Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Prison Follow-Up

Johnny Stallings
  If you've been reading this blog you know I've had a little bit of  involvement in teaching incarcerated men a song for a production of  A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Director, Johnny Stallings is a friend of mine and he is the Executive Director of Open hearts Open Minds, an organization that "helps prisoners make positive changes in their lives." He's got lots of links to media coverage of the event and other material of interest at his site.
  On October 2nd my wife and I drove out to Two Rivers to see the play. There was no curtain, no auditorium. The performance was in a large room lit by florescent lights. But when it began the cell blocks burned away and we were all in Athens. 
  I've been to modern-day Athens. I was jet lagged when I arrived so I arose very early in the morning and ascended the hill that goes to the temple at the top. And all around me there was mist and rain and foliage and stray dogs and a quiet ghostly atmosphere. There's a very old feeling there. Older than Bottom and Titania, but there was something of Puck in that morning air.
  At Two Rivers that night I didn't see prisoners. I saw men whose craft reaches back past the Bard and across time and seas to that Attic theater in Athens and like all good actors they melted the divisions.
   I and thou? There was no separation. They achieved good theater, transcended the boundaries, and all walls became rubble. 

  I know these men aren't political prisoners. And that some have done things which might repel me if I knew the details but when it all began the questions of what was their crime dissolved, and I'm sure that part of me is still interested but now not nearly as much as before.

  As a performing artist it was important for me to see this. I perform for a living, all year 'round, all over the world. And sometimes I wonder what the hell I am doing? “Is this important, in any way, to society, does this help anything or anybody?” I ask. I don't know if my art helps anyone, but this experience reminded me that art itself does.
Photo Jennifer Colton Hermiston Herald
 In a discussion afterward many of the inmates mentioned how precious those discussion and rehearsal sessions were with Johnny and how learning their part, and coming together with the other men transformed their experience in prison. They became more open, more compassionate in a place that is inimical to anything approaching openness and compassion. It's affirming to me to know that art can transform. No—more than affirming—it helps me go on doing what I do. The ripple emanating from their work rejuvenates and uplifts me.

My deepest thanks to the cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Photo Jennifer Colton Hermiston Herald

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