Ok, so to start: No, I didn't get arrested. No, I wasn't incarcerated. No, this isn't a Memphis version of Orange is the New Black.
This is my week at the Shelby County Penal Farm, Jail East, C-Block as an improvisation instructor for Tennessee Shakespeare Company.
All names have been changed for protection.
These are the notes I took each day:
Day 1 - Monday
-No one was told that I would be coming to teach a class this week. The captain had to call the chief to confirm who I was. Note to self: arrive early tomorrow in case this happens again.
-Conducted workshop in the multi-purpose room. Plastic chairs were made available to us.
-The boys were brought to class late. There are 6 of them.
John - reluctant to participate and seemed impatient when others weren't catching on as quickly. I found out he is turning 18 next week and being moved to 201 Poplar. He may not return to class tomorrow.
Luke - very talkative and slightly inappropriate with his humor, but means well.
Mark - very hard on himself and can't see without his glasses.
Paul - did not catch onto the exercises very quickly and was more reserved, but seemed enthusiastic.
Peter - turning 18 in September and will be moved to 201 Poplar. He had a good attitude and seemed to enjoy class.
Thomas - enjoyed making the other boys laugh and was more vocal.
- We did check-in, physical stretches, a tongue twister, and shake-down warm-up to start. Then we discussed what direction the boys would like to take the class into. I had planned on having them choose between a short-form, long-form, or sketch comedy track. They all decided they wanted to get a taste of everything. I will be re-calibrating my lesson plan to give them a well-rounded introduction to improv.
-The boys had a great dynamic amongst each other, were respectful, and participated.
-One guard sat in with us. She really enjoyed observing but was not comfortable participating.
-Three of the boys are singers, they are all writers, and I'm excited to continue teaching them.
Day 2 - Tuesday
-There was a different officer at the entrance today. They still forgot to make a note that I was teaching. This time I wasn't even let through the metal detector until they had confirmed I was who I said I was. It was tense.
-We were moved into the computer lab today because there was a religious service taking place in the multi-purpose room. The computer lab is about the size of a spacious storage closet. No chairs. No clock. No computers. No windows. It was slightly claustrophobic.
-Played lots of short-form improv games. Started with "Musical Conductor." Each boy took turns being the conductor in the center of the room. Everyone else used their voices and bodies to create sounds, rhythms, and music. The boys had a lot of fun creating their own songs.
Then we played "Musical Hot Potato," where someone starts in the center of the circle. They sing a song. As they are singing other boys save them by jumping into the center and singing a whole new song. They were able to play for 5 minutes straight which is REMARKABLE because all of my theatre students in the past barely lasted 30 seconds and never wanted to play again.
We also played "Questions Only," "Turntable," "Party Quirks," "Last Expert Standing," and "Dating Game." These boys have never performed in their life, and they were taking to Intermediate/Advanced improv games like ducks on water.
-We ended up having a lot of really nice chats in between games. Different things the boys would say or do would remind me of real-life experiences and vice versa.
-John returned to class today, but Mark did not. Not sure what happened with Mark but he didn't want to come out of his room.
-All the boys at the end of class celebrated their having a good time and were surprised at what good moods they were in. They are all very interested in sketch writing and long-form improv.
Day 3 - Wednesday
-I heard dogs barking as I walked up to the Jail today. There's a dog training facility nearby.
-The officers recognized me today so I had no trouble getting to the classroom. They would actually call down the hall to one another saying, "Shakespeare's here!" "Ooo! Shakespeare's back!" "Oh yay! Shakespeare!"
-Only had 4 students today: Peter, Luke, John, and Mark. Paul was at court and Thomas was on a phone call that lasted the duration of the class.
-Began with check-in and warm-ups, then I took them through the improv objective exercise, "Fairytale in a Minute," and "Freeze Tag." The boys really liked "Freeze Tag," and begged to keep playing it for the rest of class. Instead I had them do some writing exercises.
-Their first writing prompt was a childhood memory. Some wrote about pets, some about holidays, some about football.
Then I had them write down the title to an imaginary movie they would want to star in. We folded up the paper and put it in the center of the table. Everyone then drew someone else's title and wrote the script for the movie. While we were sharing these stories, the boys had fun explaining the stories they had in mind when they wrote the titles. It was very interesting seeing the different routes people could choose using the same title.
-I've asked the boys to aim for TRUTH not COMEDY in their performances and writing. Because of that, all of their pieces and stories have either been entirely about violence or end in the death of at least one character. It is a little jarring, but I can now see a difference between them actually threatening each other and just acting out behaviour they have seen before.
I can also hear how people around them speak to them. I can hear the adult persuading the child to do something awful. I can hear their conscience pleading for them to make the right choice. I read about the innocence being lost--not always unwillingly. I was not prepared for these insights emotionally and I cried in the car afterwards.
-Mark took me by surprise today. He said, "I didn't know this class would actually be fun. And I didn't know I liked writing short stories, but, now, all I want to do is write more."
-The boys wanted to know if they could write outside of class and bring their work with them. I was flabbergasted in the best way possible.
-John asked if I would be here on Friday because that is his last day before being transferred downtown. He turns 18 Friday.
Day 4 - Thursday
-I heard the dogs barking again today. And as I was walking I heard the loud, sharp, rapid fire of an AK-47. It startled me so much that I actually jumped. I looked around and realized the shooting range was just beyond the tree line. I distinctly remember thinking, Who the fuck thought this configuration was a good idea? Well...probably someone who wanted to scare the shit out of the inmates...and the visitors...
-Only had 4 students today: Peter, Thomas, Paul, and John. Luke and Mark were both at court today.
-The guards left me alone in the room with the boys that day. I did not feel uncomfortable or unsafe at all. They treat me with the up-most respect, certainly more than I'd ever ask for. Today they even started giving me inside tips of who at the prison would be nice to me and who wouldn't give a shit about me.
-We were back in the multi-purpose room today. We focused on sketch-writing all day.
-For the first exercise, I wrote out all the improv games we had played up to this point on the board along with the rules for those games. I told them to choose one game to use as the framework for their skits. This seemed to help them understand the concept of a sketch vs. a poem.
-For the second exercise, I did a variation of the movie title prompt I gave them yesterday. As before everyone wrote down a title on a scrap piece of paper to put in a pile in the center of the table. Then they were to write the exact same title on their own paper. They would first write their own version of their story, then they would draw a new title and write a second story. We would go around and compare/contrast the two scripts.
-John asked if it would be alright if he made up his own rules for his script to follow. I told him, "Absolutely! That's advanced-level improv work. Go for it!"
He smiled. And I realized that was the first time I had seen him smile.
-Peter was having a hard day. I think he was in his dark place. All of his pieces today incorporated hell or the devil or both.
-I think Paul is picked on by the other boys. Anytime he would speak Thomas would hum "Barbie Girl" under his breath. And if he paused or did not reply fast enough, John would call him out for being slow. I get the feeling this has something to do with his sexuality. Rape and molestation is a mind-blowingly HUGE problem among the boys here, and the boys' (even the guards') tolerance for being gay or transgender is extremely low. I've encountered this in normal school settings being in theatre...but it was unnerving in this setting.
I kept the peace, but am unable to reconcile their differences.
Day 5 - Friday
-It stormed outside today. I heard a dog crying today. It sounded like it was in pain. The cynic in me kept waiting to hear for the fateful crack of a pistol, but the rain kept me from lingering.
-Inside was dry and comfortable and I was excited to be going to class.
-However, class was not to happen today. Because of miscommunication both the multi-purpose room AND the computer lab were being used. I was forced to conduct class in the pod.
-The pod is where all the juvenile inmates are kept. These kids aren't like those being held at the Juvenile Facility. The kids at Jail East are being tried as adults because their crimes are so heinous.
I'm not going to lie--I was extremely nervous. I'd been in the pod once before and could not help but remember the way some of those young men looked at me.
-The pod for those of you who have never been to jail is the large open room that all the boys' cells are connected to. There are huge walls of chainlink fence on the second level to keep boys from throwing objects or themselves over the railing onto the concrete floor. There is one way in and one way out through a series of sliding metal doors that cannot be opened manually. The showers are located on one side and the telephone booths are in the back. The boys never leave the pod except to go to court or attend a volunteer class. During the school year there are around 20 inmates. Because it is summertime, there was upwards of 45 inmates there.
-There were 3 officers in the pod with me. 2 sat with all the boys while they watched a movie on the television. 1 came with me and 5 of my students as we sat across the room at some tables.
-We were all noticeably upset that we weren't having class in the classroom. The officer wouldn't let the boys and I sit in a circle like we normally do because the boys couldn't be on the same level as me in front of the other inmates. I kept my back to the boys watching the television, but I could hear them whispering about me.
-John, Luke, Mark, Peter, and Paul were all there today. Thomas was at court. All of us had turned off our emotions in front of the other inmates and guards, so there weren't any sentimental tears or goodbyes between us. Showing emotion is interpreted as a sign of weakness and the kids kept in here don't play nice.
For example: We couldn't give the boys laminated certificates because they would whittle them into weapons.
-Since we couldn't do any check-in, warm-ups, games, or writing exercises, I made today about handing out their typed-up scripts, certificates, and booklets containing all the work they had done this week.
-John and Peter both wanted to know if there were college programs for this kind of stuff. I told them all about University of Memphis and offered my assistance if they needed help putting together admission packages.
-I asked Peter if he had ever taken any writing classes before. He said he had not which astounded me because his writing is above and beyond my own level. He told me he reads Oscar Wilde all the time. He's read all of his plays and stories and poems. I told him about some local playwriting competitions and that I would help him submit his work if he wanted. He told me about a play he has in his head right now that he needs to get down on paper. I don't want to spoil his genius, so I'll just say it's going to be INCREDIBLE.
-When I told Peter that his play would be professionally produced if he won, he smiled a huge, genuinely hopeful and excited smile. I had never seen him smile so big before. He straightened his back and looked around like he could finally leave all this behind, and all the darkness in his eyes left for just a moment.
If I had been in the classroom, I would have broken down and wept right there.
-Our goodbyes were short and informal--a few fist bumps here, a nod of the head there. And then before I knew it, I was walking back out those sliding metal doors into the rain.
And I cried.
Because the odds are stacked against these kids.
And they are so fucking talented.
And it is more likely they will be killed before I'll get to see them again.