As the female guard patted me down, I emptied my pockets into a little tray. I’d done some stupid things in my life, and even more strange ones, but one of the weirdest was performing in a play about three women who were bitter and angry at men, in a federal prison. A men’s federal prison.
I need to inform you at this juncture that after assault and uttering threats, sexual assault ranks third among violent crimes for which men are incarcerated. Murder is a little further down the list.
So when the librarian from William Head Federal Penitentiary saw our play in the Fringe Festival and invited us to perform for the prisoners, we were keen, but a little nervous. He thought our show would present an interesting point of view, since so many of the inmates had committed violent crimes against women.
William Head on Stage, or WHoS, is the prison’s own inmate-run theatre program, and it’s had a positive impact, both as an activity and as a form of therapy. Prisoners rehearse and give public performances once a year, producing some really good theatre.
The choice of play is usually macabre or satirical: Macbeth, Endgame, Prison Food and Frankenstein in Oblivion. Whenever possible, the librarian/staff sponsor brought-in shows for the inmates to see, exposing them to actors from the outside community.
A week before the performance, we met with WHoS members to learn the rules of engagement. We couldn’t use real dishes or glasses (can be broken for weapons), only a kid’s toy telephone for a prop (no electronics to rewire or sharp pokey things), and no bobby pins, wigs or jewellery could be worn (more sharp pokey things, disguises and valuables in that order. Oh, and I guess I could have been strangled with my necklace.).
On their side, prisoners could not heckle or say anything negative during the performance as it would jeopardize their privileges. We were told that if they had a problem with the show, they would quietly leave the gym, or if they wanted to make a point of protest or let us know they disliked what we were saying, they could turn their chairs and sit with their backs turned.
On the big day, three very nervous women and their male director went through security. We were searched and scanned, shown our criminal record check results, and our valuables were secured in lockers. We were led by a prison guard to the gymnasium and shown where we could change. He assured us that he would be outside at all times.
We were unusually quiet as we dressed and did our makeup. Each of us withdrew to our own thoughts and jitters, unsure what to expect. My hand shook as I attempted to pencil black liner around my eyes. Just sign on the dotted line, I thought to myself, wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. Why did I do these things? Honestly!
Act One was Ellen’s solo performance as a young mom who had just gone back to work. She spoke of the struggle to balance nursing, laundry and a busy career. As she sipped her “Chardonnay” (out of a prison supplied plastic coffee mug), she cursed her husband for not understanding her stress, and for his lack of contribution around the house.
A few chairs turned to face the back of the auditorium.
Act Two was mine. My character was a 30-something single woman who was entirely devoted to her career. As my performance unfolded, it became clear that my character hated her father’s guts for always expecting more of her. About halfway through, she was to become very angry, half yelling-half crying for her father’s approval.
Within minutes of me taking the stage, the chairs started to turn. I froze momentarily. Could I do this? Would I remember my lines? I continued, my male bashing lines coming faster now. More chairs turned, a few men exited quietly. My chest tightened. My voice became louder, shriller. Almost half the chairs faced the back wall now. Looking down to the front row, I saw the WHoS members, riveted to my every move and word. Okay, I would just play for them.
Then suddenly, a stitch caught in my chest. My college theatre coach taught us method acting and I drew upon that training to let the lines run through my fear and become anger. It boiled up inside me, became blind rage and spewed out my mouth. I gave the most impassioned performance of my life. All fueled by fear and the backs of men who may have raped women, beaten their wives or killed their girlfriends.
By my final line, I was crying not staged tears, but real ones fueled by fear and exhaustion. I stumbled into the wings and to the dressing room, still gripped by emotion.
There was still one act to go, the story of a woman whose husband beat her. I was scared for her as an actress, but not for her safety. I wanted my dear friend to see at least a few faces in the audience.
Afterwards, having tea with the WHoS members, one very enthusiastic man asked me what my motivation was for my character’s anger. I told him flat out that I was half furious with the men who turned their backs on me and half frightened of what that said about their attitudes about women.
“They weren’t mad at you,” he explained earnestly. “Most of them are learning about themselves and what it was like for the women in their lives. They never thought about those things before. We were all told what the show was about, so there was no big surprise there. Their backs were most likely about shame and sorrow.”
I still remember the cookies we were served. It seemed such a nicety in such a cold place. The prisoner-actors were so enthusiastic, so excited about the show, the subject matter, and even more so about how we felt as we were performing. They were among the nicest and most polite people I’ve ever met.
As they peppered us with questions, I leaned over to the fellow who had been so kind to me. “May I ask why you are in prison?” I asked nervously.
“Yeah. I killed my girlfriend.” All I could say was “oh.”
“It was a long time ago. I’ve been inside for over 20 years. I’ve had a long time to think and learn. I’m clean and sober, and have my degree now. I’m a very different man.”
At some deep, intuitive level I believed him. When we said our goodbyes, our handshake communicated a new level of understanding. We both learned a lot about compassion that day.
That was the last performance I ever gave. Strange, as I’d spent many years studying theatre but life sort of got in the way. A writing career, babies who grew into teens, my own business, hobbies that I could share with my husband – new activities overtook the old ones. But I’m okay with that. I know that my last performance was my most inspired.
Inmate © Inmate Sarah #D2232 @ Flickr
Barbed Wire Prison © by Ray Phua @ Flickr