prison playwrights’ voices raised in NYC!

On Monday night, I was honored to attend the Voices Inside/Out staged readings at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in NYC. Voices Inside/Out is a playwriting program for prisoners at the Northpoint Training Center in Kentucky. Only in its second year, the program sends a professional playwright to Northpoint for one week in July to give master classes and editorial feedback to the prison playwrights. Monday’s readings were the result of scripts generated in 2011 under the tutelage of residency playwright Mac Rogers. I was invited because I was one of ten finalists for the 2012 residency! Although I wasn’t the chosen candidate (the winner was Holly Hepp-Galván), I was thrilled to be included in this special night–to meet the organizers (Lanie Zipoy, Montserrat Mendez, and Synge Maher); to hear the new plays read; and, as it turned out, to breathe the same air as actor extraordinaire Michael Shannon, who shambled onstage for the final reading with no warning or fanfare, pretty much causing my heart to explode. The plays were consistently well-constructed and presented nuanced characters. Overall, this was a strong collection of new writing, beautifully presented, that reflects well on Mac Rogers and the whole Voices Inside/Out team.

I applied to the Voices Inside/Out Northpoint Residency program because I’m interested in playwriting as an expressive outlet for people in extreme circumstances. For the last year, I’ve served as a volunteer mentor for the PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Program. I work with a prisoner in Texas who has spent 22 years inside and has never seen a live performance. His ear for character is extraordinary. He has chosen to write plays after trying both fiction and poetry because he’s inspired by the liveness of the stage space (which exists in his mind only, as he has no stage). He has extremely limited access to a typewriter, so all the letters and scripts I get from him are handwritten; creating multiple copies of scripts is incredibly laborious. But he not only writes, he also submits his work to theatres across the county, and even had a one-act play performed in a festival at Theatre Three in New Jersey several years ago.

All of this is inspiring, of course. It’s also extremely sobering because, in all of this gathering and exchange of energy–the prisoner is going nowhere. None of the playwrights whose writerly voices rang out in the Recital Hall on Monday night were present for the readings. My prison mentee spent the evenings when his show was performed in New Jersey in the same cell or rec area or dining hall in Texas where he spends all his days. I don’t find this situation innately injust–the justice system is badly flawed, for certain, and we need to work towards reforming it. But I am not suggesting that writing a play in itself should be a get-out-of-jail-free card.

What these playwriting programs do suggest to me, however, is that more *listening* must happen if we are to change the justice system. Fiction, poetry, and nonfiction writing can be solitary pursuits. A prisoner can study and practice the craft of writing, and even disseminate their work, on their own (which is not to say it’s easy). Sometimes these lone voices reach us outside and that’s remarkable and worth celebrating. But playwriting–the crafting of a work for theatrical presentation–is an inherently collaborative affair. And a play doesn’t really exist at all (as sad as I am to say it) until it’s been animated by actors and heard by an audience, no matter how small. Playwrights don’t know their own work until they’ve seen and heard them infused with life by collaborators.

So, what does it mean to encourage prison playwrights? It means to partner with them in collaborative work. I means to bring theatre to them, as often as possible. It means to build an audience outside for their words and their vision. It means to create a feedback loop of learning between those inside and outside. And It requires active, creative, compassionate listening.

This is a great place for me to stop–time for me to practice listening. Thanks for your own attention, and thanks to PEN America and to Voices Inside/Out for giving me so much to think about.