The greatest gift you could give a playwright is time. Endless time to work and re-work the kinks out of a plot, time to make the characters feel more real, time to make the situations ring more true. Time to write and re-write until all you are has been put on that page and there’s nothing left to do but have it read by someone else and sit back, watching as it comes to life.
Men in Northpoint Training Center have a lot of time. And they have no shortage of ideas, given the circumstances of their lives. What these men need in order to be playwrights is an example. A leader. A teacher.
Here’s where you come in. But wait … maybe I should keep telling their story so you understand what exactly is going on here.
Northpoint: Voices from a Kentucky Prison was founded to support Voices Inside, the playwriting and theater arts program at Northpoint Training Center, a medium security prison in Burgin, Kentucky. The goal of Northpoint: Voices from a Kentucky Prison is artistic exchange between the prisoner-playwrights at Northpoint and professional playwrights.
I sat down the other day with Lanie Zipoy who, among other things, is part of the production team of this program. She gave me the history of the program that she has become so closely involved with. Three years ago the Pioneer Playhouse was a 60-year-old stock company that was looking to branch out in the community. And so, Voices Inside was born.
Earlier this year, during the summer, playwright Mac Rogers spent two weeks teaching classes at Northpoint Training Center … but he did more than teach. Right off the bat everyone involved knew there had to be an exchange of ideas in order to build trust and gain the much needed sense of community if this project was to succeed. So the inmates were first given excerpts of Rogers’ play to read — and to assess — so they could give their honest feedback. The play was VIRAL – the topic was edgy and controversial but certainly something that would keep these men engaged:
A woman Googles “painless suicide” and finds the people who will help her end her life – if she will let them film it. And sell it. VIRAL is a frank, humane and surprisingly funny look at some very complex issues—assisted suicide, fetish, dignity and privacy in the age of viral videos, where there’s nothing so twisted that it doesn’t have an audience.
Of course this is still prison so some of the text had to be cut out, but overall the men were able to be reviewers and critics which gave them a dynamic way to interact with the man who was about to come and teach them.
One of Rogers’ exercises dealt with silence – and in an environment with its own hierarchy, rules, and swift justice silence is something these men know about. But learning how to use it as a tool to tell a story was something that opened up a whole new innovative way of looking at their lives and their world. Sure, many of these 10 minute plays took place in prison. But not all of them did. And, regardless of the scenarios the one thing that each play had in common was that it reflected the inner dialogue of a man who is already living in a world that is inherently dramatic. Only now each man had been given an outlet to voice things in a way that hadn’t been available to them before.
Resources are different in prison. There are no photocopiers. If an inmate writes a two-person play, he must write the play two times. Just this exercise alone helps the writing process and gives the playwright a better feeling for his words as he writes them over and over again. This is a labor of love for a man who now is able to realize and foster his gift.
Even more exciting for the men who participate in this program is the fact that later in the year their work is read in New York during an evening of readings. This validation of their hard work is critical in the process and support for that evening is as important as any other step. So rest assured I’ll be following the journey closely and letting you know when the class of 2012 comes to our town.
Meanwhile – I started off by saying that the greatest gift you could give to a playwright is time. The men in Northpoint have the time – let them give you something through this experience that will change the way you think, change the way you live, and quite possibly change the way you write. Any number of people involved with the project have seen the amazing changes that have happened not only to the inmates but to all those involved. Why not take a chance and see how you could come through this experience a changed person? Don’t you think it’s time to be part of something bigger than yourself?