News & Politics » Feature

Prison Drama

The Geese Theatre Idea: If you can teach a hardened criminal how to act, maybe he can learn how to live.


1 comment

"Five minutes!" Scott Stevens calls out. It's the standard stage manager's warning, familiar to actors the world over. And Stevens, a burly, bearded 26-year-old, is as much a stage manager as this gypsylike collective has. But it's not five minutes to curtain time; it's five minutes till the bus leaves for Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.

At the call, the members of the Geese Theatre Company straggle out of various rooms in this house--a friend's spacious old mansion in the historic Prairie Avenue district on the near south side. The New Hampshire-based Geese try to keep their costs down on tour by crashing with friends in the different cities they visit; when that's not feasible, they bunk down in campgrounds and trailer parks.

Stevens gives another shout and heads outside to start up "Big Red," the run-down red-and-white school bus that transports the group from gig to gig.

One by one, the bleary-eyed actors climb aboard. Some still have wet hair from the shower; one has a toothbrush in her mouth. They are dressed in work shirts and jeans. John Bergman, the company's leader, a wiry little man with a hawk nose, shoulder-length black hair, and a mustache as bristling as his attitude, gives a loud belch as he finishes buttoning his shirt. No one pays any mind.

It's 6:30 AM on a Wednesday morning in May. Allowing time to pull over at a truck stop for gas, coffee, doughnuts, and newspapers, Stevens is planning on a two-hour drive to Stateville, one of the Illinois prison system's most hard-ass joints.

Stevens knows the route well; the Geese have been to Stateville many times before. Every new Geese show has had its official premiere here. For Bergman, a trip to Stateville is a return to roots. Stateville is where the British-born director discovered the mission for which he founded his troupe: to bring to prison inmates a theatrical experience that would speak directly to their lives.

In the last seven and a half years, the Geese Theatre Company has appeared in more than 250 different institutions in 37 states, reaching more than 100,000 inmates with its plays and workshops. It has also performed in Canada, England, and Ireland, and in Scotland, where it made a rare nonprison appearance at the 1986 Edinburgh Theatre Festival Fringe. It has developed a repertoire of five shows--a sixth is in the works--created through actors' improvisations with input from inmates. Paying for this work is an annual budget of $210,000, 60 percent of which comes from performance fees (prisons pay an average of $750 a day). "It used to be 90 percent from fees," says Tom Swift, the group's thin, red-headed 26-year-old associate director, with a mixture of pride and frustration, "so I guess our fund-raising is getting better." Swift recalls that when he joined Geese four years ago, the company's annual budget was $30,000. Financial support has come from sources as varied as the National Endowment for the Humanities, AT&T, the Illinois Arts Council, Crain Communications, the Michigan chapter of the American Automobile Association, and Ben & Jerry's Homemade, the ice cream company, which recently threw in $45,000 toward a new bus.

The actors make $100 a month--up from $50 a month in 1984--plus room and board. Of course, "room" often means sleeping on the bus--the Geese are on the road eight to nine months a year--and "board" works out to a share of the daily food budget of $25 for ten people.

The actors sign a contract with the company, just as actors in any troupe do. This contract, though, includes an item asking whether the actor has ever been convicted of a felony, as well as a clause exempting the company from liability "in case of a riot or hostage situation."

Theater in prisons is nothing new. Performances are put on both by outside companies and by inmates under the guidance of a director hired by the prison. Stateville, for instance, has hosted outside productions ranging from the Springfield Theatre Guild's Man of La Mancha to the Northern Illinois University Black Theatre Workshop's A Raisin in the Sun to the Free Street Theatre's ghetto social-consciousness musical Project!

What is new, in fact revolutionary, about Geese is its use of recreation as a therapeutic tool. The group's productions are constructed to dramatize "the issues that got these men in here," as Bergman says, and to explore constructive strategies for getting out and staying out. Geese deals directly with emotional aspects of incarceration, helping prisoners to confront the social and psychological dynamics of why they're prisoners. "We use theater to get at what's going on in these guys' heads," says Swift.

Geese Theatre makes itself available to correctional institutions through aggressive marketing including extensive mailings. The institution can choose any or all of the group's several services: a performance of one or more of the shows in the company's repertoire, acting classes for inmates who are scheduled to perform in a play, or an extended residency (of anywhere from three days to a month) during which inmates are given workshops and training, the ultimate goal being a production developed, written, and performed by inmates.

At base level, it's "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" But there's much more to it than that. At Fountain Correctional Center in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, for instance, the Geese worked with female inmates to put together a children's show for the inmates' kids to come see; in the process, the women learned parenting skills, how to play with their children, what their children's needs might be. And at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, the group led a cast of 12 sex offenders, serving time for crimes ranging from rape to child molestation, through the creation of a play based on their memories of the physical and sexual traumatization they themselves had experienced as children. "More has come out in this performance than in months of therapy," a prison therapist is on record as saying of that performance. John Bergman's evaluation of his company's work: "We're the last of the old morality plays."

Ask directors or actors in any theater around the U.S. what their biggest concern is, and almost all of them will tell you a decline in audience attendance. According to some studies, audiences have dropped 23 to 25 percent in the last three years.

Audience shrinkage is one problem the Geese Theatre Company doesn't have to worry about. In fact, if any theater has a growing audience, it's Geese. In state and federal prisons around the U.S. the inmate population has grown from 96,000 in 1970 to 315,000 in 1980 to 581,609 in April of this year, according to federal government statistics. In federal prisons alone, the adult population this April was 48,300; by the year 2000, the government projects, that number will have grown to 165,000. In Illinois, according to state Department of Corrections spokesman Nic Howell, over the last 15 years the adult population in state prisons has more than tripled and it's increasing at a rate of 800 new inmates annually--that's 800 more people entering than leaving every year.

John Bergman, the son of Hitler-era German Jewish refugees, came of age in England at a time of burgeoning theatrical experimentation. He studied drama at Birmingham University (his teacher, Clive Barker, was a protege of Joan Littlewood, the creator of the innovative pacifist musical Oh! What a Lovely War), and then spent 1967-71 in traveling avant-garde theater groups in Europe and Africa. "We were doing things like the Tibetan Book of the Dead [for] French peasants, and a Wilhelm Reich-influenced Romeo and Juliet that involved making prolonged sexual contact with the audience," he says in his nasal, edgy, unposh British accent. Arriving in the United States in 1971, he continued in the same vein, working with troupes in New York and California, including an Open Theatre spin-off called the Medicine Show. "And a lot of street theater," he recalls. "It was all very social, very political, very confrontational."

In the middle 70s he stopped. "I really lost contact with people, with who people were. I didn't like any of the directions I was taking. Also, I ran out of money. I ended up in a tiny little town called Kewanee [Illinois], which was my girlfriend's parents' place. I left theater for two years and went to work in a foundry. I needed to establish contact with whatever this thing called America was, of which I had been so critical."

He also spent time researching theater history. "I got very excited by German theater in the period 1919 to 1933. Not Brecht--I avoided Brecht like the plague--but Meyerhold and Piscator." He was looking for a theatrical style that probed serious questions "instead of the American style of avant-garde theater, of throwing your arms around each other and going 'Baby you're beautiful,' which I always thought was hogshit."

He enrolled at Humboldt State University in California to finish college, which he'd never completed in England, and then entered the University of Iowa for his master's degree. "And then," he says, "just as I was about to become faculty, there came this letter from this woman called Vera Cunningham."

As a speech and theater teacher in Michigan, Cunningham became convinced of the humanizing influence of theater by watching its positive effect on delinquent high school kids. A petite, middle-aged woman with graying hair, a hoarse voice, and a feisty mother-hen attitude, she was hired in 1979 to develop a pilot program in theater for the Illinois Department of Corrections: "I wanted to do theater in a nontraditional setting," she says without a trace of irony. "They [prison authorities] were real skeptical. They started me off at Stateville--they said if it works in Stateville it'll work anywhere."

Cunningham is still at Stateville, though with recent program cutbacks she's had to reduce her time there. The inmates' drama group she formed there--the Con-Artistes--is still running. Its track record includes five full productions since 1981: Mr. Roberts, 12 Angry Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and A Soldier's Play (all dramas dealing with issues of justice and institutionalization) and an original musical, Out A' Joint, written and performed by inmates under the guidance of two off-Loop theater professionals, director Ron Falzone and music director Tom Sivak. Con-Artistes shows have toured to other prisons, though never outside the prison system. "These are max guys," says Cunningham--"max" meaning maximum-security.

Right after starting at Stateville, Cunningham sent letters to college and professional theaters all over the country, in general looking for help and specifically looking for all-male scripts. One such letter landed on Bergman's desk in Iowa. He responded by offering to lead a workshop on creating original scripts through improvisation. To demonstrate, he organized a group of university students who developed a production expressly for the Stateville audience.

The show was called Gimme a Dollar. "It was my rather twisted analysis of American history from 1917 to 1955," Bergman says. "Part of it dealt with black life in the midwest. It was inspired by reading [Chicago Sun-Times editorial cartoonist] Bill Mauldin's memoir about growing up in the 1930s. Mauldin wrote about these carnival sideshows where black men would sit above tanks full of water and people would throw baseballs at them to knock them into the water. The blacks would insult the hell out of the passersby, who were of course all white, to provoke them." Told that such activities continued into the 1960s at places like Chicago's Riverview, Bergman says, "I never saw anything like that in England. I was fascinated.

"So I brought my little company--all these white, corn-fed Iowa kids--to Stateville with this show in November of 1980. We walk in and there're 200 guys in the audience, and the only white face was Richard Speck! We said, 'You're all black and we're all white. Do you want us to stay?' They said, 'Sure, man, show us what you got.'"

The performance was moderately successful, but undercut, Bergman believes now, by its--and his--radical-chic trappings. But the idea of creating theater for prisons grabbed hold of him. "It was a really profound experience for John," remembers Cunningham. Bergman returned to Iowa, where the university was "really proud and fabulously supportive," he says, and formed the Geese Theatre Company, winning nonprofit corporate status in 1982. The name was taken from "Wild Geese," the term applied to British convicts banished to Australia in the 19th century.

"Our second show was The Final Offer," says Bergman. "It was about the destruction of the American Indian. There was one sequence involving a prostitute and a hanging judge, which the guys [in the audiences] got very excited about." But Bergman still hadn't taken the step of directly addressing contemporary prison issues.

"We toured 13 states," he says, "and I was getting some terrific compliments, but it was like, 'Thank you very much, this was very good, but it's got fuck-all to do with our lives.'"

Appropriately enough, the breakthrough came in a prison--a medium-security institution in Michigan. It was 1982 and the Geese had come to perform. While waiting in the entry area, Bergman noticed a woman sitting and crying. "I sat down with her and asked what was wrong, and she just started pouring. The kids were in trouble, and there were problems at home, and she wasn't sure what would happen when her husband got out, and she had flown here to visit him but they had transferred him that morning to another prison without letting her know and she didn't have enough money to get to the new prison. It was very painful. I saw this was an enormously theatrical situation potentially, the idea of visits. Then I called Vera Cunningham and asked her to ask her guys, is visits a suitable area for investigation. She got back to me the next day and said, 'It's hot. It's very hot.' So I went down to Stateville to talk to the guys myself.

"My liberal sentiments told me I was going to hear a sob story about being separated from families, about how no one comes to visit and all that. And I did. But I also heard one guy who opened his mouth and said, 'That's bullshit. We've got gambling debts, and they don't like to come visit because they know we're going to hit on them for money to pay 'em off.' So the guy has to con his family when they come to see him. I asked, what do you do when you talk to them? He said, 'You just put on a mask and walk in.' Bang! The moment he said 'mask' I saw it terribly clearly--all these manipulative games. We all play them, of course, but they play them a certain way. I'd wanted to work with masks anyway--it's a classic theatrical device. It was perfect. So I went back to Iowa and told the company that we were going to do a show about visits and that we'd use masks."

The result was The Plague Game, the first Geese show to incorporate inmates' input. It's an hour-long piece of structured improvisation by Geese members, with a game-show format. The action is loud, fast-moving, heightened by colorful board-game backdrops. The host is The Fool, a medieval figure wearing a grotesque commedia dell'arte mask. The Tool represents chance and change; whenever anything's going too well for a character, he can step in and change the rules--a notion the inmate audiences respond to with rueful appreciation. The object of the game is for an inmate and his family to survive his incarceration; the point of the show is to teach strategies to accomplish that elusive goal. The key is being honest--taking off the mask. The Fool moves the action along by pulling "situation cards": for example, the inmate's wife announces she's gotten pregnant by another man. The Fool then turns to the audience and invites their suggestions as to what the inmate (played by a Geese actor, also wearing a mask) should do. This breaking down of barriers can be volatile, especially if the audience has come to believe in the characters--which, of course, is what the actors hope to accomplish. Suggestions in the case of an unfaithful wife usually run along the lines of "kill the bitch" or "find the other guy and kill him." The situation is played out according to the audience's suggestions, the consequences starkly dramatized. At the end, a positive and workable solution is put forward and acted out, with post-show discussions reinforcing the value of dealing with one's family--and oneself--honestly. Without the mask.

Plague Game was followed by Lifting the Weight, which explores strategies for survival in the outside world (Bergman recalls an inmate in one workshop saying, "I heard of someone who made it--once"), and King Con, which uses a giant plastic puppet to deflate the image of the tough, self-sufficient con who gets ahead by manipulating others. All the plays use improv techniques and invite audience interaction; all seek to confront inmate audiences with their own manipulations, evasions, "cons."

Sometimes the performance situation can have an edge of danger. "We've never had a violent incident or an assault," says Swift, "but sometimes the tension runs high in there. At one place, the night before we got there a snitch had been set on fire. He had burns over 60 percent of his body. The rumor going around the joint was that somebody had snitched on the guys who did the burning, and now they were going to get this snitch in the auditorium during our show. We performed with armed guards with their hands on their guns at the side of the stage. We wrapped that show up in 20 minutes. The last thing on that audience's mind was seeing a theater company. Another time there was a rumor that there was going to be a hit during chapel. Our performance was at the same time as chapel, and only about five people showed up to see us--everyone else was at the chapel to see what would happen. Nothing did, of course, because the rumor was so widespread that it got to the guards. Rumors are very big in prison--what else do they have? We even did a rock opera once with a group of inmates, called Gossip.

"In theater the actor is the servant of the people," reads an introductory letter from Bergman to new company members. "The conventional method trained actor believes that it is his interpretation of reality, the privacy of the script and the brightness of the set that is the audience's focus. He brings them a truth and the audience must be bedazzled into empathic response. In our theater we believe that the actor is only a vehicle for the thoughts and concerns of the specific audience. . . . What you feel is irrelevant. What the audience learns is the criteria for all evaluation."

In 1982, Bergman moved his company from Iowa to Chicago. "I wanted to expand, and I thought there would be like-minded theater people and funding sources there," he says. "But I didn't make much contact with the theater world there. For the most part, the type of theater that was going on there wasn't what I like at all. It was this sort of animal naturalism, which I understood . . . but was nothing I cared for." He also found a problem with attracting funding for a company that nobody except prisoners and corrections authorities was seeing.

The company was living collectively, in apartments at Broadway and Cornelia and then Bosworth and Ashland. In 1986, they decided to move to New Hampshire. "My wife-to-be was there," Bergman says (he was married in July 1987), "and I was tired of the city. It was exhausting. And it isn't safe. If you're as acculturated to criminals as we are and you look out the window and what you see is dangerous, you don't want to deal with it." New Hampshire has served as the group's headquarters ever since, though there are still strong ties to Chicago. Several members hail from here, and another Chicagoan, Clark Baim, moved to England last year to form the Geese Theatre Company of Great Britain.

The troupe currently numbers 12. Except for Bergman, who is 41, all are in their mid-20s. All are white, though Geese has had black members in the past. Two people staff the office: Bob Cichon, who previously led the Asylum Theatre Company on Chicago's south side, and Celia Willoughby, an Irishwoman who worked as an administrator with England's Clean Break Theatre (a troupe of female ex-offenders) before coming to the U.S. to join Geese. Scott Stevens, who bears the title managing director, is also the group's designer and tech director; he's been involved from the earliest days, when he was a student at the University of Iowa. Tom Swift, who handles development and marketing in addition to performing, is an actor who gained some attention in Chicago a few years back when he played Dionysus in a well-received production of Euripides' The Bacchae; he joined Geese in 1984, four days after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in theater. Ruby Broadhead, a social worker and performer from San Francisco, is the company's mask maker; she's been with Geese for about seven months. The average length of stay for a Geese actor is a year and a half; Bergman estimates 50 performers have come and gone in the troupe's eight-year history.

The training Bergman gives his young actors is a combination of improvisational theater games and rigorous physical exercises called "biomechanics." "They're designed to develop a more explosive stage presence," says Tom Swift. "If you've got 300 inmates in your face you've got to explode somewhere. You can't just come out and do Chekhov." Commedia dell'arte techniques are also part of the preparation-highly stylized, acrobatic physical skills designed to develop nonfacial physical expressiveness for mask-wearing performers. These are all standard methods of actor preparation. More specialized is the intensive education about the criminal personality that's also required. The reading list includes the writings of Richard Wright and Claude Brown and, at the top of the list, Inside the Criminal Mind, by psychologist Stanton E. Samenow. An essay by Samenow, "Some Considerations in Interviewing Hostile and Resistant Clients," was prepared for social workers but offers good guidance for the Geese actors too: "Do not put a premium on getting the client to 'like' you; rather, you must try to earn his (her) respect. . . . Avoid the twin pratfalls of gullibility and cynicism. . . . If you use a confrontive style, be sure to be direct and firm but without being provocative and forcing the client into a corner where attack is his only way out. . . . Expect to have to repeat the same point in different ways. . . . Take the position in counseling such a client that it is his life . . ."

What this means in Geese's work is that scripts must emphasize awareness of the difficulties of life--especially for poor black men--without allowing the inmates to blame society for their own situation. "Some of these men were victims," Bergman says. "They have also perpetrated acts that victimized others. You have to make these men accountable. That's how you make them capable of being on their own." Theater is a tool to that end: "Theater is about disclosing emotion. Many of these guys have systematically turned off those emotions. After all, they had no use for them in committing the crime that got them in here."

Swift speaks of "The Chaos Box." "That's what we call the thing deep inside where all this emotional dreck is. In workshops, the guys talk about 'a door I don't want to open, a dark place.' It's got victims in it, memories of abuse and assault, early traumatization they suffered--physical and sexual abuse and small moments where they were slighted. . . . We've all got this Chaos Box inside us."

In the future, Bergman anticipates dealing increasingly with another hot topic: AIDS education. The Geese Theatre of Great Britain is developing a play that deals specifically with responsible homo- and heterosexual relationships in the AIDS era. In U.S. prisons, though, Bergman says, "We'll be dealing with it mostly as pragmatic prevention information . . . in terms of male sexual assault on the inside, and sexual relations and drug use on the outside. The difficulty around that one is enormous, but we've got to get into it."

"Every time we put together a new show we end up trying it out at Stateville," says one actress as the bus heads toward Joliet. One purpose for this visit is to gather material for The Violent Illusion, a work-in-progress about the impact of crime on victims. The work will probably premiere at Stateville this fall. Bergman and his actors have been developing "metaphors" with which to theatricalize this theme, and now--today's jaunt is the second day of a two-day visit arranged by Vera Cunningham--they are seeing how their ideas play with the guys at Stateville,

"You should select your audience and target it," says Swift, sounding like the development director of any nonprofit theater group. "You have to take your show to them. But you'd better make sure it's relevant."

The previous day's workshop was quite an eye-opener, Swift says. "We were concerned with dissecting the moment of the crime--taking a look at exactly what's happening from the criminal's and the victim's point of view. This one man walked us through a holdup: from waking up in the morning and realizing you have no money in your pockets and you have to get some, right through the crime. All the things you have to think about: Where do you put your car keys? You don't put them in your pocket because you don't want to have to dig for them when you're getting away. You don't leave them in the door or the ignition, because this is the south side and the car won't be there when you get back. You leave them on the floor of the car. Where do you put your gun? [He mimes sticking a pistol under the waistband of his pants.] You don't want it to be too tight so you can't get it out, or too loose so it falls down your pants.

You don't want to put it here [he points to his zipper] because you don't want to shoot your thing off. All this stuff you have to deal with when you commit a crime. You don't really have room in your head for how the victim feels. Of course, there's no real concern for the victim to begin with. He's just there to get the money from."

"Big Red" pulls in at a truck stop. There is a rush for bathrooms, for coffee to go, for newspapers. "The newspaper gives you such great shit every day that an actor can just take off on," says Bergman, scanning a Tribune. A moment later, he reads aloud: "A science teacher at a southwest-side Catholic grade school has been charged with fondling ten seventh-grade girls in his classroom over the last two years . . ." Someday, someone remarks, maybe we'll be doing a show for that man.

There are ten actors aboard the bus on this trip. Two veterans on board, Mike Bael and Jill Reinier, are leaving the company at the end of the week. Each has spent three years in the group. "We've done our stint," says Reinier. She and Bael met in the company and recently got married; the collective living arrangement has become something of a problem. For Bael, the most rewarding aspect of the Geese experience has been "working with a company that's growing in its educational, theatrical, and therapeutic aspects . . . and seeing the guys get so much more from our work than they used to."

Also on board are two newcomers, Maia Ingram and Todd Fraser. Both hail from San Francisco; this is their second full day with the group. "We flew into O'Hare two days ago and John picked us up and took us to a house, and the next day we went to a prison and we're going back there today," Fraser explains. "We'll see our new home next week."

Ingram, a slim 23-year-old with long wavy hair, graduated in theater from Northwestern University. "When I left college I traveled for a while, and then I moved to San Francisco. I worked as a canvasser for SANE/Freeze. I wanted to do socially involved theater. The usual way to do theater is temping [working for a temporary office-help agency] while you're hustling auditions. I couldn't do it. I couldn't be a temp or a waitress. And when I got a call for an industrial show I couldn't do it." A believer in the credo that "the theater has to challenge," she is cool to the standard leftist theater as embodied by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. "They're fantastic, but they're just playing to people who already agree with them. They're just yapping at a bunch of liberals." She auditioned for Bergman after reading about Geese in a theater journal. "This is the first kind of theater that I became excited about in a long time," she says.

Her fellow San Franciscan Fraser is a long-haired, 24-year-old ex-baseball player with rugged, modelish looks. "I waited tables and worked in nonunion shows," he says of his work in San Francisco. "I'm an actor is what I am, and I came into this wanting to be a better actor. A year of this on the road is going to make me a better actor. I want to be a commercial actor. I know that's looked down on, but I don't agree. I think it's how you reach the most people with your art. People say they don't want to do industrials; I'd do it in a second. It's giving you the chance to do more serious work. But that's not right now. Right now it's in a prison with rapists and murderers. . . . Going into a prison is a whole different thing. But dealing with the people isn't all that different."

Fraser joined Geese three weeks after auditioning. "It was very sudden. I had some plays lined up, and an independent film--it was great exposure. And it was hard to leave my girlfriend. But everyone here's leaving something. Kerouac did it for his whole life. I can do it for a year."

As "Big Red" nears Stateville, for the second and last day of this visit, the actors begin to get ready, All personal possessions (except cigarettes and matches) are removed from pockets. ("No money, change, or wallet," say the Geese company rules on prison dress. "Limited jewelry--check with Tour Director. Wear loose, colorful, asexual clothing. Must wear underwear/bra.") One of the newer members begins to pack a suitcase full of props that can be used for theater games. "Nothing that can be used as a weapon," a more experienced member casually reminds her. As the bus pulls into the long oval driveway, Bergman drops his usual bantering demeanor and speaks with quiet but sharp urgency:

"We go in in pairs. Stay in pairs. Don't wander off. If you have to go to the bathroom, make sure your partner knows where you are. Always wait up for the last person. Maintain security. . . . Men, remember that your first thought is for the women in the group. . . . The guy who looked like a friend to you yesterday just spent all night jerking off about you. He's not the same person; don't expect that he is. If we get into a bit where there's vigorous activity, think what you're doing before you do it. If parts of you are likely to shake, don't do it."

From the outside, Stateville looks like an English country manor--graceful architecture surrounded by expansive, neatly manicured lawns. The entrance area looks rather like a small hotel, except that the door has to be buzzed open. The room is crawling with guards of both sexes; the air crackles with walkie-talkie static. The officers are polite, quiet, alert, and very efficient. The company members display photo IDs at the front desk and again at several stages through the entry process, which takes about half an hour. "The IDs aren't to get you in," says Swift. "They're to get you out." The men and women are admitted through separate doors; everyone is frisked by an officer with the sensitive, practiced touch of a master safecracker.

The group is then taken under the wing of one E. Conrad Merritt, an affable young man who's been the head of Stateville's music program since April 1. "I wanted to work with confined adults," says Merritt, previously a high school teacher, "They have more time to practice. And you find your more talented musicians in corrections."

Merritt escorts the group, which is walking in double file, down a long hallway to a sliding door, beyond which a ramp leads down into the interior yard of the prison. The elegant towers of Stateville's Palladian facade give way inside to a group of ugly, fortresslike concrete roundhouses. "The bowels of the joint," says Swift. "We used to go back in there to the gym when we came here. But for a while now they've had a special building just for theater."

The auditorium building was built in 1937, was closed down in the mid '70s, and was reopened and refurbished three years ago as a headquarters for the prison's music and theater programs and as a site for worship services (Muslim on Friday, Christian on Sunday). It looks very much like a gym, except that the floor is slanted downward toward a large stage. The room is bare save for rows of chairs and, by the stage, a couple of tables. On the edge of one table are some styrofoam cups and a very large thermos containing some very strong coffee. At a slightly out-of-tune piano at the back of the room, an inmate plunks out "We all need somebody to lean on."

Around 9:30 AM the inmates, about 30 of them, drift in--one by one, in pairs and small groups. They range in age from 18 to mid-50s. Most are extremely well built; all but one are black. Gradually the young Geese members move among the men, engaging them in conversation, absorbing details and putting the group at ease.

Yesterday's workshop had been focused exclusively on gathering material for The Violent Illusion. That process is still under way, but today's session also has another purpose: to work on characterization skills with the cast of Con-Artistes' upcoming production of the courtroom drama Inherit the Wind. Rehearsal time for a Con-Artistes show can run anywhere from three to nine months; when a prisoner is transferred or paroled or sent to "seg" (segregation) or hauled back into court, they don't ask if he's busy with a lead role in a play. Process is what counts here--the process of developing an ensemble, something that Geese specializes in. That's why America's only prison-oriented professional theater group and America's longest-running inmate theater company have come together on this occasion.

George Williams has been a member of Con-Artistes almost since the beginning; he's playing Henry Drummond, Inherit the Wind's stand-in for the great liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow.

Williams auditioned for Mr. Roberts in 1981, and wound up playing Ensign Pulver. He directed the group's second show, 12 Angry Men, and then played the lead role of McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "I didn't like it," he says of his work in that show. "I never got hold of the character."

Williams says an important benefit of being in Con-Artistes is "the recognition factor. Most of the officers recognize us through the roles we do. When I'd walk down the hall, they'd call out, 'Hey, Ensign Pulver!'"

A short, muscular man with a broad small smile, Williams hails from Joliet. He's in on charges of armed robbery and attempted murder, he says. When he is released, he'd like to pursue an acting career. "I never had any theater experience, except for a couple of high school classes, until I got involved here," he says. When does he expect to get out? "I've been in here since 1975, and the longest they can keep me here is 2010. Hey, that's nothin'."

With everyone seated, Geese actors mixed in with Con-Artistes members, Bergman takes the stage. His compact frame radiates tightly controlled energy, and his contact with the whole room is compelling. There's no question that he's running the show. He snaps out his rap in taut, spare phrases: "Theater is a way for you to understand yourself. In what you have to do in Inherit the Wind. And in what you have to do in real life. You must be able to move with awareness in space and time. You must take risks. The real human risks that are not criminal but are social. Listen and relate." At the snap of his fingers, three Geese actors jump onstage and do a skit demonstrating bad stage behavior, about two actors being upstaged by a selfish actor. "Don't do that," Bergman barks, indicating the stage. Then, with another finger snap, "Transform!" The Geese actors onstage suddenly freeze into tense, strange shapes. Each finger snap produces a new pose. The rest of the Geese, sitting in the room, join in. "What's the matter with the floor?" says Bergman sharply to one actor who takes only upright positions, "Not good enough for you?" The actor drops into a crawl on the next snap. "Now everyone!" says Bergman, and all the inmates join in, doing freezes, each one moving them closer to the stage.

In these early exercises, the inmates hold their own with the Geese. Though the Geese are slicker, more image-conscious, the cons often bring more strength and realness to the work. And from everyone there is a level of focused concentration that contrasts impressively with that of many college actors, and even paid professionals. No one here, of course, is worried about his next class, or his upcoming audition for a TV commercial, or last night's date, or whether the audience likes him. "Other actors work from the outside in," says one of the Con-Artistes. "We be theater."

The morning session is given over to creating an entire scene based on an improv that two Geese and one con have come up with, a bit about a tightrope walker about to fall. Bergman takes people out of the audience, one or two at a time, and adds them to the scene onstage. "Who are you?" he asks, and each makes up a role for himself on the spot. "I'm the owner of the circus," says one man. "The only interesting thing about a character who's important is he's got to have a hole," Bergman responds cuttingly. "What doesn't work for him? He's in charge and he's got a clubfoot. He's in charge and he's got a stutter. What is it?" Another guy declares himself a cop. "Are you drunk?" Bergman asks, to laughter. "No, I'm sober," the guy replies. "You're sober, but that's a rarity! You walk into this scene and you say, oh my God, I want a drink. We have drama!" When Bergman is through he ha's a gigantic stage picture, focused on the tightrope walker but brimming with life in its individual subscenes. "Who are you? Where are you? Why are you there? What do you want?" Bergman demands of the group. "If you don't ask those questions of yourself and know the answers, all you are is a body!"

Bergman's brash, fast-paced style might annoy some professional actors; in this setting it's perfectly natural, probably even tame compared to the noise and brutishness of daily life in the joint. After all, as Bergman notes, "These fellows didn't get where they are by walking into a convenience store and saying, 'Excuse me, old chap, but those green things in your cash drawer would look much nicer in my pocket, could I have them, please?' They brandished a gun and said, 'Gimme that money, motherfucker.' Anyway, the other actors mediate for me, so I can be as fierce as I want. They say, 'Let's do it his way or he'll really be an asshole.'"

But such self-deprecating humor notwithstanding, Bergman is an extraordinarily good acting teacher; he invariably infuses his abrupt attitude with real compassion and an intuitive understanding of where each of his actors--the Geese and cons alike--is in his or her development.

Another improv moves the emphasis from group interaction to solo work. The object of the game, Bergman explains to everyone, is to walk on the stage as if you were coming home after a long day. You open the mail and you read something that changes your life. You have to let us know what it is but keep it in the context of the scene.

First up is one of the Geese, Andrew Mellon. He walks onstage, mimes taking off his jacket and opening the mail, runs to an invisible phone, dials, and shouts into the mouthpiece: "Just just hang on! Hang on! Don't do it! I'll be right there!" and runs off. "His girlfriend's committing suicide," several guys accurately offer. Mellon's performance is critiqued, and found wanting in at least two ways: Bergman says his face didn't register enough desperation, and one con notes that Andrew didn't open the make-believe door as he exited. "He ran right through the door!" "He's Mr. T!" another guy shouts, breaking the group up.

The next guy up is an inmate, Phillip "Doc" Byas. When, he opens the invisible letter, his face beams. He runs to the invisible phone, dials, and yells: "Hey Conrad! Take that job and shove it! I just won the Lotto!" The guys laugh, the scene is clear, but again Bergman faults him for not having a strong enough payoff in his face. "Don't throw the moment away!" Bergman stresses.

Another inmate tries it. His name is Mike Fritz, a large man with a crewcut. He sits quietly as he opens his pretend letter, then buries his head in his hands and murmurs, obviously responding to the death of a loved one. His softness and conviction are riveting; the audience, moved, offers sincere applause. Asked later exactly what he had said, he replies matter-of-factly, like any actor critiquing himself, "I said, 'My mother. I loved her.' I should have spoken louder."

As noon rolls around, the morning workshop winds down and the inmates head off for lunch. So do the Geese, but only after the debriefing that is a routine part of their work. Each Geese actor has been monitoring several inmates' development over the course of the workshop; now the group compares notes, relays questions and concerns the inmates have, and plans the afternoon's program.

After lunch in the prison dining hall--a turgid affair of hot dogs, beans, salad, and milk--the afternoon session starts off slowly. Bergman initiates a discussion on characterization. Noting that many characters in Inherit the Wind are small-town authority figures, he restates his thesis that the only interesting leader is one with a problem. "When people set themselves up as perfect, we can't approach them," he says. "Let's take someone from the news and find out his problems."

Ronald Reagan is suggested, then rejected; too obvious. Panama's General Noriega? Good-timely but not overdone. "What are his problems?" Bergman asks. "We don't know him. Let's give him some problems." The inmates toss out ideas. "He's short." "He's got a big nose." "He's insecure." "He's got homosexual tendencies," someone says. "Homosexual, OK, what else?" Bergman says quickly, veering away from that hot potato. "He has three ex-wives." "And 18 children!" "And they're all taller than he is!" exults Bergman, playing with his own shortness to relax the group. "What else?" "He has crooked teeth." "All of 'em are false." "He can't grow a beard," one guy suggests. "We know that," says Bergman cheekily, "'cause he's a homosexual." The ridiculous equation gets a big laugh, which defuses a potentially troublesome issue. "He's scared! What's he scared of?" Ronald Reagan. Being exiled. Banana flies. "Banana flies! They go for his nose! Tom!" Bergman barks. "What would that look like?"

Tom Swift immediately jumps onto the stage and launches into a vaudevillian Noriega routine, complete with bad Spanish accent and climactic pratfall.

Bergman guides the group through more games. A conversation about borrowing money using only the words "pajamas," "hat," "coat," and "pickle" is designed to emphasize body language and vocal tone. Another guy is told to read a newspaper account of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit as if it were a horse race. The release of energy is exhilarating and funny; along with being invited to open up their imaginations and bodies, the cons are being tossed bits of history and current events. And they're learning to see each other in a fresh light. Earlier, Bergman had told a story about an inmate who came up to him after watching another inmate's improvisation and said, "How did you get him to do that? Every time I've dealt with that guy he's been a total asshole."

The closing exercise of the day is a rather involved procedure. The men break up into pairs, and each pair creates for itself a short dialogue. Their task is to memorize that dialogue and then present their scenes to the group, knowing Bergman is going to make them change it. The point is to develop flexibility and memorization skills.

One sketch shows a cocky basketball player rebuffing his coach, who advises the player that he'd better pay more attention to his grades. That scene is played out before the group, with the first actor doing a spit-perfect pantomime of shooting baskets. "Good 3 ," Bergman says. "Now let's do that scene--instead of being in a gym you're on the Titanic and it's sinking." "Those same lines?!" says the young "basketball player" in disbelief. The scene is repeated, and the image of a guy shooting baskets on a sinking ship sparks uproarious laughter.

After a few more such vignettes, Bergman orders the group to break back up into teams again and practice their scenes some more. Using the Geese kids as coaches, Bergman plots out a surprise. Today is Doc Byas's 37th birthday, and the remaining vignettes are being reshaped into miniature birthday tributes.

Byas has been with Con-Artistes since the earliest days; in addition to acting lead roles in its shows--the Dissenting Juror in 12 Angry Men, and now the cynical H.L. Mencken-like reporter Hornbeck in Inherit the Wind--he has directed and taught acting classes as well. A well-spoken and intelligent man, he studied in medical school before being sent to Stateville on a murder rap. He's very committed to the notion of theater as a tool for rehabilitating offenders.

"This is a shortcut to get your discipline," he says during a lull in the workshop--unaware of the surprise Bergman and the men are planning for him. "A lot of guys have to have it beaten into them. Learning to act requires discipline. You get that discipline, you can apply it to everyday life. . . . This opens up doors for a lot of things they never knew they had inside them. And it's fun. . . . I know people who have requested to be sent to Stateville so they could do some acting. One guy said, 'I read about you [ConArtistes] in Jet and I always wanted to act.' Another guy told the court he wanted to be sent to Stateville because he had enemies everyplace else, but he confided it was really for the theater program. . . . Some of these guys here are testing themselves. They're seeing if they can go on that stage and screw up. They're saying, 'Can I do this? Can I sit still and have this guy talk to me like I was a fool? Can I be Chastised, take it, go back, and do it again?' Some guys can't take it, and they don't come back.

"Something has to be done somewhere. We do what we can here, but it's so minuscule compared to what needs to be done it's scary. A lot of guys suffer from misconceptions about what life's all about. Especially the young guys. . . . When I got here 11 years ago, most people I knew were into getting out, getting back to their families, and doing something meaningful with their lives while they were here. These new guys who've been coming in since about 1980, they're just into amassing as much money as they can and getting a female to support them while they're inside. They don't have girlfriends, don't have friends for that matter. And what can I say? If I try to give 'em advice they just say, 'You graduated from college, Doc, and look at you. You're in jail.' . . . It worries me. I've got family on the outside, and when I see these guys I say, 'This is what's running around out there?' I thought I'd be 50 years old before I said that. . . . I've seen guys killed down here. A guy who's done his time, he's almost ready to go home, and he has a run-in with some young guy who's got nothing to lose, no regard for human life. This is getting to be a very dangerous place."

"Doc! Come up here," Bergman calls to Byas. Byas turns to see Bergman standing on the stage, which is empty except for a chair. "What'd I do?" Byas asks, good-humoredly but suspiciously. "Just come here," urges Bergman. "Just sit here."

Byas walks cautiously up to the stage and sits down. George Williams walks on from the wings leading three other inmate actors; he is pretending to be a guard setting the other men free. He opens an invisible door; the three men walk through it, line up in front of Byas's chair, and start singing "Happy Birthday." Several more groups do their bits on the birthday theme, as Byas, grinning and embarrassed, slouches down in the chair.

An unusually sentimental ending to a day with the Geese. But there's a lesson, Bergman notes: "The act of theater is an act of giving. Each of those men gave Doc something, just as they have to give it to an audience. Just as they have to give it to each other, and to their families, and to themselves."

About one-third of ex-inmates are rearrested within one to three years of being paroled, Illinois Corrections spokesman Howell says. Statistics also show that an inmate released into a family situation is seven times less likely to be rearrested during the crucial first year of freedom--which is why Plague Game, with its theme of strengthening family structures, remains one of Geese's most steadily requested works.

"There's a violence epidemic going on in this country," John Bergman sighs at the end of a long and exhausting day. "There's a wholesale trade of guns and knives at street level; there's talk of race hatred again. It's not getting better, and something's got to be done. . . . It's very easy to blame society. There's poverty and racism and outrageous government indifference to alleviating the conditions that breed crime. We can't do anything about that. But we're talking about people who have been self-traumatized as well as socially traumatized. Guys seduce themselves with criminal trickery. They learn how to lie and cheat and steal. That can be confronted. I'm willing to put out energy to push people to take a risk and say it might be possible. I don't get depressed. I love what I do. And I learn. I see what those men inside do and what we make together. It comes from them. These fuckers teach me tremendously."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.


Showing 1-1 of 1


Add a comment