Ahead of last Monday’s community gathering presented by the Broadway Advocacy Coalition the event had looked interesting. In the room, it went to places that, for many, may have been entirely unexpected.
As its name suggests, the three-year-old coalition is a vehicle through which New York theatre professionals (not just those on Broadway) get involved in activities around social justice, including education equality, ending mass incarceration and immigration reform.
Recognising the specific talents in the people who create theatre, BAC partners with various organisations that can benefit from the participation of artists and others in the community.
Monday’s event asked: “How can artists and advocates ensure the work they are doing is having its intended impact on the communities and issues they care about and how can both groups think more critically about using the arts to make a difference?”
The panel for the evening was made up of Alejo Rodriguez, community liaison at Exodus Transitional Community; Pastor Isaac Scott, the arts and communication coordinator at the Center for Justice, and Shaina Taub, who created musical versions of Twelfth Night and As You Like It for the exemplary Public Works programme.
Taub is well known in the community as a composer and performer, and she spoke about the nature of engagement she experienced with the various community organisations that participate in the often vast casts of Public Works shows. She also spoke of the impact of the arts in New York, which reached her even as she was growing up in a small town in Vermont.
Scott identified himself as a visual artist and Rodriguez told the attendees he was a poet, also dabbling in playwriting. But the event transformed when both men also identified as being formerly incarcerated, Scott for dealing drugs, for which he served nine years, and Rodriguez for homicide, for which he served more than three decades.
They spoke of their evolution into artists during their time in prison. Scott said he began simply by doodling on the envelopes he would send as he wrote to family and friends, which turned into a business for him while imprisoned because other men wanted him to adorn their mail as well. With a slight smile, he told the audience: “I went to prison for selling drugs, so clearly I’m an entrepreneur.”
Rodriguez said he was drawn to poetry because it wouldn’t hold him to defined rules of grammar, but also spoke about the frustration at being published always as a ‘prison poet’, not simply a poet. Of trying his hand at playwriting, he said his play was atrocious, as was the production, but that he had gained support for it by first asking “the baddest guys in the yard, because [he] knew they had egos” to participate, taking any stigma out of being part of the play.
As badly as Rodriguez said the play went, with the last-minute loss of two cast members to solitary confinement and many forgotten lines, he also recalled how much conversation it generated within the prison community for days afterwards. He said: “The artist became the audience and the audience became the artist, informing us of what the play meant to them.”
To BAC’s credit, it didn’t promote the event as a talk with men who had served prison time, so there wasn’t a whiff of exploitation. As Scott and Rodriguez spoke, they weren’t parading their prison time for street credibility, only speaking of their lived experience, and how the arts were a part of it.
So how would this event, the truths of these men’s lives, have an impact on the theatre community that gathered to hear them? Scott pointed out that they might one day have the opportunity to write or perform in work about prison life, but that such stories rarely have authenticity. He called out popular culture for making artistic choices that perpetuate stigmatisation, noting that often when writers research prison life, they speak only with corrections officers, not inmates.
There are certainly theatre artists who do deep research when exploring prison life – Anna Deavere Smith and her Notes from the Field, about the school to prison pipeline, springs immediately to mind, and Rodriguez acknowledged the influence of Short Eyes, an acclaimed mid-1970s play by Miguel Piñero, who served time as well.
There are many others who come to know the reality, including artists who run programmes within prisons. I’m planning to see the musical 1776 at Sing Sing maximum security prison at the end of October.
What BAC did on Monday night was to bring home some of the realities that can often seem remote even from the most dedicated activists, bringing genuine human faces to what can become distant but worthy causes. I doubt this occurs at every meeting, but Monday was a reminder to all artists to learn the truth of the stories they tell and to honour the lives of the people they represent with not just imagination, but knowledge.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/