The show goes on.
This is a production of the Mitchellville Theater Project at ICIW, directed by volunteer Marti Sivi, who earned a degree in criminal justice administration from Drake University and has years of community theater experience in Des Moines. When Sivi taught a play-reading class at ICIW in 1998, women in the group asked if they could perform. So began the Mitchellville Theater Project, which has staged seven shows for inmates and volunteers.
At every tryout, Sivi goes through the same spiel. Somewhat ironically, considering the context. Sivi talks about the need to "lock in" the cast and crew, and she tells the inmates, "If you go to the hole (solitary confinement), I give your part to somebody else. The show will go on."
Most women at ICIW have never acted or worked on the crew of a theatrical production; many have never gone to a play. "If I was on the street, I would never have thought of doing something like this," says Sheila Schertz, who played Andy--and tap-danced--in Stepping Out. "At first, I thought, 'Oh, no, I can't do this. I'm not coordinated enough. I was so nervous and scared of messing up."
Sivi holds rehearsals twice a week. Between rehearsals, cast members work on their parts whenever they can. For Stepping Out, a play about a tap class that meets in a church basement, Lisa Heaivilin, who suffers from heel spurs but loves to dance anyway, practiced the Irish step in the yard. C. Shobha Sheth Horstman executed the scissors step while serving waffles on the food line. "This is the only time that I feel I'm not in prison," says Horstman, who has acted and worked behind the scenes for most of the plays staged by the Mitchellville Theater Project. "I can laugh, cry, dance. It gives you a chance to be somebody you're not."
Schertz describes her role as a woman in an abusive marriage as "a job and a half." As the tap dance class in the play prepares to perform. Schertz's character breaks down in tears: "I am not good. I am not good. I don't know why I'm here. I don't know why I come. I can't do it. I can't do it." This is exactly what happened to Schertz.
"At one point in time, I sat and I actually cried because I just couldn't do some of the steps and I wanted to quit. Everyone told me, 'You can do it,' and to keep going. So I stuck it out." When a prop collapsed during the first performance, Schertz stepped up and carried it offstage--earning her the moniker of Ad Lib Queen at ICIW.
Jamie Strasser says that on the streets, she was not responsible for much, but as stage manager for Stepping Out, she found herself herding a cast of 10 through rehearsals and four performances. "Leave it in the yard," Strasser would find herself telling the cast and crew. A big part of her job as stage manager was cheering on the cast. "They don't think they should be on stage," she says. "They think they're dumb, stupid, not worth it. Here, they can believe in themselves and play different characters."
There are challenges to putting on shows in the gymnasium at ICIW because of the summer heat and winter cold. The volleyball net comes down only for performances. In the beginning, Sivi had no backdrop and no sound system. She made do with her daughter's boombox. A grant from the Chrysalis Foundation paid for a sound system and a backdrop, as well as props and costumes. Then Sivi had to put up guards to protect the sound equipment from wayward volleyballs.
Sivi has faced other difficulties in staging productions at ICIW; for example, lead actresses have been sent to solitary confinement. In one production, more than half the cast was transferred to a prison in Virginia. During rehearsals for Stepping Out, two cast members were assigned to treatment, so Sivi had to recast those parts.
R. Dean Wright, a Drake University sociology professor, evaluated the Mitchellville Theater Project's production of Steel Magnolias for the Chrysalis Foundation. Through his use of a questionnaire, a focus group and interviews with the cast and crew, he found that participation in the Mitchellville Theater Project improved self-esteem, provided positive role models, encouraged teamwork, helped inmates learn to express their emotions in a non-threatening way, and developed skills on stage and behind the scenes. "This begins to give inmates personal fulfillment outside of whatever they had before," Wright says. "These women take someone else's ideas, internalize those ideas and present them to others as they play another role and live it literally on stage. This is a great opportunity for these women to see themselves in a better light and to see themselves in the future."
What Wright sees at work here is what sociologist C. Wright Mills termed sociological imagination: "They develop empathy for that character on stage and for others. They understand that there are loads of other people with the same plights and problems they have." Helping inmates develop empathy is one of the many benefits of bringing arts programs into Iowa prisons, say corrections officials.
"This provides an alternative medium for us to connect with, interact with and see offenders," says Jeanette Bucklew, deputy director for Western operations of the Iowa Department of Corrections. "It's something in this environment that is not about control or punishment. It shows offenders an acceptable positive alternative to what they've done on the streets. It's something that's fun, exciting and socially OK without doing dope or robbing people."
ICIW Deputy Warden Sheryl Lockwood says the arts allow these women to tap into talents they never knew they had. "There are women here with all kinds of talent, some of it raw, and they come out with this polished act," she says. "If our role is to rehabilitate, this is what we need to offer."
Jennifer Dally, who served two years and eight months on a drug charge, says working sound and lights for Mitchellville Theater Project productions helped her rehabilitation. Dally enjoyed winging it and making do by making things work in the prison gym. She is now out, attending community college full-time and working lights for community theater productions. "In treatment, I learned that I can get in trouble if I get depressed or bored or have nothing to do," Dally says. "Marti gave me something to do that I enjoy."
The Mitchellville Theater Project's summer 2002 production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf was the first with an all-black cast. Andrea Blackcloud, who played the Lady in Green, could not eat before performances. Her stomach knotted up every evening when she went on stage. She cried the first time she read her lines: "I want my stuff back. My rhythms and my voice." Blackcloud is serving a 75-year sentence for killing a man who tried to rape her and says, "I've seen abuse. I've lived it. Every night, it hits me more--that is what happened to me 11 years ago."
Shyeaka Robinson, who is serving a 50-year sentence for the murder of her newborn daughter, says the play was "real, real deep. It hit home like next door." Robinson played the role of the Lady in Blue, who says "Once I was pregnant and ashamed of myself" and describes how she aborted her baby: "Bones shattered like soft ice cream cones." As difficult as it was to play the Lady in Blue, Robinson says, "we can show people that although we're in here for murder, we're people, too. We are somebody, and we're not the same people who came into this play six months ago. Everybody's changed." Sivi tries to mix up the shows: funny, sad, light, heavy. The Mitchellville Theater Project's next production will be The Odd Couple.
What struck Wright most in his evaluation was the high level of satisfaction with participation in Sivi's plays at ICIW. The women he interviewed were satisfied or very satisfied with the program. "All 14 of those interviewed," he states in the evaluation, "went on to provide illustration after illustration of how the program has helped them toward improved self-esteem, given them future-oriented goals that they can achieve, allowed them to look beyond their personal problems and institutionalization, and over-all, conclude that the experience was very positive."
Inmates who have worked on shows with the Mitchellville Theater Project use different words to express the positive experience. Kim Fisher describes playing the goofy, flaky Rose in Stepping Out: "By playing the part of Rose, I found myself again. See, I used to be real funny and outgoing. When I became a drug addict in 1999, I lost all that. I felt like I was nothing and I didn't have a whole lot of self-worth. With all that going on, from being an addict to coming to prison. I wasn't real sure who I was anymore. But since I was Rose in the play, I'm back and I love myself again. I dream about the future again."
Kellie Abrahamson, who was sent to ICIW because of her methamphetamine addiction, says she never finished anything in her life--school, jobs--until her role in Stepping Out. "This," she says, "I started and I finished." She talks about calling home after a performance: "Mom, guess what? I'm high, and I won't regret it in the morning."
Anne Scott is a freelance writer who has led writing work-shops for the Iowa Department of Corrections.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 2003|
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