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Returning to San Quentin Put up-Pandemic

by Lesley Schisgall Currier
June 16, 2021

See beneath for extra installments!

At the moment, after 15 months with out setting foot inside a jail, we returned to San Quentin to show our top notch.

We spent the pandemic creating “various programming” for the 14 California state prisons, Alameda Juvenile Corridor, and Marin’s Neighborhood College the place we work with tons of of system-impacted males, ladies, and youth every year.  At first, we had been instructed we might solely ship in movies, so we employed some skilled actors together with six actors who’ve survived incarceration to create a sequence of “Romeo and Juliet” movies, a studying of the play with commentary and reflection questions.  Then, we had been instructed the prisons didn’t need movies, solely packets.  So we began creating month-to-month packets that requested the actors to discover themes by artistic writing and drawing.  We included loads of reflection questions and many concepts for self-care: respiratory, stretching, meditation, and extra. Our packets centered on themes together with Plague, Position Fashions, Friendship, Loyalty, New Beginnings, Decisions, and Forgiveness.

We revealed writing we obtained again on our web site and employed Returned Artist to report performances of a number of the writing, making a “Inventive Writing from Inside” video which we despatched again into the prisons and shared on YouTube and with our patrons. We additionally employed Returned Artists to take part in trainings for our Educating Artists who work in prisons, and to assist put collectively a useful resource of latest monologues we might take inside.

On the youth services, we had been in a position to have interaction extra immediately.  At Marin’s Neighborhood College, we paired Returned Artist Eric Abercrombie with 4 college students who labored one-on-one by zoom on artistic tasks. Drama Therapist Suraya Keating additionally labored one-on-one remotely with college students.  At Alameda Juvenile Corridor, Returned Artists Tony Cyprien and Dameion Brown had been in a position to lead a weekly class by zoom.  And at O. H. Shut Youth Correctional Facility, Dameion and I led a weekly class that resulted in a efficiency of Langston Hughes poems, in addition to a go to and information-filled dialog with members of the Returned Residents Theatre Troupe, actors who’ve survived incarceration who inform tales of significance by theatre. These actors had a wealth of recommendation and knowledge to share with the younger males, significantly John Windham, who spent a part of his youth at O. H. Shut.  There was loads of laughter and head nodding throughout this inspirational zoom go to.

However as we speak was our return in particular person to San Quentin, the place we train 4 weekly lessons – two Shakespeare teams, one Starting Performing group, and one Performing for Veterans group.  Figuring out that greater than 70% of the boys at San Quentin had examined constructive for Covid, and that San Quentin had the biggest variety of Covid deaths of any California state jail didn’t reduce a small sense of trepidation, or our enthusiasm to return.

Tina Rutsch, Marin Shakespeare Firm’s Enterprise Supervisor and Shakespeare for Social Justice Supervisor, requested to hitch the group and I used to be pleased to have her firm.  Usually, the Wednesday group is taught by Suraya Keating, however her schedule wouldn’t permit her to return till August, and we didn’t wish to wait to get began.  So Tina and I parked within the virtually empty Customer car parking zone, confirmed our brown playing cards, went by the Covid checkpoint, and entered by the acquainted however someway totally different sallyport into the higher yard, which was unusually empty.

As we walked in direction of the Artwork Room the place our Shakespeare lessons are held and checked in with the officers on the Mac Shack, we began to see some acquainted faces.

We couldn’t hug, though we needed to very a lot.  We did some fist-bumping and a few lengthy hand-shaking as we reconnected with males who had been glowing with pleasure to see us.  We appeared into individuals’s eyes, over the tops of our masks, and noticed principally pleasure and calm.

Ultimately, we sat in a circle and after sharing some logistical data, we began with the only of check-ins.  “How are you and the way have you ever been?”

One man shared that he felt like he’d been by a conflict and survived it. There had been some “actual shit.” A few of his buddies had been sick, and two had died.  It was emotionally troublesome listening to good buddies dying. We heard that it had been troublesome for the jail to determine feed everybody when the boys who’re sometimes assigned to kitchen obligation had been too sick to arrange meals.  For weeks, there was solely chilly packaged meals.  Sooner or later there was no meals in any respect.  One man who works within the kitchen talked about how some exterior caterers had been introduced it and it was nice for him to work with them as a result of they “handled him like a human being.”  Usually, once you work within the kitchen, there may be loads of emphasis on ensuring knives will not be mis-used and different security issues.

The boys agreed that Covid was no joke.

Many males had been moved round so much through the pandemic.  One of many males loved being within the tents despatched up on the principle yard, as a result of he was in a position to see the celebs at evening, an expertise he had not had in years. One other man hated being housed within the gymnasium, which is crammed with asbestos.

There was no programming, and no visits, however one man talked in regards to the silver lining of having the ability to cellphone his spouse for fifteen minutes each different day, a concession to the pandemic.

One of many males within the group was new; he had simply transferred to San Quentin from Corcoran Jail 9 days earlier.  Derek is a musician, and introduced his guitar; he was very involved about whether or not the group would welcome him – which they did wholeheartedly. Derek talked about how wonderful it was to have a bunch like this the place we might course of; there was nothing like that for him at Corcoran, which he described as a distinct degree of oppression.  One other man, Warren, thanked him for sharing that – he remembered having the identical emotions when he first got here to San Quentin, and appreciated being reminded of the privileges they’d by being on the jail with probably the most programming within the state.

After we checked in, we launched some vitality by taking part in Sound Ball, a sport of tossing vitality with sound across the circle.  We had the ball turn into Covid itself, then our collective resiliency, then our collective love.

We then did a Playback train the place every particular person shared one problem and one silver lining of Covid, whereas others within the group acted out the shares,  mirroring again to the audio system their very own lives. This train makes us apply empathy, as we think about the lives and emotions of different individuals, and in addition permits us to be deeply heard and seen. It was chilling seeing individuals act out the despair, concern, and hopelessness that was shared, and uplifting to see actors performing silver linings, significantly one older actor with a cane who danced a jig for a number of minutes.

After our performing workout routines, we circled once more to speak about how we needed to proceed with the category. Did we wish to return to rehearsing “Othello,” which we had been virtually able to carry out in March of 2020? Did we wish to do one thing like a “Parallel Play,” a efficiency of authentic tales, music, and dance?

I shared with the boys eight pages of artistic writing they’d despatched us in response to our packets, which we had typed and placed on our web site.  One of many males was delighted to report {that a} pal of his had heard somebody performing a “Letter to the World” he had written as a part of the “Inventive Writing from Inside” video we’d made.  It was so nice to listen to that the video was being seen, and the actor whose letter was a part of the video was completely tickled and delighted.  They requested if we might deliver the video in to indicate them – that may take loads of paperwork with the workers to perform, however we’ll attempt!

We determined that we didn’t wish to resume “Othello,” that we most likely couldn’t as a result of so most of the actors have left attributable to launch or switch. Additionally, the boys have so much they wish to say.  One actor spoke about how what he has to say goes to be intense, and he doesn’t wish to be censored. A number of the males talked about how if they are saying what they actually wish to, they are going to be at risk of being transferred to a different jail as a punishment.  This system might endure penalties as properly.

Derek, the musician, talked about how all the pieces he’d heard as we speak appeared like music to him – the main notes of happiness, love, and resilience; the minor notes of struggling and ache; there have been overtones of the blues.

We mentioned whether or not we might wish to select a theme for our efficiency. We agreed we had time to discover and we didn’t have to make any selections as we speak.

A number of the males appeared simply as we remembered them.  However a few lovely bloomings had occurred throughout our time away.  Rauch, an actor who has been in our teams for a few years, has typically exhibited psychological stress attributable to intense traumas suffered as a baby within the foster system. At the moment, Rauch appeared grounded and clear-eyed, and he had recruited Derek to hitch the group.  JRy was additionally a revelation.  Up to now, JRa had typically sat again and took part minimally, talking as little as potential. At the moment JR spoke – twice – for an prolonged time frame.  To us, this appeared miraculous.  JR talked about how when he first got here to Shakespeare, he would at all times get excessive.  One class, one of many Educating Artists engaged him in a dialog that “killed his buzz.”  However after that, he stopped getting excessive earlier than class, and now he stated he is able to take part totally, and desires to be clear-headed to do this.  One other man shared the same story – earlier than his first Shakespeare class he smoked a “large doobie” however he quickly realized that to present Shakespeare his all, he wanted to cease taking medicine.

You might surprise why males have entry to medicine in jail, and that’s one other story.  The workers will let you know that guests deliver the medicine in, however the males will let you know that the workers herald contraband together with medicine and cell telephones and promote them for some huge cash to complement their earnings.  I’ve heard this confirmed by many people who find themselves incarcerated, in addition to workers who work at prisons.

On this primary day, along with speaking about what kind of efficiency we needed to work in direction of, we additionally talked about how we might enhance the Shakespeare group.  I shared that after the homicide of George Floyd, theatres had been challenged by “We See You White American Theatre” and others to have a look at our practices with the intention to root out inequities within the theatre subject.  Marin Shakespeare Firm spent loads of time self-reflecting about the entire work we do, and the way we will do higher.

I spoke about how Shakespeare was a white man writing about characters who’re greater than 95% white, and greater than 75% males.  This facilities the significance of white males.  I additionally spoke about Shakespeare’s hegemony; after we do loads of Shakespeare performs we don’t make house for different tales. I talked in regards to the Modern Monologues undertaking we’ve been doing, hiring actors who’ve survived incarceration to search out modern monologues so as to add to our curriculum in prisons, and I shared a handout with a number of examples.

What the boys needed to speak about, nonetheless, was how we will assist their launch from jail.  Tall needed to verify we knew that any variety of individuals can write Help Letters.  Individuals on the point of go earlier than the parole board collect Help Letters to assist make the case that they’re able to be launched from jail. Solely individuals serving life sentences go earlier than the parole board.  Individuals with determinate sentences are launched at a selected time, which will be decreased by issues like taking part in applications like ours.  The 55,000 individuals within the U.S. sentenced to Life With out Parole (LWOP’s), won’t ever have the chance to go earlier than a parole board.

We had a strong dialog about Help Letters. One suggestion was to speak in regards to the particular methods by which our curriculum permits members to realize the self-awareness the parole board is searching for.  This was an amazing suggestion, and future letters will embody details about how theatre workout routines study energy dynamics and standing; making aware selections; figuring out objectives, obstacles, and techniques to attain objectives; battle decision; and problem-solving expertise.

Tall needed to verify we knew that a number of individuals can write letters of assist.  We did know this and defined why we’ve made our coverage that Marin Shakespeare Firm will write one letter per 12 months.  Usually, we’ve been in a position to usher in a number of volunteers for our lessons – typically college students learning for a Masters diploma in Drama Remedy from California Institute of Integral Research the place Suraya Keating is an Adjunct Professor.  Actors from the group will typically ask many of those volunteers to write down letters of assist they usually have no idea do it correctly, and really feel overwhelmed by the variety of requests and the time it takes to reply to them.  We assured the group that even when the letter comes from me or Tina, since we’re within the workplace with the letterhead and printer, that we ask Educating Artists who work immediately with the actors for data to incorporate within the letters so that every letter is totally customized and speaks to every particular person’s strengths.

We are going to rethink our coverage of 1 Marin Shakespeare Firm letter per 12 months, and focus on with our Educating Artists in the event that they really feel they’ve the capability to write down extra letters.  We are likely to assume that one actually good letter makes probably the most sense, provided that we’re requested to write down dozens of letters every year.

3:00 got here means too quickly.  After a quick spherical of Appreciations, we ended class.  Nonetheless, simply as we ended an Alarm sounded, which meant the boys weren’t in a position to go away the room.  We watched as an ambulance pulled as much as the doorway of the housing unit throughout from the Artwork Room.  The alarm gave us 20 minutes to speak informally with the boys, which was nice. I talked to Chris in regards to the ebook he’s writing about his expertise with Theatre in jail, and the Performing Curriculum he’s writing – based mostly on what he has realized in Marin Shakespeare Firm lessons for seven years. I requested him to let me understand how we might assist his work and he stated he would.

Leaving the jail, Tina and I had been exhilarated and exhausted. It was a scorching day in June and we’d had our masks on for 3 hours. We had been sweaty and drained, however pleased.  It takes loads of vitality to attach with 15 males in an genuine means, which was what we had tried to do.  It was painful to listen to in regards to the challenges they’d confronted, when there may be so little we will do to alleviate the majority of their struggling.

Our prisons are known as the California Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.  The “R” for Rehabilitation was added lower than ten years in the past.  We love being part of the “R” though we acknowledge that for many individuals who’ve suffered the traumas that result in jail, there was by no means a “habilitation” to start with.  There was by no means a secure childhood in a secure neighborhood with mother and father who might present the fundamental requirements a baby must thrive. The method of therapeutic nurtures an individual who’s turning into, whereas the idea of “rehabilitation” tethers an individual’s development to their previous.

Our prisons have many issues, together with residing situations that may be unsafe – significantly throughout a pandemic; lack of nutritious meals; a paucity of psychological well being assets. Many prisons are in-built areas of toxicity the place the water high quality checks as unsafe. Some individuals who work at prisons deal with people who find themselves incarcerated in ways in which add unnecessarily to the punishment of jail. There are strip searches, confiscation of non-public belongings, and every day indignities that may be seen as an abuse of energy.

Due to the overall degree of stress and unhappiness in prisons, workers at prisons have greater charges of suicide, divorce, despair, anxiousness, drug use, and early demise.

I imagine that if jail workers had been skilled to assist the “R,” in the event that they believed that their job included serving to people who find themselves incarcerated to learn to reside productive lives, that jail workers might really feel so much higher about their work and decreased the damaging outcomes of working in a jail. I imagine this may very well be accomplished whereas sustaining practices that permit for optimum security of workers and people who find themselves incarcerated.

Tomorrow will probably be our first post-Covid Performing for Veterans class.  Every single day educating in jail one thing extraordinary occurs. Whether or not it’s an actor speaking about how Shakespeare class made them cease taking medicine, or a previously quiet actor opening up and talking freely for the primary time. Whether or not it’s a brand new particular person being wholeheartedly welcomed into the group, or one other particular person being reminded about how extraordinary it was to be welcomed years in the past. We’re all right here to remind one another recognize the silver linings in our lives, recognize ourselves and one another, in order that we will reside our greatest lives and obtain as a lot therapeutic as potential.

Harm individuals harm individuals.  Healed individuals heal individuals.  We’re all on this collectively.

Further Installments of this Weblog:
June 17, 2021 – Veterans Performing Class
June 18, 2021 – Friday Shakespeare group



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