Professor Gary Sloan and PAF participants reflect on his short performing art residency in Hydebank Wood College and HMP Magilligan.
PAF participants feedback on the drama workshops included –
Professor Gary Sloan reflects on the experience below –
In a Northern Ireland prison, say Blokes!
“Try acting for a change.”
“Try acting for a change.”
The inmates at HMP Magilligan prison near London-Derry Northern Ireland looked at me like I was from another planet. And as we sat before the session drinking coffee and sizing each other up, I asked,
“Alright, guys, what would I need to know if I was going to play you on stage?”
Again, the looks, begging the question, what does that have to do with anything? And then the correction as a friendly piece of advice,
“Theyar na guyees, jus’ blokes!”
I’m on Sabbatical from my position as professor of acting at the Catholic University of America and along with researching a new solo performance piece at Queens University in Belfast, I’ve joined Pamela Brown’s creative writing class here and volunteered to introduce characterization techniques at two of the prisons supported by the Prison Arts Foundation in Northern Ireland.
“Sorry, sure, alright blokes, let me tell you a story. There used to be a fellow professor at my University in Washington, D.C. that made me angry at almost every faculty meeting. He had a know-it all-attitude and turned every discussion into a speech. I didn’t trust him and I didn’t like the way he treated the students. I just wanted him to go away.
Anybody here know what I’m talking about? [Luckily, I get a few smiles and nods].
This colleague made me so angry with his pontificating that I’d end up losing my temper and saying something that I had to apologize for, not just to him but to everybody in the room. I wasn’t being professional.
I told my wife about it and instead of agreeing with me, she said that he was the most important person in the room for me. What?! Why!?
“He’ll make you better.”
Then she came up with a brilliant suggestion.
“Who do you know that could handle someone like him? You’re an actor, use some of your training to help you deal with him. You know the disagreeable behavior will happen again, so be ready.
“But that’s fake.”
“Well, like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, fake it ‘til you make it.”
It started to sound like an acting challenge and if I couldn’t do it, what kind of an actor am I? So, I needed a character. I tell the men that I decided to play Nigel . . . I have to be a little careful, because Nigel was a mentor of mine from Great Britain and I happen to be in a Northern Ireland prison! . . . or, if they identify as nationalist Republican, a north of Ireland prison, so, not knowing the political leanings of my students, I simply tell them how I begin to practice what I think Nigel would do when he was confronted with the moment of truth. What would he say and how would he say it? And what do I need to help me get into character?
Characteristics. Nigel has a Bristish accent so that won’t work, but he also has a slower and more measured rhythm than mine, a softer quality that sounds like he’s thinking something through as he speaks. And he smiles a lot. Maybe if I dressed a little more flamboyant like he does, that would bring him into the room for me. I think a smile might be a bridge too far, but thinking of how Nigel would probably smile may at least bring a friendlier expression. I get ready for the play at the next faculty meeting and it works! I didn’t lose my temper because I was playing Nigel in my actions. Nobody saw Nigel, just a calmer, kinder more articulate me. Characterization. Not only on the stage but in real life situations too.
Try acting for the change that you’re wanting to occur.
At HMP Magilligan prison, the men are older, more seriously focused on improving life skills and 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 without the paper, remembering the same basic story but with an adjustment like,
“now 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, true emotion and reality to their stories and begin to feel as if they’re learning one of the secrets of acting. They’ve become very convincing characters in their own stories.
They want more. They want monologues and scenes. They want to step into somebody else’s shoes for a change, someone else’s words, someone new to handle their situations. One young man tackles Tom in The Glass Menagerie and feels places within himself that didn’t go to the moon and couldn’t leave his Laura behind by substituting people and places he already knows. Another tries on his Lenny Of Mice and Men, rivaled only by the shy young man that drops his script and begins to improvise George’s frustration with Lenny in a rendering that would give an Irish Gary Sinese a run for his money. One inmate channels his anger and military acumen with Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men, while another seasoned veteran of Magilligan prison tackles the dim witted Gately, scarred from Private Wars that he knows only too well.
Pamela, their writing coach of many years is close by, nodding and affirming their progress. She encourages every little breakthrough.
I’ve often found that as a teacher of acting, my job is mainly casting, introducing my students to great plays and playwrights and then to let the characters do the rest. Merely saying someone else’s words can have a profound effect on behavior and thoughts. Our mind hears 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, like magic, a different self begins to emerge. The words are fleshed and all I’ve been is a match maker, providing a safe space to try a physical, vocal and emotional experience on for size. In a Derry/Londonderry prison, it’s no different.
At the Hydebank Wood youth detention center in Belfast, I was in over my head. It’s the kind of room when I introduced a movement warm-up, they would try to trip each other. Everyone started speaking and topping each other at once, no matter what I did or said. I have to think quick.
First lesson. I ask the young lads to tell the group a story one at a time but 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.
They became actors, already used to lying or making up an alibi, but this illustrated to them that they could do it “in front of their mates who knew them well.” One inmate’s story involved setting his instructor’s car on fire when he didn’t pass his driver’s test. The lie? He actually passed the drivers test. Some of their stories sounded stranger than fiction, but when you’ve lived on the wild side of things, a little pretend isn’t so far-fetched when it can be put to good use.
A fight erupts on the other side of the room between a boy who was teasing a more emotionally troubled young man by saying that he’d stolen a letter from him. When one of the larger members of the group takes his part and puts the bully in his place, I get an idea.
“Now that’ a good scene. Change roles. You play him and you play him.”
The larger of the two sheepishly smiles and says,
“ You say what he just said to you and you say what he said to you – like you were him.”
Everybody gets into the act,
“dun ya gat it lahd, yar spos’d to bay ‘im and ay’s you!”
so he plays along, and begins with an effeminate caricature, as you can imagine, while everyone laughs.
“No, no, what did he say? Why did he do that? How did he tease him, what did he say . . . how did he really say it? Try it – play him . . . then, you, you’re him, what did he say to you.”
They try again – one won’t but another inmate steps in. All laugh at the attempt. I’m hoping that the point is made.
“Alright – we’re going to tell the story again, only this time, you’re your father, mother, best friend, a movie actor that you admire or somebody in this room. Your voice, your body but think of him, (or even her). We won’t know.”
We’re just planting seeds among these young men, that they have other choices, other personnas, other role models to emulate in order to get them through difficult moments. What they need to do is practice.
On this side of the ocean, at Woodbourne Correctional Facility upstate New York a few years ago, I introduced a tall, muscular, intensely gregarious and fearless individual to Macbeth. Sometimes, in the protected form of another character, inmates see themselves and their past. It’s an experience every actor has had. We were in rehearsal and our Macbeth stopped after the speech:
“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 . . . it 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.
Acting is a tried and true therapy, as most actors will attest. It expands our hearts and minds and playing pretend brings us closer the child-like approach to life that we’ve left behind. It’s an existence that Emily in Our Town mourns,
“Does anyone live life every every minute?”
The kids at Hydebank Wood delighted in an improvised “movie” scene about a heist that they made up.
Instructor: “Cut, okay, great scene, now maybe you should choose a different drug . . . and listen, you gotta warn your fellow actor if you’re gonna grab him like that . . . so let’s go again and now, which drug are you playing? He suggests 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, non-stop 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.
I left them with monologues to work on and a couple of scenes in my absence . . . one scene was from a play by Martin McDonagh and one of the lads motioned to his mate and said,
“hey, his name’s McDonagh!”
There the boy stood, holding a script in hand, first time he had been speechless all morning, staring at a script with his name on it and a character he could step into without even changing his clothes!
There are new scenes waiting. New ways to handle old debts. The men from Magilligan and the boys from Hydebank Wood learned that stepping into someone else’s shoes can make them feel free from destructive reactions and even their present circumstances. Because, no matter what’s happening around them or to them, there’s a character somewhere that can handle it. They just have to choose one and try acting for a change.
Fake it ‘til you make it. Didn’t Aristotle say something like that?
-Gary Sloan Professor/Actor The Catholic University of America
Author: In Rehearsal, In the World, In the Room and On Your Own
My deepest appreciation and respect for the work of Fred Caufield, executive director of Prison Arts Foundation in Northern Ireland and Katherine Vockins, executive director of Rehabilitation through the Arts, N.Y.;Kurt Tofeland, Shakespeare Behind Bars; The Catholic University of America Grant In Aid support and a special thanks to my wife, Christie Brown, Finance Director, New Dramatists, N.Y.