in loco playwright

rock2In the last week of January I went to California to attend the 8 Tens @ 8 Festival presented by the Santa Cruz Actors’ Theatre. I went because my playwright mentee, Keith Sanders, had a play in the festival. He could not attend himself because he is incarcerated in Rosharon, Texas.

Keith’s play is entitled Rock, Paper, Scissors. It was directed by Evan Hunt and featured the talents of Matt Clarke, Scott Kravitz, Adrian Miller and Gail Borkowski. SCAT Artistic Director Wilma Chandler corresponded with me and Keith throughout his application to the festival and the subsequent rehearsal period. And, as is always the case with established, successful festivals like the 8 Tens @ 8, there was a substantial team of actors, directors, designers, stage crew, and front of house people working together to make the whole event come together. I was extremely impressed with the entire experience!

The festival was held at the Center Street Theater in downtown Santa Cruz. It is part of the Santa Cruz Art Center, a lovely building with gallery spaces and small arts-oriented businesses in addition to the 89-seat performance space. The theatre itself has a raked auditorium which is cozily carpeted and the sight lines were perfect for the well-lit stage. Rock, Paper, Scissors is an intense and enigmatic short play that was quite unlike anything else in the festival lineup. Set in an execution chamber, Keith’s script specifically calls for an African American woman to represent a prisoner being prepped for execution, while three guards trade quips about religion and philosophies of responsibility. The set-up of the execution requires two guards to push one button each simultaneously, in an attempt to provide a kind of anonymity as to the identity of the actual executioner. But two of the three guards play Rock, Paper, Scissors during the course of the play, in an attempt to subvert the absurdity of the “anonymity” and just assign the job of execution to one person. This appears to be their routine, but it is unclear what the stakes are–will the winner get to kill the prisoner as his reward? Or is the prize a “get out of killing someone today” card? In a flurry of movement at the play’s climax, the winner turns out to be the one who pushes the buttons which execute the prisoner.

The ending of the play is ambiguous as written–do the guards want to win the game so they can be the one to commit the act of execution? Or are they playing to get out of the responsibility, but the “winner” changes his mind at the last minute? The director and cast invited me out for drinks after the show to discuss the script’s challenges and the discoveries they had made as they staged it. In exploring their back stories, the cast had come to a kind of consensus that the guards were essentially good people who did not want the responsibility of executing prisoners, and so had developed this game of chance to give someone an “out” every time they had this duty. But they interpreted the actions of the “winner” to mean that, at the last minute, he did not want the “loser” to have the execution on his conscience, so he pushed the loser out of the way and pushed the buttons himself. I was intrigued by their optimistic read on the script. I had thought the script had an essentially pessimistic view of the guards, in their callous treatment of the silent prisoner and their focus on the game. In my reading, the winner got exactly what he wanted–to be unambiguously responsible for the prisoner’s death. The “why” of his action is elusive, but it could be a lust for power, a desire to see guilty people punished, the rush of competition, a means of fighting boredom . . . it could even have its roots in the specific race of the prisoner.

The cast and director made some phenomenal choices that increased the disturbing power of the script. The intro music was Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.” From the moment this track started in the dark scene-change interval between shows, the music announced that Rock, Paper, Scissors was probably not a meet-cute story or mild dramatic meditation about race-neutral (read “white”) themes. The cast also had some technical challenges with the set-up: Gail had to be strapped to a gurney held at an angle on a temporary platform, so this took time and careful attention to arrange safely. Evan and the actors decided to start the guard’s dialogue while they were still strapping Gail in so they could have full stage light and all the time they needed to assure that she was safe. Gail told me in an email after my trip that this flexibility came in handy during the final weekend when her straps got bound up and took a long time to arrange. It took so long, she was wondering if she should plan a jailbreak! I actually love watching actors work out this kind of problem, because that’s what people do all day long–fix snagged equipment or pick up things they’ve dropped. Watching people mentally and physically adjust to unexpected changes in the onstage environment is fascinating to me.

Gail did some research on cases of African American women who have been executed and learned that they sometimes sang hymns at the end. And so she added an element to her performance that was completely unexpected to me from Keith’s script: after the guards received the phone call instructing them to follow through on the execution, Gail, who had been completely silent throughout the play, began to sing. It was chilling and sad and massively magnified the tension in the theatre. In keeping with her singing, Evan chose for his outro music “I’m Free” by Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers, a soulful track that sounded like a funeral dirge in this context. I don’t know for sure how everyone around me was feeling, but I’m pretty certain that this audience hadn’t expected to bear witness to a black woman being strapped to a gurney by white men and then hear her sing hymns of praise and hope in the moments before the white men killed her. This was just a ten-minute play, but the audacity of Keith’s writing and the courage of this cast to stage it as written made a huge impact on me.

I have been able to talk to Keith a bit on the phone about the show, although there was a problem with the phones cutting out and we kept getting interrupted. I wrote to him at more length about my response and about the ideas and questions of the cast. I’m waiting to hear if he has more to say about it. I know Keith is proud that his work was represented at the 8 Tens @ 8 Festival, and it was enormously rewarding for me to participate in his collaboration with the Santa Cruz Actors’ Theatre. Kudos and thanks to Wilma, Evan, Matt, Scott, Adrian and Gail for their time and talents!

Rock, Paper, Scissors in 2016!

Happy New Year, everyone! 2015 was a time of sadness for my family, as we lost my mother Elaine in June after her long struggle with lung cancer. I am glad to say that I am picking up the threads of various projects I had put aside while I was caring for her and I hope to report on big doings in the coming year.

To start off, I will mention that Mindfulness Through Clown, which I announced in December, was postponed due to holiday madness. But I am actively developing this workshop with my colleague Nancy Garnhart of Yoga in ME and will let you know when it is ready to roll out.

In the meantime, my prison playwright mentee Keith has had a ten-minute play accepted to the Santa Cruz Actors’ Theatre’s 8 Tens Festival, which opened last weekend! I will be heading there next week to see Keith’s play myself, but the director has already sent me some pictures. Here are some production photos of Rock, Paper, Scissors, written by Keith Sanders, directed by Evan Hunt, produced by Wilma Chandler, and photographed by Jana Marcus:

rock1 rock2 rock3

 

Keith is the word

As I mentioned in my last post, much of my life for the past several months has been focused on caring for my Mom. I am uncharacteristically unmoored from theatrical projects right now because the future seems so uncertain. However, there is one really interesting dynamic in my life that connects me to the worlds of writing and performance: my mentorship of incarcerated playwright Keith S.

I don’t usually write about Keith here–have I ever?–because I want to protect his privacy. Also, Keith would urge me to protect the privacy of the families he gravely injured when he killed two people while drunk about 26 years ago. (I do not know the details of his crime, although he would tell me if I asked directly. I have not yet asked.) But I must write about him, because he is a significant part of my life now. I will try to respect all concerned. I do respect all concerned.

Keith has been in prison in Texas for more than half of his life and may never be released. But I am his mentor because he won me in a writing contest.

Back in 2011, I was looking for volunteer opportunities working with prisoners. There are few such programs in New Hampshire and the way in is not clear. Apparently you can’t just knock on the prison door and announce your good intentions and be received. But my research turned up the PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Program, which encourages scholarship and writing among the prison population by hosting annual competitions in various genres. The winners are awarded a modest cash prize and also paired with a volunteer mentor in their chosen genre. I applied to be a mentor and it turned out that my timing was perfect: they were about to pick the year’s winners and needed a Drama mentor. I was asked to commit to three passes at the winner’s manuscript. Our correspondence was handled through PEN America, so my address would not be provided to the prisoner. But mentors and mentees are allowed to continue correspondence beyond the required commitment, and they can even choose to correspond directly if they want. You can do the math: I have been corresponding with Keith for four years now, and our correspondence is now direct. One of my more protective male friends spluttered with outrage to my husband, “How can you let her DO this, write to this guy, give him your address?” My husband (whom I have consulted every step of the way in this mentorship process) could only say, “I don’t “LET” her do anything!” And, on Christmas Day, 2014, with much preparation, and after wrangling with both Verizon and the Texas Penal System, I received my first phone call from Keith. I now talk to him for 20 minutes once a week, when his unit isn’t in lockdown.

Keith is an extraordinary man. He has earned an AA in General Liberal Arts, a BS in Behavioral Psych, and an MA in Literature while inside. He has never seen a live play (although he did throw rocks at an outdoor Shakespeare troupe’s rehearsal as a child). He wears a white shirt and pants every day and is surrounded by white walls. His world was unsettled quite a bit two years ago by the arrival of color television. He quotes philosophers regularly, with Nietzsche a clear favorite. He thinks he may be a bit Aspergian and his letters do have that little professor tone. I was shocked when I heard his voice: he really is a Texan and he drawls. He drawls philosophy and he drawls about his Process. He drawls about the bad food and he drawls questions about things he’s never experienced, like the smell of patchouli. So now I try to read his little professor letters in a drawl in my head.

Keith’s handwriting is tiny and cramped like the cell he writes in and the precious stash of paper he owns. The plays he writes for the PEN contests are intentionally formulaic and written in hopes of winning the cash prize. The plays he prefers to write are realistic in form but often Surreal in premise and informed by his very literal experiences of the Kafkaesque. Any money Keith wins through play submissions or through the vague “hustle” of prison life goes towards paper and postage as he pursues a career writing plays he may never see produced. He is an atheist and wishes that American atheists would learn from the gay rights movement and get themselves recognized in politics and culture. He has no family or friends on the outside and castigates himself for not knowing how to interact, even as he pushes himself to interact with me and, through me, in a collaborative art. He is funny and deeply self-conscious and so his letters are peppered with smiley faces. He will not let himself off the hook for anything. His plays are not bad at all and show increasing sparks of exhilarating life.

All of this assumes that the contents of his letters and his playscripts are all authentically his own work, and true, and not an elaborate and lengthy con. I don’t think he is conning me because he gets nothing from me but attention. What con could possibly have as a goal this amount of literary attention and so little else? Above all, my relationship with Keith is an exercise in faith. I choose to believe. I could choose to disbelieve, but I have no way of proving most of what he tells me to be either true or false, so I choose to think the best of him instead of giving in to cynicism.

I find so much to admire in Keith’s discipline, his aesthetic, his self-generated moral code, and his good humor. Daily, he faces his own failings and the failures of the system that punishes him repeatedly with no real promise of “rehabilitation” or reintegration to society. His work to better himself and to create a better world through writing is almost entirely unrecognized (PEN may have noticed him, but the parole board sees only his crime). On my worst days, I feel deeply ashamed not to have built more on the foundation of all that I have, all the resources and privilege and luck that have accrued in my life. On my better days, I am inspired by Keith to be the best writing mentor I possibly can and to revive and reinvestigate my own work, take it further. Always, no matter the day, I am grateful for the chance to work with him and for his trust in me. What a strange set of circumstances. What an amazing friendship I have with a man I know and yet don’t know.

There is no picture to accompany this post. I don’t know what Keith looks like. He tells me he looks ordinary. The most ordinary person you could ever see, he says.

I can hear him, but I can’t see him.

Can you see him?

***I edited this post after I sent it to Keith and he corrected three facts I had misremembered, which I have corrected. He also sent me a picture of himself with a group of professors and fellow inmates at a graduation in 2003. He said, “Why didn’t you ask me for a picture? Do you think we don’t have pictures in here? We do. I have one. Please send it back when you’re done with it.” So I looked and looked and looked at it. I scanned it and filed it away where I can look at it again. And then I wrapped a letter around it and sent it back.