'I can be more than a drug dealer'
It might not have been the archetypal setting for a Shakespearean performance — or any play for that matter.
Fluorescent lighting illuminated the white room — which was lined with inspirational quotes from Robert Frost and other luminaries — and the actors donned the same navy blue shirt etched with the word "inmate" on the back. At the doorway a security guard and screener examined each prop, audience member and even the directors prior to entry.
But, as indicated by the actors and audience singing together with smiles on their faces after the play closed, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility's performance of "Twelfth Night" and the five month journey up to that point may have been as impactful as any.
"I think the biggest thing I've learned is I can be more than a drug dealer, more than a criminal," Coffee Creek inmate and "Twelfth Night" actor Robin Lundy said. "I can be a positive asset to the community."
Johnny Stallings started the Open Hearts Open Minds acting program for inmates at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla and then brought it to Coffee Creek in 2014. Since then, Coffee Creek inmates who have shown good behavior have performed their own original scripts and an iteration of "12 Angry Men" called "12 Angry Women."
"There's a reason why Oregon has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country ... because we do offer programming that's outside the norm," Coffee Creek Public Information Officer Vicki Reynolds said. "We try to give them things that will help them gain skills, gain self confidence, whatever it is they need to help them succeed."
The performance of "Twelfth Night" was the program's first Shakespearean foray and inmates rehearsed weekly for five months prior to the first show. The vast majority of the cast had no acting experience heading into the first rehearsal.
To help introduce them to acting, the directors mirrored Portland Playhouse's "Fall Festival of Shakespeare" interactive rehearsal format and Co-Director Carla Grant brought Portland Playhouse Director Nikki Weaver on board.
"It's been a beautiful collaboration of using the Fall Festival process of introducing Shakespeare into our class," Grant said.
That process included forging dialogue circles, providing positive reinforcement to fellow actors, and games and exercises that focus on physicality and connection rather than script memorization. The actors also learned how to play the ukulele, which
is featured in the performance.
"They get to live it, feel it and look into their partner's eyes while they are playing a scene rather than staring into a piece of paper in front of them," Weaver said. "From the moment they play their character on stage they're working on body movement rather than this relationship with a piece of paper that has no reaction."
Grant added: "The idea is to embrace our human failings, human faults and together lift each other up."
The biggest challenge, Weaver said, was embracing Shakespearean language.
"The beauty of Shakespeare is that he uses language like no one else," Weaver said. "That's incredibly terrifying to have language and words that are palpable and give you so much imagery to play with. It's a huge, insurmountable task and these women came together and stepped into it."
Stallings said that many of the inmates have been reinforcing a destructive identity for much of their lives. But the virtue of acting is that they are forced to alter themselves when playing a character.
"Acting requires you to let go of that and to imagine yourself in a different circumstance as a different person," he said. "When they talk about cognitive development they talk about an ability to be able to understand more and more different viewpoints."
Lundy served five years in prison, was released for 20 days and then faced another seven years after a burglary charge. She said that the theatre program has given her a chance to remove her tough facade and tap into other aspects of her humanity. In "Twelfth Night" she played three different roles: a handmaiden, a captain and an officer. Through theatre, she has found a different side of herself.
"Most people put on a mask when they come into theatre," Lundy said. "I took one off."
Having acted in "Flowers for Algernon" in high school, inmate Danielle Hevener was more experienced than most of her fellow actors. A mother of five children, Hevener played a motherly role for the less experienced actors during rehearsals. At the same time, the play gave her the chance to show that she is capable of much more than the stay-at-home mom role she took up before prison. She plans to join acting groups once she is released.
"This reaffirmed that this (acting) was something I was born to do," she said.
Not to mention, the experience allowed actors to make friends in the prison that they might not have met otherwise.
"I think the biggest thing that I get told from them is the sense of family," Grant said. "They're constantly saying, 'I really depend on all of you. You are my family. You're the ones that keep me going.'"
Hevener's family wasn't in the crowd during the performance. Instead, the grief counselor she has confided in for many years showed her support. Hevener's enthusiasm as she answered questions said it all.
"It's all I've talked about in letters to her," Havener said. "I'm so excited she's here. She said she's so proud."