May 14, 2011
By Claire Sykes
I was 16 the first time I stepped inside a prison. The way I remember it, metal doors clanged one after the other behind me, each one locking me deeper into the ominous, gray stone building. While fluorescent lights glared at their reflection in the bulletproof glass and uniformed guards peered at me, their pistols and billy clubs hugging their hips, I was told to sign my name, and was questioned and patted down. Then they took my purse, and motioned me to go stand over there. A few minutes later, another metal door banged open and I was led into a large room with rows of folding chairs. I took a seat and waited. Any minute now it was going to start—the Ohio Penitentiary 511 Jazz Ensemble.
The idea of prison performances has fascinated me ever since. But nearly 30 years would pass before I saw one again, in the late 90s, when the male inmates at William Head Institution, just north of Victoria, British Columbia, put on “Our Country’s Good,” by Timberlake Wertenbaker, about Australia’s first British settlers, many of them convicts. What a choice.
So when I heard recently about Johnny Stallings’ Open Hearts Open Minds project that brings Shakespeare into the Two Rivers Correctional Institution, a state prison near Umatilla, Oregon, I had to know more.
It started in 2005 for Johnny, a Portland actor, playwright and director, when he twice performed his solo “King Lear” for the inmates. After each show, he talked with the prisoner audience. Later in the fall, he gave two performances of “Silence,” a spiritual monologue he wrote. His one-man “Hamlet” came next, the following spring. After that, his post-play discussions with the inmates had grown into weekly dialogues, which he titled, “The Stories We Tell Ourselves: How Our Thinking Shapes Our Lives.”
Johnny founded Open Hearts Open Minds in 2007, a 501.c.3 with the mission to “nurture inner transformation through dialogue, silence, education and the arts, in order to promote peace, love and understanding.” Since then—every week—he has driven the three hours out to Two Rivers to talk with the men.
Then, in 2008, he helped the prisoners form their own theater group, starting with “Hamlet,” with four performances for their fellow inmates and two for the general public. It was the first Shakespeare play ever staged by inmates in an Oregon prison. But it wouldn’t be the last. Two years later, they did “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” wearing costumes lent to them by Portland Opera.
There’s also a documentary in the works (directed by Bushra Azzouz), called “Midsummer Night’s Dream in Prison,” featuring interviews with the inmate-actors and scenes from their rehearsals and performances.
A couple of months ago, I invited Johnny and Bushra, and as many people as I could fit into my living room for a Velvet Sofa Salon “Evening with Inmates” (followed by quite the party!). While Bushra exudes this quiet warmth edged with intensity, “frisky” is a good word for Johnny I think. He thrums with a childlike glee that bursts through his easy smile, but there’s depth there, too, and heart. And you can’t help but feel all snug and cozy around him. We watched clips from their in-progress documentary, the inmates looking squarely at us while they talked about their fears, their hopes, their regrets. I believed their sincerity, as well as the severity of their crimes (whatever they were) that deserve their incarceration. Yes, they had knowingly done bad things in life. But could acting in a Shakespeare play help rehabilitate them?
Johnny thinks so. Here on the Velvet Sofa, he talks with me about open hearts and how they really can open people’s minds—especially his own.
Claire Sykes: How did this all start for you, doing theater in a prison?
Johnny Stallings: About eight years ago, I was living in Central Oregon, in the small town of Ashwood, with a population of about 15. I lived there for three years. The closest town for groceries is Madras, 30 miles away. They were about to build a prison there, so the county commissioner set up a tour of an existing, nearby prison for anyone who wanted to see it. That was Two Rivers.
I didn’t like the fact that they were building a prison. It’s one of the main, new industries and a source of jobs, but couldn’t they think of anything else? But taking the tour surprised me. It wasn’t what I expected. It didn’t look like a scary prison; it seemed more like a social service agency, which is one of the things that it is. And I was impressed by the administrators. As a gesture, I offered to do a performance there, and they said OK.
CS: You started the discussion group with the inmates right away. Why?
JS: I wanted to meet the audience members. I became very engaged and interested in these people who were in prison. Meeting the inmates face to face, I saw their humanity; they’re just people. Before you go inside a prison, it’s just an abstraction; the inmates don’t have a face. Then once you meet them, they remind you of yourself. They’ve done bad things that hurt people, but their humanity comes across very strong, in spite of the things they’ve done.
CS: What does their humanity look like to you?
JS: Often when we think of criminals, we think only of their crimes. They might’ve taken five minutes to commit that crime, but they’ve lived their whole lives. There’s more to them than their crime; there’s a whole human being in there, just like with all of us. They’re not so different from those on the outside. In our minds, we’ve reduced them to this one thing, their crimes, but meeting them, you get to see all the rest, very quickly.
CS: You engaged the inmates in post-performance discussion beginning with your very first production at Two Rivers, the one-man “King Lear.” How did they respond?
JS: Afterwards, one guy said to me, “You don’t know how much this means to us. Thank you.” He appreciated it. He loved the Shakespeare. He cared about it. It blew him away. It had an impact that, as an actor, you’d always wish for an audience. This was a person who loved the language, he loved the performance. It was extraordinary—for both of us.
CS: And your next play? What was it, and what did you talk about with the men?
JS: The second was “Silence.” That discussion, with about 15 inmates, was about spiritual search and the search for meaning in life. I’d been on my own spiritual/intellectual search all my life. But so what? Most people aren’t interested in that. But eventually, every once in a while, you might stumble upon someone who is interested in what you’ve been doing with your life. So when I did “Silence” there at the prison, we started talking about how to live a meaningful life in prison, and what their spiritual practices were. What have you understood about your life, so far? Where are you at? Some of the men are very mature, some are just taking baby steps. But all of a sudden, we were in some really fertile territory.
At one point, one of the men expressed how much he was enjoying the discussion. I suggested they get together themselves, but they’re not allowed to congregate; someone from outside would have to come in and make it happen. I thought, I’d like to come back here on a regular basis and do this. I was invited back to perform, and eventually, I proposed to the prison administration that I do a dialogue group, and they said yes.
CS: You no longer live in Central Oregon, and you still go out there?
JS: Since I left Ashwood, almost five years ago, I’ve gone out to the prison every Wednesday, driving three hours each way to get there. The group meets for three hours.
CS: It’s a beautiful drive. But that’s true dedication! And you don’t have a background or degree in counseling or psychology, so how does the prison let you run this group?
JS: You’re right. The only experience I have is my own life. It’s because the prison isn’t paying me—this is all volunteer—that I can do this, without the credentials.
CS: You call the group, “The Stories We Tell Ourselves: How Our Thinking Shapes Our Lives.” Why?
JS: I picked that topic because it’s of interest to me. I noticed, through meditation, that whether a person has a good life and is happy, or is suffering and depressed, depends on what is going on between their ears. It’s a narrative they tell themselves; and it becomes very important if you’re in prison, because you could go mad. But this applies equally to people outside of prison.
CS: What are some of the topics that come up for the inmates?
JS: We discuss big topics—freedom, love, happiness. That sort of thing. One time, we discussed a phrase from “King Lear,” when he’s running around with flowers in his hair and he says, “None does offend. None, I say. None.” So I asked, What does that mean? We got into the subject of the innocent person we all were when we were two years old. And really, we are still that person; we just got bigger. Is it possible for a two-year-old to do something wrong? To offend? And one of the guys said, “Absolutely not.”
CS: Other than having these discussions, how else does the group benefit the inmates?
JS: Just my showing up is a tremendous help. Prison is lonely, and people there feel like they’re being warehoused. They also feel forgotten and abandoned by friends and family and lovers. So the fact that I would bother to visit them means a lot to them. Many of the men have said that the group is like a little oasis for them, and that for those three hours a week it’s like not being in prison.
CS: What do the inmates learn from being in this dialogue group?
JS: It’s very helpful to them, and to me, to learn how to listen to other people whose views are different than our own, and to respect them, nonetheless. And not feel that you have to argue with them or change their mind. Not everybody thinks like you do. Not everybody agrees with you. But it doesn’t follow that they’re wrong. They have different perspectives based on their own life experiences. So that art of listening to other people’s viewpoints and honoring them is one of the things we all get from the dialogues.
CS: In what ways have listening and talking changed their experiences of living in prison?
JS: In prison, you’re thrown in with a lot of people who don’t have—to put it mildly—good social skills. They might be belligerent and unpleasant. A lot of them might be immature and aggressive. But you have to live in this environment with them. So it would be helpful to have a little empathy and understanding for these people. There are reasons why they’re so unpleasant; they have some issues. I’m pretty confident that just knowing that makes it easier to live with them.
CS: How soon after running the weekly group did you start Open Hearts Open Minds?
JS: About six months. Jerry Smith [with the Jerry and Donna Smith Family Foundation] helped me out from the very beginning of the dialogues. I don’t know how I would’ve done it without his help. After six months, he suggested that I start a nonprofit organization to garner more support. His foundation has continued to be our biggest supporter.
CS: How did the inmates start acting and performing?
JS: During one of the weekly dialogue groups, one of the guys asked me if I’d ever thought about doing a play with them. This guy is serving a life sentence for murder, and he looks the part of a stereotypical prisoner. If you were making a prison movie, he’d make a good extra. Anyway, he asked me if I’d ever thought about that, and I said, Well, do you want to do a play? He said, I’ve never read Shakespeare and have never been in a play, but I would consider it a challenge. Everyone in the group nodded. They had a lot of respect for him.
CS: What was the play?
JS: I chose “Hamlet.” I cast four guys as Hamlet, instead of one, so in each performance, there were four of them. It’s a very big role, and to ask someone who’s never been in a play before to take it on himself can be overwhelming. And also, I wanted four guys to share the juiciest role. One of them was the guy serving the life sentence.
CS: How did rehearsals go?
JS: We rehearsed for six months. Usually, plays aren’t rehearsed for more than two months, but I could only go out there once a week. In addition, we had one all-day rehearsal, one Saturday a month. The inmates said, uniformly, that rehearsals were a challenge; they were difficult. Typically, I’d give someone a speech to learn, and a week or two later they would know the speech, and get up and recite it. Then I’d ask them what it meant, and most of them said, I have no idea. They spoke of it as being like a foreign language. But they persevered. And by the time of the performance, all the inmates knew exactly what they were saying. As they spoke, they understood it. As director, I made sure they understood. The play meant a lot to them. They cared, and they worked hard.
When we rehearsed “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we had a lot more fun than with “Hamlet.”
It was really wonderful. The spirit of the play lifted everyone up, all throughout the rehearsals. It was very pleasing to hear people laughing, and laughing hard. When we performed the play for just the inmates, one of them said, “I’ve been in prison since the age of nine”—he’s about 50—“and I’ve been on the street for only three years, and this is the most I’ve ever laughed.”
When we did a public performance of the play, inmates could invite family and friends. The guy playing the part of Bottom didn’t know anyone in the audience, but he had a friend in the play whose mom came. Afterwards, she gave Bottom a big hug. It was the first hug he’d had in 12 years.
CS: That’s way too long. No one deserves such lack of affection. You know, I can’t help but feel that anyone who’s imprisoned has goodness in them. At the same time, one has to be careful not to idealize prisoners, and assume more virtue or promise than they warrant. How does the film about the inmates, directed by Bushra Azzouz, avoid romanticizing them?
JS: Well, it’s a documentary, not a drama. I don’t think the film will either glorify or romanticize these guys, or life in prison. Viewers will be struck by the fact that people who are stripped of everything will still retain their humanity. That’s not romantic, exaggerated or hyperbolic. It’s just important. People will see the inmates and hear their stories, and come to their own conclusions.
CS: What kind of conclusions have you come to, in working with the men?
JS: Running the dialogue group really opens my heart and challenges my mind. When I’m sitting in the prison and we’re looking at each other, I’m awake, alert, and I love everybody I see. The lighting is bright and we’re in a circle, and we’re listening to each other very intently. Sitting in a circle like that, it’s sort of the experience Whitman said in “Song of Myself,” seeing God in every face.
CS: What is it that allows you to have that experience?
JS: Something about prison, perhaps, strips people of their facades. Outside of prison, we wear different clothes, drive different cars, and we make all these assessments of people in terms of status, wealth and desirability. But here, everything’s been taken away from everybody, similar to what monasteries do. There, when everybody shaves their heads and wears robes, you can really see their uniqueness. It might be something like that. The prisoners seem innocent to me.
CS: What has been most rewarding for you about running the dialogue group at Two Rivers and directing Shakespeare plays there?
JS: It’s been very satisfying to have found something that I do well, and that’s so helpful to others.
CS: How do you feel that your work at the prison has made a difference in people’s lives behind and beyond its bars?
JS: There’s a possibility that it’s having a big impact on a few of the prisoners’ lives. They may be better people, more patient, more empathetic, kinder. As mentors, slowly, they’re touching other prisoners’ lives and those people touch a lot of other lives, then there’s a ripple effect going out from the dialogue group and performances. It could, slowly, change the culture of this particular prison.
CS: In what ways do you think you’ve changed after nearly eight years of working with the inmates?
JS: One of my aspirations is to be a more open-hearted person. I can see that that’s happened. I cry more easily. When I see somebody, a child or grown person, who has been deprived and then they get a blessing, it makes me cry. I like to think that no one is outside my sympathy, that I have no enemies. Actually, I wish everyone well. But that’s an intellectual stance. How do you actually become a kinder, more loving and open-hearted person? Maybe by practicing it. You start out performing a kind act, and if you keep doing it, you might get there.
© 2011 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.