Acting is the Life (Sentence) for Me

stage actors

With less than seven months go to before my next parole hearing, I decided to get my house in order. Or, should I say my cell. I was doing 15 to life at Sing Sing for a long list of class C misdemeanors, including furnishing cigarettes to my 12-year-old sister and her friends. Since my parole requests had already been denied 7 times, I decided to try a radical approach to making myself appear rehabilitated: taking acting classes.

Sing Sing started offering vocational arts classes to career felons like me through the Convicts and Rehabilitated Actors Program. Founded in 1996, CRAP was modeled after New York’s famous Actors Studio and boasted alumni like Mike Tyson, Wesley Snipes and Marilyn Manson. Through a long list of productions such as The Great Escape, Escape from New York, Escape from Alcatraz, Dead Man Walking, Riot in Cell Block 11, Doing Time, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, Up the River and Doing Life, the alumni of CRAP have demonstrated that it can significantly improve career felons’ behavior, instill a sense of humor and reduce recidivism after being paroled. It gives parolees a chance to explore alternative emotions and ways of communicating besides throttling and sodomizing their peers.

I was anxious to get started, so I scheduled an audition with the Director, Jörgen Osvald, who was a member of the notorious Swedish prison gang, Brödraskapet. Being an institutionalized program, CRAP wasn’t particular about the people they let in. In fact, transgender inmates who had already started their re-assignment process were typically awarded the lead female roles.

“So, what makes you want to join our little theatre group?” asked Jörgen.

“Well, I’m interested in making the world a better place to live, beginning with positive changes in my own life,” I said. “I’d like to give something back to the community while serving as a role model to kids at risk for gang violence.”

Jörgen leaned back and said, “That’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. But while it might win you a Tony or get you through your parole hearing, I’m not buying your twaddle for a minute. Nevertheless, we are having problems finding a paunchy, middle-aged Caucasian to play Officer Krupke in our upcoming production of ‘The West Side Story.’ So, I’ll let you take a stab at it. Here’s a script. Be in the mess hall at 3:00 this afternoon.”

Between the Aryan Nation and La Ñetas, there were plenty of young white and Puerto Rican men to fill out the cast of the Sharks and the Jets. The problem was getting past Act 1. While rehearsing the rumble scene, the two gangs surreptitiously swapped their rubber props with the shivs they made in metal shop, so the guards ended up locking down the entire wing. We never did get to opening night.

With the production on ice, Jörgen had us focus on our affective memory and improvisation skills by introducing us to Constantin Stanislavski’s Method Acting. These are the same skills Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and Feibush Yehudah use in their award winning roles.

We started by sitting in a circle, closing our eyes and choosing imaginary objects to explore with our hands. Some of the men chose simple things like an apple, banana or the rough texture of a Kiwi. Others chose possessions that reminded them of home: their .38 Special, an old bong or the rack on a Hooters waitress. Being new to the exercise, I chose my penis so I could continue to practice in my cell after class was over. The point was to learn how to focus on something for more than 30 seconds without constantly looking over our shoulder to see who was going to shove a sharpened toothbrush into your rib cage.

We were also required to memorize long Shakespearean soliloquies and recite them on stage in front of the class. Jörgen told us that learning unfamiliar lines would come in handy if we ever went to work for large, prestigious corporations like McDonald’s, Chik-fil-A or 7-Eleven. Those of us who were up for parole were goaded into memorizing useful telephone greetings:

“Good morning and welcome to Sonic Drive-through, home of the SuperSonic Bacon Double Cheeseburger, Chili Cheese Pretzel Dog, Grilled Honey Mustard and Swiss Chicken Sandwich and Ultimate Meat and Cheese Breakfast Burrito. Each day we feature something unique on our menu like our deep-fried Squirrel on a Stick, Junior Double Bacon Half-pounder or Chili Cheese Cocktail Weenies with special dipping sauce. And, for something special, how about washing it down with one of Sonic’s famous Turkey Caramel shakes? We have over 3500 locations across 44 states and are open from 6 o’clock AM to 10 o’clock PM. How may I help you?”

We were given opportunities to collaborate, set goals and express ourselves through dance, movement, visual arts, voice and music. I choreographed a musical rendition of Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding’s parole hearing monologue from The Shawshank Redemption and set it to the music of ‘Oklahoma’. I thought I might be able to use it in my own hearing:

Rehabilitated? Well, now let me see.
You know, I don’t have any idea what that means.
To me it’s just a made up word.
A politician’s word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job.

What do you really want to know?
Am I sorry for what I did?
There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, or because you think I should.

[chorus]
Because to tell you the truth, I don’t give a shit.

I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime.
I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t.
That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s left.
I got to live with that.

[chorus]
Because to tell you the truth, I don’t give a shit.

Rehabilitated? It’s just a bullshit word.
So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time.

Unfortunately, none of my training made any difference. My parole was denied for the 8th consecutive time. Apparently, no one on the Parole Board was impressed with my monologue. I didn’t know it at the time, but The Shawshank Redemption had been playing in the mess hall the previous week, so they’d heard it all before.

But I was glad I enrolled in the program. I’ve been able to apply a number of the techniques to my daily prison life. Like when the Captain of the Guards told me to report to the warden’s office. I asked him, “What’s my motivation for this scene?”

“How about avoiding a beating and a month in the hole?”

“That’ll work…”

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