The Unseen Changes of Art and Prison | An Intern's Experience
Our 2013-2014 Professional Interns' choice of The Unseen for their production had a personal connection with our Professional Marketing Intern, Kimberly Shepherd. Kimberly's experience with a art outreach program in prison brings a unique perspective to her work with The Unseen. Learn more about Kimberly's experience below.
There are inevitably experiences that define you. Ones you can’t believe you’ve had, and yet, can’t imagine never having had. They become a part of you—change a part of you. I never thought I’d spend as much time in prison as I have. I’ve never committed a crime, unless you seriously consider jaywalking one, but I’ve been walking in and out of prison for 4 years now. I’ve sat and talked to convicted murderers, sex offenders, bank robbers, drug dealers, and gang members in the way some chat with acquaintances about the latest best selling novel over a latte at Starbucks. When we are talking I feel no inherent difference between them and me. The realization of our differences comes at the end of the conversations when the gates are unlocked for me and I walk freely away from the razor wire they remain behind. Since 2010 I’ve had the life changing experience of being involved with a program called Voices Inside. As I have been working on our intern showcase of The Unseen this season the prison setting of the drama has often caused my mind to drift to my experiences with this group. I’ve been encouraged to share my experiences with prison and Voices Inside because of how it relates to our project, but I’ll admit I’ve found writing this to be very hard. I have such a passion for this subject that almost every sentence; every word I type feels inadequate in describing it. I’ve tried words before, but most agree you really don’t understand it until you experience it for yourself. So I will offer a disclaimer upfront that whatever I do end up writing it will not fully communicate what working with this group is like and the effects that work has on all involved.
Voices Inside is a playwriting circle and theatre program at Northpoint Training Center, a medium security men’s prison near Danville, KY. The program was founded by Robby Henson, producer, playwright, and Artistic Director of the historic Pioneer Playhouse, his late sister Holly Henson, former Pioneer Playhouse Artistic Director, and Kentucky playwright Elizabeth Orndorff, in conjunction with Curt Tofteland, the Producing Director of the well-known Shakespeare Behind Bars program. With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts the program teaches a circle of inmates to write ten-minute plays. Those in the circle are encouraged to share and use their personal stories and experiences, including their crimes and time in prison, in their plays as a means of self-expression and rehabilitative therapy. A phrase thrown around the circle often is ‘speak the truth.’ I refer to the group of inmates in the program as a circle because that is what they are. We sit in a circle; perform the inmates’ works for them inside that circle, and share thoughts and feedback there. And a little like group therapy, what is said in the circle stays within the circle. Trust is a huge part of this program. A man cannot be open and willing to share in an environment where he fears judgment or future exploitation of his thoughts in the prison environment. Being welcomed in to the circle as an inmate is a privilege of prison life, but I feel just as honored and privileged to be allowed in the circle as a guest artist every summer, to be trusted with the men’s stories.
Characteristics of the theatre like examination of the world, communication of varied points of view, expression of the human experience, and creation of empathy are taught along with literacy skills to the inmate playwrights as tools for both writing and living. As a welcomed guest in the circle I have seen a lot of growth, dedication, hard work, and open, constructive feedback from the inmates, especially those who have become deeply committed to the program. But the growing is a two way street. From working with prisoners my perspective of the incarcerated has changed. I’ve learned that behind every crime and inmate number there is an individual story, a life that was in many cases relatively normal, not all that different in course than mine sometimes, before one decision—one unconceivable mistake—was made. Now before you misinterpret me I am not excusing those who commit crimes and as a disclaimer I admit the prisoners I have contact with are some of the best behaved, model citizens of the prison. I’ve just come to realize that the people in prison are just that: people. Unfortunately I’ve also come to realize that in American culture a prison term is not simply a temporary punishment, it is a lifelong sentence. Our culture makes it harder than many others for former inmates to reintegrate in to society successfully. That dark specter of a label hangs over your head for the rest of your life—‘ex-con’—telling you with its presence that all will never be forgiven or forgotten by society. This invisible, weighted prejudice along with the decreasing focus and funding in American corrections for education and rehabilitation creates an almost impossible uphill battle for prisoners after release. I know there are many other opinions and perspectives on the American penal system, and I don’t discount any of them, I just wish to share how my opinion has been shaped since I first walked in a prison.
To some my participation in and vocal support of this program could arguably be one of the most controversial things I have done in my rather short and somewhat sheltered life, but I can’t help but continue to “speak the truth” outside the circle. I sit with these men and talk about theatre and writing, which always leads to conversations about family, life, fears, hopes, dreams, challenges, the past, and the future. All subjects I often talk about with those not in confinement. I don’t do much with these men. At least I don’t feel like I do. I perform a few lines off a page, express an opinion, offer a suggestion, listen to the words they write and say. That’s all. But I’ve never felt more appreciated for making so little an effort. Appreciated because I simply show up and talk and listen to them like I do everyone else. That’s somewhat bizarre to me. However, it is because I’m not writing them off, and I’ve come to learn that in their world that’s kind of a big deal. It’s facts like these that make me reciprocate this appreciation. They make me value simplicity and be grateful for things like family, friends, education, and freedom that I now realize I am lucky to have in my life. I once made the comment to one of our inmate playwrights wondering how they cope with the prison environment being an artist—constant disturbances of living in a dorm setting, lock downs, criticism from others about self expression, and threats of danger. His response was to wonder how I deal with living in the outside world and being an artist. He said he knows where he will lay his head at night, when his next meal will be, and relatively what tomorrow will bring for him. He didn’t know how without any form of security, financial or otherwise, I steadfastly choose everyday to continue to pursue a life in theatre. To him that was the truly scary challenge. I never thought my life was scary in any way, but looking through the lens of an inmate I guess it could be seen as so. It’s this give and take, this exchange of perspectives that changed and strengthened my opinions about those behind bars. I believe in the work Voices Inside is doing. I believe it is bringing otherwise nonexistent chances—chances for rehabilitation, reconciliation, reintegration, education, and communication. It is truly embodying some of the key missions of the theatre.
And much in the vein of working in theatre, working with Voices Inside has brought me some truly unique experiences. Because the program is connected to Pioneer Playhouse, a 65 year old resident summer theatre in Danville, Ky, each summer a classic play being performed at the theater that season is brought for a special performance at the prison’s chapel for an all inmate audience. The first time I ever walked in to Northpoint was because of 2010’s performance. Right through the yard filled with inmates, I marched in tap shoes and a red gingham dress with a red bow in my Shirley Temple curled hair. I never thought I would ever visit a prison, let alone in such a getup, but that surreal day started a new chapter of thinking for me, not to mention gave me one heck of an anecdote about prison. Since that day Voices Inside has performed 3 more professional productions for inmate audiences, began staging the works of our playwrights every August in the prison chapel for mixed public and inmate audiences, and taken plays written in the circle on tour with professional actors to other Kentucky prisons. Voices Inside has also led to the creation of a sister organization: Voices/Inside Out. The idea of actor and Voices Inside guest artist Synge Maher, the program presents the inmate playwrights’ plays each year in New York City and sponsors a playwright residency for an accomplished New York playwright each summer at Northpoint. In addition to this program, members of the circle have also gained public performances of their work in a series of staged readings at Actors Theatre of Louisville and in the Bad Theatre Fest in New York City. One of the circle’s original members, Derek Trumbo, even won First Place in the Drama category of the 2013 Prison Writing Awards from the PEN American Center with his play Conviction.
I look forward to every summer and the chance to be a part of the circle again. To cheer successes like these the guys continue to have and to help find ways past the discouraging times. Each year the makeup of the circle changes. New guys come in, some dropout and, still some, as we have started to experience, are released. But four years on I still get the same feeling being a part of the circle. The work produced continues to be shocking, moving, and thought provoking and the group of people: supportive, inspiring, and encouraging. I have a picture from two summers ago of me and some of the inmate playwrights. It is signed with thanks from each of the guys in the circle that year. I framed it and it hangs at home, wherever I may be from year to year. As a part of the circle I cheer the guys on, but I’ve realized they do the same for me. That picture and those words have encouraged me and empowered me in so many of the confusing, daunting, and not so great times I’ve had since graduating college. Since I started working on The Unseen, I’ve looked at that picture a lot and come to realize just how unique of an experience I have had, even though to me it’s just a normal part of my life now.
We hope that Kimberly's experience with art and prison intrigues you to attend the intern production of The Unseen.