This Sunday at 6pm, a group of ex-prisoners will present a reading at Church of the Servant here in Grand Rapids, MI. Try to make it if you're in town.
I had three meetings with the men. In the first, I asked for their stories. For the second, I wrote a script, which they read and discussed. The last, we went over how to sit, stand, and present the thing. Normally, I'd like more time, but this will come out just fine.
The theme given us was hope. Not something easily defined, but for men who spent anywhere from three to 21 years locked up, it's a feeling they know a little about.
Mentally, I had grouped this work in the same category as my theatre with homeless people. Certainly, these, too, are people who don't typically get to experience the arts firsthand (though there's quite a movement behind bars to stage plays).
But these are men; they don't appear to suffer from the mental instabilities I saw in the women; they've necessarily kicked any substance abuse habit, though they might continue to struggle; they're in a better place than they were not very long ago, and therefore are grateful.
"Sitting on a couch," one man likes to say. "Sitting. On. A. COUCH. Do I need to say more?"
These differences affect me as director in opposing ways. First, I can identify more easily with people who live in homes and are mentally stable; one man and I exchange raw juice recipes every time we meet. And it's significantly easier on me to work with people who want to be there.
But on the other hand, they're men. They've just gotten out of prison. We're meeting in a church. When I direct, I connect with my people to figure out how to coach the best out of them. I'm not sweet, I'm a little rough and quick (especially with only three meetings) in getting the job done.
With the women, I learned to be tough but give words of inspiration when appropriate, which, if I did it right, would be answered with Amen.
With the men, we figured each other out by the last meeting. I could give orders ("Stop rushing, Paul") and follow up with a joke. But they're still men, and that's a different dynamic.
Too, there's an elephant in the room. Why were they in prison? When you're asking ex-cons about hope, and they're talking about their darkest night in prison, you want to feel empathy, and then you wonder, Yeah, but what did they do?
This elephant made it into the script; I couldn't not put it in there. Someday, I'll write about what happened the first day we read the play. Come see the play if you can--if you can face some heavy thinking on who you judge, who paid their price, what's an adequate price, whose slate is clear, and who might live as you do.