Robin Lynn Smith and her crew of volunteers have been busting down walls to bring theatre workshops and performances to incarcerated men, women, juveniles and psychiatric patients since 2003.
I attended Ignotus Fuego, an original play penned by inmates at Washington Corrections Center for Women (read more about it on the CAB). Moved by the offenders’ genuine performances and profound writing, I interviewed Smith, 53, Freehold director and leader of the Engaged Theatre initiative. A Midwest-born actor and director in Boston, New York, Chicago and Seattle, now she’s committed to seeing theatre reach people on a different level.
You’ve served on staff at Seattle Rep and Intiman, and directed at most of the theatres in townincluding Empty Space – you’re a veteran of the local scene. [She laughs.] A wounded warrior, you could say.
Are you still engaged with other professional theatres in town? I’m interested in working anywhere as long as the project is interesting to me, like this [Freehold] tour of Julius Caesar. I mean it’s hard and it’s crazy, I’m driving the god damn truck and the set’s blowing all over the highway…but there’s things we’re going to be able to do artistically that most places wouldn’t let me do.
I’m also on the faculty at Cornish. We did our own adaptation of The Crucible. [We] did some things that are not…. [laughs] your typical Arthur Miller. A few people were offended…but whatever.
What sparked your wanting to direct and teach theatre in prison? I wanted to deepen the way that theatre can change people’s lives. When we took Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale to the men’s prison for the first time, they had never had a play in there – we [performed] on a ball field.
The guys were there, watching us [with arms folded across their chests].
But as the play went on — we usually do an hour and forty-five minute cut without intermission — they were totally engaged. They were talking to the characters. It was totally amazing; 250 of them sat on the grass and watched this show.
As we were taking the set down, this guy came over and said, “I never saw a play before; I thought it was going to be really lame. But it was really cool – has this guy written anything else?”
And I was like…“Yeah… [she holds back tears]…yeah, he has.”
Then we had a workshop. Fifty guys crammed in this little room. They all wanted to come and talk to the cast.
There’s a father and son complex in the play and we had to use a marionette for the boy in Winter’s Tale, because you can’t bring a child into a prison. So we had this beautiful life-size marionette — and we had this whole hot seat going [where the actors answer the audience’s questions by improvising in character]. And when the father is coming in to punish his son, the guys are going: “Man, put down the whip, you can’t communicate with your boy like that!”
In the middle of this big heated argument about forgiveness and fathers and sons – the puppeteer’s hand goes up and this [prisoner] goes “HOLD ON!” And we all stop. And he says, [referring to the puppet]: “The little man wants to speak.” [Laughs.]
Sounds like this isn’t your typical didactic theatre workshop. I feel like we learn at least as much from them as they from us.
When we tour the Shakespeare work, we have some of the best actors in Seattle performing— and the reason they come back is because their experiences performing here deepened their work.
One of the actors [a Freehold founder], Tony, told me: “Robin, I have never had that experience performing. There was something so powerful out there… that was what it must have been like to perform in Shakespeare’s Globe.”
These guys talk. They talk back. They holler stuff. They laugh. They say “don’t do that!”
These guys are a captive audience, but they’re not. [Prisoners] are not going to sit there and respond in conventional ways because they’ve been taught how to behave during a performance. They haven’t paid for seats. So the actors have to be better.
About two years later we did Merchant of Venice. And we go out on the ball field, and we have about 400 guys at that one. At first they were down on Shylock because he’s a Jew, all that. Then in the courtroom scene, they were trying to save him — they were trying to get him not to trust what these people were doing to him. It was incredible.
One of the [prisoners] told me: “Robin, I’m a Muslim. As soon as I found out that guy was a Jew, I didn’t care about him. But then, in that courtroom scene, I was feeling his pain.”
You can talk to people until you’re blue in the face, lecture them about prejudices, putting people in boxes. But it’s not until you give people an experience of that “other” that is more fully human, more dimensional, that is surprising – that they actually can actually open that box up.
That to me is what I get really inspired by with the men and women in prison: they’re facing their lives in a true way. And they’re having to decide what they’re going to do to make amends, to earn forgiveness … [she holds back tears] and I’m so inspired by that every time … their courage.
What breakthroughs have you witnessed? When we did Othello, we did a pre-workshop of it –just a few scenes — in the women’s prison. I had to see how the murder of Desdemona went over. And they loved it. There were these big discussions about whether Iago was a villain or not — it was great.
And then this one woman goes: “It’s just heartbreaking to me.”
And I asked the group: “Why would any of us ever want to watch a heartbreaking story like this?”
And [the same woman] goes: “Because it’s true. And we’re not alone then.”
[Weeps.] …Fuck, man.
So we mounted it in winter and got to go into the super maximum security part of Monroe for the first time, where more severe offenders are. The woman I work with there was like, “Robin, you can’t do anything in there. They won’t sign up.”
We were overbooked. They were fabulous.
In the talkback afterwards we heard [a whole range of responses, including:] “Do you know that you cut, such-and-such passage.” The guy knew it by heart!
Five months later, I get a package at Freehold in a manila envelope. Inside it’s a handwritten letter [she paraphrases]:
My name is Jim *, I am an inmate. I saw your Othello, I had never seen a play before. I’m 44 years old. I’ve been inside since I was 18. I thought at first, ‘Who are these people from the outside and why should I even care. How do they know anything about what I feel inside?’ I was blown away by my connection to these characters. So I decided to write a play.
He wrote a play by hand. And it’s pretty good. I’ve been working with the Department of Corrections (DOC) to do a reading of it.
Clearly the humility and energy you bring to the process is rubbing off. I find that the audiences – a lot of the visitors have never been inside — are totally amazed by the women. By…these human beings — who we’d normally just put in a box and call felons.
And nobody is saying that they haven’t done horrendous things. But their humanity is more than the sum of those things. And this gives us — the outside — a chance to try to learn more.
One of the things that art can do, I believe, is it truly open up the channel between people who are very different from each other. In doing that, we open up our own humanity. We have to.
Miriam*, the woman who played Noche, said “Before I started the program I didn’t know any of these women, none of them were my friends.” When she first came in, she didn’t want to be there. But everyone one was so supportive of her. She was blown away by the love in that ensemble.
It’s tough getting government funding for arts programs because it’s difficult to measure emotional growth like that. Some of our collaborators, therapists and PhDs through Harborview and UW Psych school, they’re like, “You’ve got to figure out a way to do measurable data.” We have a bunch of fabulous anecdotal stuff — but not quantitative stuff.
So we started doing a questionnaire before and after the program; so we have a beginning and ending data comparison.
But what we need is a little bit of money to do a real study. We think it would actually help a lot of organizations that are trying to show measurable outcomes of the kinds of things that art does.
What does Engaged Theatre spend money on? Supplies, sound equipment, a big ass truck for the tour; we need to rent a space. And we need a new mixer board. We’ve been using the mixer board from the prison because ours just blew.
The prison has a mixer board? They use it for karaoke night.
So how did the women in your program come up with such a sophisticated allegory in Ignotus Fuego? At every residency, the playwright [it was Dickey Nesenger this year] sets up structures to help the women generate material through improvisation, through poetry, through different dramatic structures of writing. The playwright figures out a way to put all these stories together.
The women asked to do something about culture and identity. So that’s where we started, writing about your background, your ancestors, cultures that you choose to be a part of, cultures that you choose to leave. We start with themes — and we know at some place there’s going to need to be a transformation that happens. How that happens very much comes out of the writing that the women do.
They literally made up this town in one three-hour workshop: they came up with the name, they came up with the clock and time being stuck as the problem of the town. We did filter out some things — like the beaver in the stream that talked and was a child molester.
It’s about forgiveness; it’s about atonement; it’s about being able to transcend what you did in the past. And that’s for all of us. It’s not just for people in prison.
It’s one thing to get people to participate in private writing exercises. How did you get them to work together? It’s all about the rules of ensemble. A big one is: what’s in here stays in here. It’s really risky for them to share personal shit. In the women’s prison there’s not only segregation between ethnicities — but there’s also this whole thing between the Christians and the Wiccans. And we just have to say, “Everyone’s point of view is allowed in here. You don’t have to agree with it — but you have to allow it.”
Also, in the workshop itself they always have the choice if they want to share something out loud or not.
Other rules they come up with are: “no divas,” leave your shit at the door, what we’re doing together is more important than any individual’s ego.
We create a document which we all sign.
I was impressed during the performance at the women’s willingness to poke fun at themselves. I assumed that prison doesn’t allow you to let your guard down like that. 90 percent of this is about them — and for any artist — learning how to trust yourself.
Two or three years ago, Sarah* joined the program and then got infracted, which means she can’t participate, or come see the show.
Later, she said to me: “I want you to let me back in. I understand now what’s going to help me make my life better, and what is not. And I’m committed.”
And she did get back in [and went on to play the narrator in Ignotus Fuego, one of the biggest roles]. And she totally stepped up. She really took responsibility.
She would get really frustrated with some of the other people in the ensemble — or with me. And I’m really respectful of the struggle that it is to make something. It’s hard! But she would find in herself the adjustment to put her focus on what we were trying to do, and not lash out on another woman.
It’s not like I’m torturing them. But I was asking them to do something that is difficult: which is, like, “somebody else messed up in the scene and now we have to go back and do it again.” In theatre, it’s the hell that you go through.
How do you prepare volunteers for this experience? We have a contract. What we cannot do is say you’re going to be there and not be there, because too many people in their lives have not shown up.
But it’s not like I have to crack a whip or something.
The women like Beverly (who ran sound) and Joy (she played biker mom) have volunteered every year. And they’re both pregnant. Beverly had morning sickness every day— she would get up and have to go puke in the middle of rehearsal.
I believe in my soul that it comes from what they get from these women. It’s genuinely inspiring in a way that’s hard to explain — but it’s very real.
*Names of all offenders mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.
Pay-what-you-can performances of Freehold’s Engaged Theatre tour will be staged in Seattle this year.
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Directed by Robin Lynn Smith
Cast includes: Eva Abram, Kjerstine Anderson, Shawn Belyea, Susanna Burney, Beth Fleenor, Sarah Harlett, Trina Harris, Reginald Andre Jackson, Sylvester Kamara, Kevin McKeon, Hal Ryder, Vanessa Skantze.
Wednesday, July 7, 6:30pm, Seward Park, Amphitheatre
5898 Lake Washington Blvd. S., Seattle
Saturday, July 10, 8:00pm & Sunday, July 11, 5:00pm Broadway Performance Hall
1625 Broadway, Seattle
Visit freeholdtheatre.org for more information.