmate. A week later, as Minister recalls it, they were told that the play had been changed to “Our Town.”
“I stood off,” he said. “I’m one of those guys, if I feel something I’m going to say it. I’ve always been that way, growing up in Flatbush, I was the same. I told Kate and Katherine how I was disappointed and they appreciated it, because they always encourage us to express how we feel.”
They asked him to read the play; 30 pages in, he threw it aside. Eventually, he agreed to take part. In rehearsal, he warmed to it.
“Kate told us it was ‘Our Town,’ but it could be anybody’s town. It could be Flatbush, but it’s ‘Our Town’ of Flatbush. Yeah, there’s love in Flatbush. There’s death in Flatbush. There’s courting in Flatbush. When I started seeing those things and looking at them from an open-minded perspective, I said, ‘Yeah. I want to be part of it.’”
Minister played Joe Stoddard, the undertaker at the Grover’s Corners cemetery.
(Director Kate Powers works on a scene with Jamell Caraway, who plays Constable Warren.)
Volunteering to enter The Big House
Grover’s Corners has women in it.
Sing Sing does not.
RTA enlists actress volunteers, “facilitators,” to teach workshops and take the few women’s roles in plays.
In “Our Town,” Kate Kenney played Emily, Josie Whittlesey played Mrs. Webb, and Khristal Curtis played Mrs. Gibbs.
The volunteers go through an extensive screening process. Some write essays about their value to the program and reasons for wanting to join. There are conversations about what to expect, how to behave, how to dress. The women wear baggy clothes, long shirts. Cover your collarbone, cover your butt, one puts it plainly.
Why would they choose to spend time in a maximum-security prison?
“These people are starved for human interaction,” Whittlesey says. “Some of the men, especially the men who grew up with sisters, are used to having women as confidantes. I hear unbelievable stories from them. They want to confide in a woman. They can’t get that there.”
Curtis, who majored in applied theater at NYU, sees RTA as a chance to apply what she has learned about using theater not for its performance value, but for its impact on other aspects of life.
Powers is more blunt.
“It turns out that they’re people,” she says.
The women don’t fear for their safety.
Says Whittlesey: “Katherine said to me ‘You’re going to be safer in that room than anywhere else in New York City.’ And I believed her about that. I believe those men will protect me with their lives. I feel absolutely safe there.”
When Karla Kenney learned that her daughter, Kate, was preparing to go inside Sing Sing to perform plays, she took the news relatively well. She had already gotten over the fact that her daughter, a tiny girl who calls her “mum,” was living in New York City, far from her Maine hometown.
“I didn’t worry about the Sing Sing part at all,” she says with a laugh. “She climbs mountains — Kilimanjaro, Rainier – so I’ve decided where I need to worry and Sing Sing is not it. Altitude sickness worries me. This doesn’t worry me.”
(Josie Whittlesey at a rehearsal for “Our Town” at Sing Sing. Whittlesey played Mrs. Webb.)
‘They are so good at passing time’
Depending on whether they get on at Grand Central or in Harlem, the Metro-North ride to Ossining can be a half-hour or nearly an hour. Northbound, the women spend this time sewing costumes, making lists, planning that day’s rehearsal. Southbound, it’s a debriefing of sorts, as they share stories the men told, issues they’re having, glimpses into the inmates’ lives.
Whittlesey says occasionally they arrive at the prison and the vibe in the room is toxic.
“The other day it was like that. There was this negative vibe and I talked to a couple of guys who had some crappy things happen to them that day and we went into the visitors lounge and a lot of them went in their separate directions and put on their headphones and stared out the window for two hours. And they do this thing where they play chess but they’re wearing headphones, so they’re not communicating. Something about that: They are so good at passing time. I was so depressed when I went home. It just hit me: How long 25 years really is. The isolation they showed that night was remarkable.”
Most rides home, they say, are upbeat. Days before “Our Town” opened, Minister – who led the mutiny when the play was first selected — approached Powers at rehearsal.
This is a beautiful play, he told her. There’s love and there’s young people finding their way. And there’s hope and possibility. And I’m so thrilled to be part of it.
They might not have needed Metro-North to get home that night. They might have floated home.
(Samuel Morris, left, as Joe Stoddard and Joseph Occhione as Sam Craig in “Our Town.”)
Playing the “Dance Floor’
“Our Town” was the first RTA production not performed in the prison’s auditorium, called “the chapel,” which was under repair in the spring. It was performed in the Visitors Room, which the inmates call “The Dance Floor,” just inside the famous prison’s front gate.
The vast room was “Our Town” ordinary, the floor a checkerboard linoleum, the south wall lined with vending machines offering ice cream, coffee, sandwiches, bottled water. There is a microwave. Three hundred Chairs were arranged in neat rows on three sides of the makeshift stage, with two wide aisles granting access to Grover’s Corners.
It could have been any school lunchroom or community center, if not for the armed officers and the 14-foot chainlink fence topped with a double ring of razor wire just beyond the windows.
(“Our Town” was performed in the prison’s Visitors Room, just inside the main gate.)
‘RTA won’t heal you’
“That’s what it was to be alive,” he snaps. “To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years.”
Shedrick Blackwell, 46, who played Stimson, said there is plenty of dark in Sing Sing.
“The punishment is every night when you go to bed and the cellblock gets silent and you are left with absolutely nobody but you and all your ghosts and all your sins. And they do rear their head nightly. The punishment is how you deal with that. But there’s humanity in here.”
He understands why people would question prisoners doing plays.
“I heard about a deserter in the Napoleonic wars. He was captured and they were getting ready to hang him and his mother appealed to the emperor: ‘Please, show my son some mercy.’ And the emperor said, ‘Mercy? He’s a coward and a deserter. He doesn’t deserve mercy.’ And she said, ‘That’s exactly it. If he deserved it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’
“Many of us are the most undeserving of mercy, which makes us the most entitled the mercy and the sympathy and the advocacy and the empathy. The punishment is self-induced, but so is the remedy. RTA won’t heal you. It will open your eyes to the remedies that exist within yourself. You have to get out the mortar and pestle and grind it up and apply the salve to your soul and go forward from there.”
(Lloyd Naraine played Mr. Webb, editor of the Grover’s Corners Sentinel.)
Studies chart changes brought on by RTA
Two studies have demonstrated RTA’s impact on prisoner behavior and educational ambition.
In the 2011 edition of “International Journal of Arts in Society,” John Jay College for Criminal Justice professor Lorraine Moller published a study, conducted in collaboration with the New York State Department of Corrections, which found that RTA had a positive impact on participating prisoners, showing that the longer the inmate was in the program, the fewer violations he committed. It further suggested that the arts gave prisoners an outlet for feelings of anger.
While RTA may make better prisoners, it may also have an impact on their pursuit of education.
Also in 2011, Purchase College professor Suzanne Kessler compared RTA members to non-members, matching them in terms of the number of years they were in prison, their age, their length of sentence, race, and their crime. She found that even though they had the same education level before prison, RTA participants enrolled in and completed more educational programs in prison than their non-RTA peers.
RTA members also earned their GED’s faster than their non-RTA peers. Those who already had finished high school before entering Sing Sing spent more time enrolled in college programs.
Kessler’s study noted that pursuing education while in prison has “a strong and well-established effect on reducing the number of released inmates who return to prison” and concluded: “Rehabilitation through the Arts is clearly effective.”
‘In here, you try to log off, like a computer’
Jermaine Archer is a living example of how RTA changes lives.
For years, he lived in A Block, Sing Sing’s warehouse of prisoners, where 88 cells are stacked on 88 cells on 88 cells. Five stories of 88 cells, sharing a back wall with another five stories of 88 cells. The noise, he says, is constant, with radios competing for attention in all different languages, officers on intercoms, the bang of closing doors. Sitting on his bed, he could reach his 6-foot wingspan and touch both walls, the toilet, his locker and the cell bars.
He remembers thinking, his first night in Sing Sing: I am in a cage. If there was a fire, I couldn’t get out.
Now he’s a model prisoner, rewarded with a move to the relative quiet of Sing Sing’s Honor Block, where prisoners can cook, and do their own laundry and exercise in their own yard. This summer, he earned his bachelor’s degree in behavioral sciences from Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison through Mercy College.
“I read somewhere that there are no second acts in life,” he said. “I disagree. I’m living my second act right now.”
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His first role at Sing Sing was Riff in “West Side Story.” Next was George in “Of Mice and Men,” an experience that clearly changed him. At the end of that play, George makes the agonizing decision to kill his friend, Lenny, rather than let the authorities get a hold of him for killing a woman.
“I actually cried. I let tears come out in front of an audience,” Archer says. “I used to try to cry, thinking that if I cried, God would let me go. ‘God will let me out of prison. I just have to show that I feel bad.’ I would sit down and try to cry and it didn’t work. When it came out naturally, as George, it felt so liberating. I hugged my director, Brent Buell. Not being scared to show my emotions is also going to help me when I get out.”
Archer has been thinking about Emily Webb and this idea of living in the present, of being alive every moment, of seeing light in such a dark place.
“Is it really healthy to be present every moment, like Emily asks, in a setting like this?” he asked. “In here, you’re dealing with ignorance, you’re dealing with violence, with humiliation. In here, you try to log off, like a computer. We try to log off and say it’s safer for me not to fully experience this experience that I’m going through.
“But this is still life. Maybe it’s not about Jaguars and money. Maybe, when I saw those geese when I was coming down the hill today, I could appreciate that moment. We have a cat in the building where I live. I get to see the cat every day. We have the river, a million-dollar view. So I had to learn to really change my perspective on what I enjoy.”
The men wearing Sing Sing green, he says, now realize what they’re missing, things they overlooked at home. They remember first love, taking their driver’s test, casting their first ballot.
Archer’s transformation through the arts has given him hope.
“I’m leaving prison with an appreciation for the arts, three college degrees, an understanding of classical music, knowing how to get in touch with my emotions and feeling free to do that because of RTA. They say there are no second acts; I’m looking forward to my third act.”
A powerful journey
Weeks after “Our Town” is over, Kate Kenney’s voice filled with awe when she recalled a moment from the closing performance, when Marcelle Smith, as the widowed George Gibbs, lies down on his wife Emily’s grave.
“Right before he went to actually lie down, he had this one tear falling,” she recalls. “I could see it fall from his eye and as it’s going down he’s sort of following it down to the ground. You couldn’t capture that on film if you tried. That is just gorgeous and one of the things I love about the theater, that thing that is magic for that moment and doesn’t exist anymore. And I might have been the only person there who could see that.”
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Kenney said the journey to find Grover’s Corners was powerful.
“I miss the whole experience of coming to light with those guys,” she said. “Individually and collectively and as people and as characters there was a lot of light that happened in that process. And I miss that light and the discoveries.”
She also missed the emotion that bubbled just beneath the surface.
“At one point, Kate Powers said to Jermaine: ‘You stopped making eye contact with Emily at the end. You need to have a moment.’ And he said ‘I can’t look at her because I’ll cry if I do.’
“It’s amazing that Thornton Wilder is reaching people like that. It’s not me. I’m the medium he’s using. But that’s the work — that it makes me cry to have this experience with you, or it makes me feel something to see what you’re going through. That’s the work we need these guys to do, so that they’re ready to come back.”
“Our Town” was staged with the audience on three sides, meaning that the audience could look through the scene and see other audience members’ reactions.
(The residents of Grover’s Corners bear Emily Webb Gibbs to the town’s hilltop cemetery.)
At one of two performances for inmates, the men laughed when Mrs. Webb scolded her children, and giggled at the slow-motion way the dead of Grover’s Corners took their places in the cemetery.
Just like the invited civilian audience two days later, they laughed and cried at the unbearable sweetness of the soda-fountain scene, and they laughed when George’s friends razzed him at his wedding.
Then came Emily’s final farewell, as she resigns herself to the hereafter.
“Good-by, good-by, world,” she says. “Good-by, Grover’s Corners … Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking … and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths … and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
The civilians cried.
And the inmates cried.
It turns out that they’re people.
Volunteer profile: Actress Kate Kenney
Since graduating from Rutgers, the 5’3” actress has climbed New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, Mount Rainier in a summer snowstorm, and Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.
“It’s 19,341 or 19,342, depending on who you side with,” she says.
Her goal is Alaska’s Denali, at 21,322 feet.
“My mind gets so clear in the mountains in a way that it doesn’t doing anything else. It feels like I’m really alive every minute. Because the minute you stop being present every second, you might break a cornice.”
It’s a very Emily Webb sort of enterprise, living every moment.
Kenney also practices aerial silks, hanging in the air suspended by nothing but long swaths of fabric. With each twist of the fabric around her forearms, she rises higher, often facing the ground face first from a height of 30 or 50 feet.
“It’s just something that’s athletic and fun that I can do without a lot of equipment,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s your body in the air, wrapped in fabric. And you wrap yourself in ways that you can remain there longer” before carefully unwrapping, one twist at a time, and descending.
It’s a skill she has used in at least one production, where the silks became a design element and part of the story.
The show was “Metamorphoses” — transformation.
Kenney’s other hobby is helping inmates to transform themselves, one line, one scene, one show at a time, wrapping themselves in their characters.
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Volunteer profile: Director Kate Powers
It could be her hometown of Clarence, N.Y., which is located, she jokes, “in the 1950s, upstate, on the Canadian border outside of Buffalo.”
As a sophomore at Clarence High School, she played Mrs. Webb.
“‘Are you living your life every moment?’ That question, has stayed in my head since I first met this play,” Powers says. “I don’t think, at 16 or 17, I was fully able to engage with that question, but it’s one of those lines from a handful of plays that are always very near the front of my brain.
“My moment of deep engagement with that – and the way that I move through the world — was in the months following Sept. 11, 2001, which was right about when I started my Fulbright year.”
Powers earned a Fulbright scholarship to study Shakespeare at what she calls “the home office” – The Shakespeare Institute in the bard’s Stratford-upon-Avon birthplace.
“I was supposed to fly on the Thursday, Sept. 13, but there were no planes going anywhere. I was a week and a half for my late for my Fulbright year. And all of a sudden I didn’t want to go.”
She did go, but the impact of Sept. 11 stayed with her that year, and has stayed with her ever since.
Fast forward to May 2013.
At one point in rehearsals for “Our Town” at Sing Sing, Powers realized something was missing.
“There was no sense of history,” she says. “The interactions between the characters were really stiff and there wasn’t a sense of them knowing each other a long time. You can talk about that, and we did, but we needed to get out of our heads about it.”
Her solution: The Grover’s Corners Community Fair. One Friday night , it became Team Gibbs vs. Team Webb in three-legged races, relay races with colored plastic eggs on plastic spoons.
“It became clear that so many of the men have never had a chance to play. They grew up in environments where they had to be serious, a place where they had to get into business — some kind of illegal entrepreneurial something so early, just to get by – that all kinds of play and freedom never got to happen for them.”
They all learned some things, Powers says.
“It turned out that Joe Stoddard, played by Minister, was a terrible cheat, which gave an interesting extra level to the guy who was the somber funeral director. Now we all know that he cheats at the three-legged race.”
There was a lot of laughter, which Powers sees as a sign of rehabilitation: discovering trust, perspective, community.
“People told jokes and we all came together in a circle and did a game where someone starts ‘I’m going to a picnic and I’m going to bring …’ and the next person says ‘I’m going to a picnic and I’m going to bring what the first person says and then add their thing.’ So that’s how we had our picnic.”
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Volunteer profile: Founder Katherine Vockins
“I wouldn’t do this work for 17 years unless it touched me at a level,” says Katherine Vockins, who began RTA at Sing Sing and runs it out of the basement of her Katonah home. “You’re not driven by money. And it’s not a ministry. I hate the word ‘calling,’ but what else could it possibly be?”
Vockins met Hans Hallundbaek at Dansk Designs in Mount Kisco and, years later, they married and started an international marketing and consulting firm. KVMarketing helped companies navigate new markets, designing home furnishings and accessories. For 20 years, they held the hands of corporations and non-profits, building KV into a $2-million business.
Then came what Vockins calls Hallundbaek’s “mid-life correction,” when he took a spiritual turn. Hallundbaek, a self-described “farmboy from the west coast of Denmark” who had survived the German occupation during World War II, wanted more out of life than helping companies convince people that they needed their dinner plates and flatware and glasses.
Soon, he was teaching inmates at Sing Sing.
“Then, I guess because my partner, significant other, husband was into this prison stuff I felt I needed to figure out what it was,” Vockins says.
She tagged along to Sing Sing.
“I just thought I needed to understand more about what he was finding so interesting there, what had taken him away from not only our business but our relationship,” she says.
What she saw changed her perspective, exploding stereotypes.
“We as middle-class white folks don’t really know what prisoners are like,” she says. “We just assume they’re like what you see on ‘Oz’ or what’s reported in the newspapers. And I think many people who meet them as human beings, you can’t think of them the same way anymore. You have to think of them as human beings who’ve made horrible mistakes and are in prison for extended periods of time.”
In 1996, attending a graduation ceremony for some of Hallundbaek’s students, she turned to an inmate and asked an innocent question: “Is there any theater here?”
Before long, Vockins had pulled together the team that would become RTA.
It’s one thing to develop a product, to make a nice glass, or tableware, she says.
“It’s another to see somebody stop thinking the way they used to, to go on to get an education, finish their GED, get into college, be able to open lines of communications with families that were closed before, because now they have a new way of thinking. And just the listening skills. It’s a bit addictive.”
She likes to quote Sing Sing inmate Kenyatta Hughes: “Arts make you think differently, so you act differently, so you get different results.”
“That’s transformation,” Vockins says. “It’s a new way of thinking.”
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By the numbers
2.5 million: People behind bars in the U.S.
7 million: Those behind bars or on parole or probation.
97 percent: Those inmates who are eventually released.
50 percent: Those who return to prison with three years of release.
$55,000 to $60,000: Cost to New York taxpayers to house one inmate one year.
55,000: Number of prisoners in New York’s 60 prison facilities.
5: Number of facilities where RTA operates — 17 years at Sing Sing (maximum security, Westchester); 6 years at Green Haven (maximum, Dutchess); 7 years at Woodbourne (medium, Sullivan) and Fishkill (medium, Dutchess); 5 years at Bedford Hills (women’s maximum, Westchester).
150: Men and women served by Rehabilitation Through the Arts each year.
8: Arts programs under the RTA umbrella. Creative writing; dance and movement; visual art; Shakespeare study; improvisation; full-length productions; vocal training; scene study and monologues.
$225,000: The RTA operating budget. If in-kind services are factored in (the dollar value of volunteer hours), the budget is closer to $400,000.
$50,000: The amount of the RTA budget (about 25 percent) provided by the state Department of Corrections for transportation, scripts, sets, costumes, cleaning costumes.
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To learn more about Rehabilitation Through the Arts, go to the RTA website.