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Try Acting for a Change

“What are you going to do with the boys?” asked the deputy governor of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. “What’s the workshop about? What do we tell them?”

“Try acting for a change.” I suggested, only realizing the double entendre afterward.

I’m on Sabbatical as a professor of acting at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Along with researching a new solo performance piece at Queens University Belfast, I’ve joined Pamela Brown’s creative writing class at HMP Magilligan Prison north of London-Derry. I’ve volunteered to introduce characterization techniques at two of the prisons supported by the Prison Arts Foundation in Northern Ireland.

My own practice in prisons began in the States, inspired by Curt Tofteland’s Shakespeare Behind Bars program, and it was born when I contacted Katherine Vockins at Rehabilitation Through the Arts in New York. Katherine introduced me to other prison practitioners in one of their workshops. Then I went to the source—I attended a production of Our Town at Sing Sing Correctional facility. I was nervous about the work inside prisons and so I spoke with one of the parolees attending an RTA sponsored art exhibit in Ossining, NY.

“What do you need me to do?” I asked him. “How do you feel about volunteers stepping into your world?”

“Take the mask off,” he told me. “We can see an agenda a mile away. Why are you here? What do you want? We’re looking for tools, real ways to handle real life.”

The answers landed, for me personally and in my work. Once fingerprinted and certified by the Department of Corrections in New York State, I began by coaching the guys at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in a series of workshops. Zip zap zop and Uta Hagen’s object exercises were just the beginning. Sharing personal stories as monologues and improvisations replicating situations in the cell block introduced the men to acting techniques. August Wilson, John Steinbeck, Keith Glover, Charles Fuller, James McClure, and Samuel Beckett gave them new scenes to try on for size.

I’ve always been aware of the changes that can occur as a result of assuming a character. In the Actors on Shakespeare series, F. Murray Abraham wrote: “Like most actors, I begin to assume the qualities of the character. If the character is allowed free rein…he’ll lead you to places that only the unconscious can reveal.”

I’ve often found that after introducing my students to great plays and playwrights, the characters do the rest…When the students say the words and search for the reasons why…a different self begins to emerge.

* * * 
The inmates at HMP Magilligan prison near London-Derry Northern Ireland looked at me like I was from another planet. We were sitting around drinking coffee and sizing each other up before the session.

The men are older here at HMP Magilligan and more seriously focused on improving life skills. They are aware of the consequences in being away from their families. They have been told beforehand that they will tell a personal story and so they come rehearsed…too rehearsed, you might say, because they are reading their stories like an assignment.

But when I take away their paper and ask them to simply remember the story and then “tell this story to your son in order to help him, or to your wife while you’re having a drink, or as you interview for a new job as a way of breaking the ice,” they bring new life and immediacy, emotion, and reality to their stories. They’re learning one of the secrets of acting. They’ve become even more convincing imagining a different circumstance in their own story.

I’ve often found that after introducing my students to great plays and playwrights, the characters do the rest. Saying someone else’s words has a profound effect on behavior and thoughts. Our mind interprets them and makes them ours, while our heart feels them and they change us. When the students say the words and search for the reasons why, it’s like magic; a different self begins to emerge.

Group of men posing for a picture
Gary Sloan and inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility.

A few years ago, I introduced a tall, muscular, intensely gregarious, and fearless individual to Macbeth at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York. He had an experience every actor has had, stunned by an author having written words that belonged to him.

I have lived long enough. My way of life 
Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf, 
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have…

He stopped, looked up, “That was how I felt…right after I shot him…before they came and got me…I felt just like this.”

“Want to talk about it?”

He did.

The magic of character had inspired catharsis for him, face to face with Macbeth, seeing himself and expressing his feelings through Shakespeare.

Back in Belfast at the Hydebank Wood youth detention center, I was in over my head.

These young men would try to trip each other during a movement warm up. Everyone started speaking at once, trying to outdo each other, no matter what I did or said. I thought quickly.

I asked the young lads to tell the group a story one at a time and to insert a lie and then we’ll try and guess what the lie is. They all used real experiences that had happened to them but changed it just enough that it worked in seamlessly with their story telling. Their acting challenge was to lie or alibi in a way that fooled their mates.

One boy’s story involved setting his driver instructor’s car on fire when he didn’t pass his test. The lie? He actually passed the test.

A fight erupted on the other side of the room between a boy who was teasing an obviously troubled young man by saying that he’d stolen a letter from him. When one of the larger members of the group defended him, I got an idea.

“Now that’s a good scene. Change roles. You play him and he’ll play you!”

He was reluctant, but everybody got into the act. The hero played along, and began with an effeminate caricature, as you can imagine, while everyone laughed.

Rehearsing in prison is concise—there isn’t much time. Direction is brief, there isn’t a lot of patience with talking.

They began an improvised “movie” scene about a heist that they made up.

I yelled, “Cut, okay, great scene, now maybe you should choose a different drug, so let's go again and now, which drug are you playing?

He suggested a real downer.

“Okay, that works, totally opposite of what he’s doing, he’s flying and you’re zoned out and barely awake which will frustrate him. Ready? Action!”

They were quite brilliant at this—fully committed and totally into their character’s circumstance, nonstop overlapping dialogue, true to the situation and cooperating to beat the band. I was relieved that the protagonist of the story was trying to get his friends not to pull off the robbery. In fact, he surprised them and vehemently swiped all of the invisible drugs off the table. Their movie, playing themselves, making different choices.

We’re just planting seeds among these young men. An actor’s rehearsal is all about choices. These boys have other choices, other personas, other role models to emulate in order to get them through difficult situations. What they need to do is practice. It could be a lifesaving tool.

My teaching has changed into more of a rehearsal for me, too. It has evolved away from the pressure of making brilliant observations, employing personal demonstration, or offering too many insightful suggestions, toward more time for repetition and encouragement.

There are new scenes waiting. New ways to handle old debts.

To quote Will Durant, summarizing Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics,

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

The men from HMP Magilligan and the boys from Hydebank Wood learned that stepping into someone else’s shoes freed them from old habits and destructive reactions. The man serving time for murder found his experience mirrored by Shakespeare and it helped him understand.

Sometimes all we have to do is make the introduction. 

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Gary! I was in that production of Our Town that you saw at Sing Sing Correctional Facility-I played Emily alongside the men of RTA. I loved reading about your experiences overseas; how fascinating!