Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Inmate Improv

DETROIT — ONE of the members of our improv workshop, a baby-faced man in his 30s, made up a rule: The last person to arrive has to do a cartwheel. A shaggy-haired man with creaky knees manages a groaning little hop, while another wheels like a shot of light. In this fluorescent-lit classroom at the Macomb Correctional Facility in Michigan, it’s the willingness to take a risk that counts.
 
For three years, my friend Matt Erickson and I have led the improv theater workshop, sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, at this medium-security state prison 30 miles outside Detroit. Improv is about freedom, and so there is a built-in challenge — and deep irony — in attempting to practice it in a prison.
 
On Thursday evenings, Matt and I sign in at the prison and then move through “the bubble” — a white room containing a metal detector, where we show identification, remove our shoes and are patted down by a corrections officer. We hook P.P.D.s — personal protection devices — into our pockets. The beige contraptions have a pin to pull in emergencies. We’ve never needed them, though once, during a game of “freeze,” the P.P.D. fell out of my pocket and went off when it hit the ground. Officers rushed to my aid and then rolled their eyes when I explained what had happened.
For an hour and a half, we guide our participants in games that prompt unscripted collaboration and play. We transport ourselves into a forest, a White Castle, a Transylvanian train. We imagine ourselves as prom queens and C.E.O.s.
 
I had led prison poetry groups for years, so when I began this workshop, I was less afraid of incarcerated men than I was of improv itself. I’m accustomed to writing and revising stories before sending them out into the world, not making them up — and acting them out — before an audience. I was afraid of looking like a fool. But these men have such an infectious joy in improv that it makes me feel safe.
 
The inmates often take the lead — hardly typical for prison activities. Wilmot, a 42-year-old man with a warm, shy grin, recruited new members for the group and encouraged cautious ones. “Anything you got going on out there,” he’d say, pointing toward the door, “you leave it.” To break out of our rut of realism, Wilmot invented a game involving dozens of genre cues like “sci-fi” or “Western” on slips of paper. We laughed helplessly while one inmate played a terrible waiter in a “musical,” singing in improvised rhyme, his wire-framed glasses perched snootily on his nose.
 
The workshop can be transporting, but it’s impossible to forget where we are. Most of our members committed violent crimes. Two were juveniles when they were sentenced to life without parole. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that this is unconstitutional, but Michigan has refused to apply the ruling retroactively. Continuing battles on whether to resentence the state’s 350 juvenile lifers leave them in apprehensive uncertainty. “You can’t hope too much,” one of them said. “Hope’ll kill you.”
 
In May, Matt and I attended Wilmot’s parole hearing. The board interrogated him about the 1992 crime — armed robbery and assault with intent to murder — that had earned him multiple life sentences. At the hearing, he wept, saying, “This is not the life I was supposed to live.” The attorney general’s representative nudged a box of tissues across the table.
 
Just after a June performance we staged for inmates and guests, Wilmot was paroled. We absorbed the news with astonishment — joyful, but disoriented at losing a core member of our group. As for Wilmot, he didn’t know what to expect. How do you build a life outside prison after years behind bars?
 
Since Wilmot was locked up, the Internet came into use. Cellphones. Social media. Wilmot is on a crash course of trial and error. He couldn’t get a job without photo identification. He couldn’t get an ID without his birth certificate, which didn’t survive decades of incarceration. Wilmot’s family drove to state agencies hundreds of miles apart before the problem was sorted out.
 
Some cities, like Washington, treat re-entry as a municipal service, assisting with identification issues like these, as well as with jobs, mentorship and voting rights. Detroit is not one of them.
 
In August, I invited Wilmot to join a group of friends at the Detroit Improv Festival. I hadn’t seen him since the July homecoming party at his mother’s house. I was still startled to see him in bluejeans and a button-down shirt, instead of his blue and orange uniform. Wilmot had never seen improv outside of prison. In the theater, we watched scenes ignited by prompts that were familiar from the cinder-block room at Macomb.
But what most captured Wilmot’s imagination was the downtown he hadn’t seen in two decades. “Man,” he exclaimed, as we brought the car to a stop. “A parking garage. Ain’t never seen one of these before. Let’s take a picture!”
 
No one has a script for Wilmot on where to go from here. He’s grateful to live with his sister, and for his full-time factory job. But he’s lonely. He asks about the workshop. He doesn’t know his way around the city anymore. He’s dependent on rides, so he’s saving, slowly, for a car. “All right, all right,” Wilmot says when I ask how he’s doing. “Just gotta keep moving.”
 
In other words: He’s improvising.
 
Source:  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/31/opinion/inmate-improv.html
 
 

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