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Prisoners Learn Lifeskills Through Theater


Public prison policy began to shift during the 1980s away from the traditional inmate education and rehabilitation programs. In New York State, after public funding for higher education and enrichment programs was withdrawn, private organizations moved in to pick up the slack. One such group is Rehabilitation Through the Arts, which for ten years has run theater education programs and workshops in New York's medium and maximum security prisons.

It is curtain time at the Playwrights Horizons theater on Broadway. The audience is hushed, the lights are dimmed, and nine men who were recently released from New York State prisons walk onto the set, put on drab jail shirts -- as costumes, this time -- and take their place in a row of chairs onstage, welcoming the audience in poetic, often dramatic cadences.

Thus begins "From Sing Sing to Broadway," a benefit for "Rehabilitation Through the Arts," or "RTA," an all volunteer, non-profit group that goes into high security New York prisons such as the notorious "Sing-Sing," in Ossining, New York, and conducts theater programs for inmates. The convicts take on the acting roles, and rehearse and then perform plays, half of which are written by inmates themselves.

Tonight's RTA actors are ex-inmates performing works by prisoners still behind bars. It's a one-time performance of a work based on nearly 30 interviews collected and organized by Brent Buell, a veteran New York director, and longtime RTA volunteer.

"It takes you on that journey from when a man comes in with his anger and his complaints," Buell says, "through experiences that he had and then what it means to come to terms with what he did, take responsibility for what he did, and begin to change who he is."

Buell adds the main goal of RTA is not to teach inmates skills for professional careers in the theater. It is to convey traditional theater skills that translate into life skills in the outside world.

"In order to have a good show, you really have to have discipline, you have to study history, the arts. You have to have an acquaintance with other cultures -- because there are all kinds of plays we do that have to do with the other things," Buell says. "You have to learn to take orders, which is a difficult thing for many people. You have to learn to give orders with a good purpose and with good will for the benefit for the show. You have to learn to work as a team - not just as a star."

Buell says theater "is a microsm of the world. How do you get along in the world? You have to adjust!"

Prison is a dangerous and frightening world. Katherine Vockins, who founded Prison Communities International, RTA's parent organization, says that's why inmates are so good at acting out roles, such as the ruthless "tough guy" for example, or the submissive role, serving others in exchange for protection.

"That's their mask. But that's what we're trying to break down," she says. "And the kind of work we do is not about your cerebral understanding. It's about how you feel as an actor and how you can put yourself out there, and how you can accept emotions and whatever the role requires…."

Vockins says acting "cracks open some of the hardness of the men who are incarcerated, and opens them up to new feelings, insights and new, different ways of looking at themselves and others."

For inmates, looking at themselves means confronting their crimes, a necessary first step toward taking responsibility for the past and beginning to move on.

RTA participants often write dramatic work that relates directly to the crimes that put them in prison. One of the most moving moments in the evening's show features a monologue performed by Carlos Santiago, an ex-prisoner who was first locked up at the age of 14. It was written by current inmate Carlisle P. Rivera and addressed to the young man he killed, who had been a friend.

"My little brother, I have committed a grave crime, one which will follow me for all time," the monologue begins. "Never again will you see the sun fill the horizon…"

Making better choices is a skill that can be learned, says Rory Anderson, who served 25 years behind bars, also for murder. Anderson was a boxer with a prison reputation for toughness. He remembers a moment when a young prisoner challenged him to a fight, hoping to take his own place as "top banana."

"And when that happened," he says, "I had to make a choice: would I go ahead and step to it or would I walk away from it? And that was the first time I learned to walk the other way, to 'turn the other cheek.' That was the first time I learned that I had changed, that I had transformed, that I had become the person I wanted to be."

Some RTA graduates go on to help others after their release, by going into the public schools and talking to at-risk youth about their criminal lifestyles and the price they paid. And others do go on to careers in the theater.

But for RTA alumnus George Villanueva, a normal life, in freedom, is success enough. "I know I've changed," he beams proudly, after the show. "Today I am responsible. I have a job. I have a son. I am part of RTA. I have people counting on me. I have possibilities. And that's what it's about. It's about life!"