Voices Inside/Out at NY Theater Festival October 31st – November 3rd

Three plays by members of the playwriting circle at Northpoint Training Center; a medium security prison near Danville, KY; will be featured in the Bad Theater Fest at The Tank October 31st – November 3rd. The festival celebrates risk-taking and diverse points of view.

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Written by PEN Award-winning playwright Derek Trumbo, Objectify is a lyrical exploration of selecting a partner. This time the tables are turned as a woman must choose among a thinker, the muscular one and the dreamer. The play was created during Holly Hepp-Galvan’s 2012 Voices Inside/Out Playwriting Residency. Mary Hodges will direct.  Objectify will premiere on October 31st at 9pm. Get your tickets now.

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Ghost and a Soda
by Calvin Sturgill is a mash-up of Jeff Foxworthy and Sartre in an alternate universe. Seriously. The play was created during Mel Nieves’ 2013 Voices Inside/Out Playwriting Residency. Montserrat Mendez directs.  The performance is Saturday, November 2nd at 7pm. Get your tickets now.

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A Brother’s Love Is A Brother’s Love by Troy Hughes follows two brothers who are reunited in prison after being out of touch for years. Lydia Fort will direct. The premiere performance is November 3rd at 7pm. Get  your tickets now.

The Bad Theater Fest takes place at The Tank (151 West 46th Street, 8th Floor, NYC ). We will announce the cast soon.

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Reflections is a Big Hit

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Mel Nieves leads the circle at Reflections. Photo: Chris Kateff.

Thank you to everyone who came to Reflections with Mel Nieves on Monday, September 23rd.

For 75 minutes, 40 people sat in a circle and shared in the experience of this wonderful program. 2013 Playwright-in-Residence Mel Nieves spoke eloquently about his June residency. We had terrific actors — chandra thomas, Norman Small, Jr., Noelia Antweiler and Chuck Calvello — read work by Drew, Eric and James– all members of the playwriting circle at Northpoint Training Center, a medium security prison near Danville, KY. All were big hits. Voices Inside/Out co-founder Synge Maher read the gorgeous thank you letter from Eric’s mom about the program and its impact on her son and the whole family. Voices Inside/Out co-founder Lanie Zipoy talked about the residency and the dream of having at least one teaching artist in every prison in America.

The group stood in a circle with eyes closed and did the Peter Brook exercise that Mel had the circle do during his residency in June. In this exercise, the group has to recite the alphabet one person at a time without doubling up on a letter. This large group made it to Letter X on the first try. Astounding. It’s taken much smaller groups hours to be able to complete this exercise.
We close the night with a q&a with Mel. Most people were interested in his experience — what he learned and gained from the program– and how to make a program like this viable in other prisons.

Save the Date! Reflections with Mel Nieves September 23, 2013

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NYC-based playwright Mel Nieves (pictured front row, far right) spent the last week of June in Danville, Kentucky as part of Voices Inside/Out third annual playwriting residency. He taught master classes in playwriting to the prisoner-playwrights circle at Northpoint Training Center, a medium security prison.

On Monday, September 23rd, Mel along with Voices Inside/Out co-founders Synge Maher and Lanie Zipoy will present the wonderful revelations that happened during his residency as well as snippets of the inmates’ work and how this program is changing lives on both sides of the bars.

Join us for an awe-inspiring night that proves imagination has no barriers. 

Reflections with Mel Nieves will be free and open to the public. We will announce the NYC location very soon. RSVP to northpointplays@gmail.com to reserve your seats.

 

Magic at Northpoint | Day 3

That old Olivia Newton-John song said, “You have to believe in magic.” Everyone in yesterday’s playwriting circle – inmates (Steven, Derek, Cal, Rob, Eric, Jordan, Andrew, James, and Ryan), playwrights (Mel Nieves, Liz Orndorff), Pioneer Playhouse actors (Eric, Adam, Jennifer and Kimberly) and producer (Lanie Zipoy) —  certainly does. Yesterday’s class was one of those inspiring sessions that reaffirms life, art, creativity and the human connection.

Mel Nieves, the 2013 Voices Inside/Out playwright-in-residence, talks about what he learned from day three in this one-minute video.

Mel had tasked the men in the circle to write a short play based on the people and conflict featured in the two letters that had written in class the day before. We didn’t read those letters of apology so we had no idea what the lads would dream up. Even if we’d heard the letters, we would not have known the outstanding work this exercise would produce. There’s no way to guess when magic will really strike.

Derek, who has won top prize in the PEN Inmate Writing Program for Drama, raved that he thought this exercise brought out the best work Steven, Eric, Rob, Ryan and James have ever created, and he’s right.

Pioneer Playhouse actors Eric, Adam, Jennifer and Kimberly and playwright Liz acted out the powerful scenes – some of redemption and hope, some of closure and one of absolute heartbreak.  Rob said he wrote a seven-page version of his story, then cut it to three. He admitted to struggling with the exercise and was unsure of his work. But the powerful meeting of an ex-con, just released from prison, and his ex-lover was explosive and told a complete story in just three short pages.

Eric wrote 17 pages (he’s prolific and determined), showed them to Derek before class and then continued to whittle the play to a really tight eight pages. Love how the men have embraced the re-write process. In Eric’s play, a young man visits the elderly father of the man he killed. Forgiveness is futile in this stark play with a surprising twist.

Steven’s play about an ex-husband and ex-wife arguing over his stint in prison, their failed relationship and their kids felt straight up like something Steppenwolf  would eat up. Anyone who saw Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway could imagine them in this short play. The stakes were higher than Mt. Everest, and the hurt these former lovers inflict on one another is unflinching.

Ryan’s play featured him singing his gorgeous song – Mi Amor (think Stevie Wonder meets Macklemore) – to his wife, played tenderly by Liz. He tries to win her back with his talent, but she’s conflicted whether to stick it out with a man who has made so many mistakes.

There was not a dry eye in the room when James’ play was performed. Adam and Jennifer played a husband and wife. We first learn he left her, and she’s found him. As the play unfolds, it becomes clear that the husband committed suicide and the wife says, “Once you were gone I left the same way.” They have found each other in limbo. The connection between the characters was palpable and heartbreaking. While we didn’t discuss the content of the previous two letters the guys wrote, James let it slip that the first letter was a suicide note, and the second one was the wife’s suicide note in response to her husband’s.  Powerful stuff.

Yesterday was a reminder why we do this residency. Why a grassroots group of New Yorkers with no connection (really) to Kentucky support an amazing program in a Southern prison. Why it’s important to have the creative exchange between artists and those behind bars. Why these stories deserve to be heard in New York and beyond. Everyone has a story to tell. And the men in the Northpoint circle are telling theirs well. Mel and everyone else in the room will never forget the artistic exchange we shared yesterday.

As luck would have it, the evening ended with a gorgeous Kentucky rainstorm, captured from the bungalow where Mel and Lanie are staying while in Kentucky. Seemed like a perfect way to end a powerful and creative day.

Now only one day left in the 2013 Voices Inside/Out Playwriting Residency. It is going to be hard to say goodbye.

Choices – Day 2 at 2013 Voices Inside/Out Residency

Before heading out to Northpoint, the medium security prison outside Danville, KY yesterday, playwright Mel Nieves spoke about his first day and hopes for the second day of his residency. The interview was conducted outside the charming bungalow where he is staying during his week in Danville. And, it sounds like some of the cars in the neighborhood could use a tune-up or two. Sorry for that ambient noise!

Our session was shorter than normal with the circle yesterday. Pioneer Playhouse, the local theater that started and supports the prison playwriting program, opened a show last night (more on that later), and we had to get to the theater earlier. And, it took a long time for the inmates to make it to the visitor’s center. Still, that did not deter our enthusiasm for the class.

Mel kicked off day two with a Peter Brook exercise where with closed eyes and aligned in a circle, the group had to say the alphabet in order — one letter at a time, one person at a time. The idea was to build our listening and attention for others in the room. It only took us three times to get through the alphabet without any duplicate letters. Our first attempt, we got to G. The next time to J. Then, Mel positioned us around the room (with our eyes closed) so we wouldn’t know who was next to us. Despite this challenge, the circle got it done.

Everyone was in a terrific mood. Elated to complete such an exercise in just a few tries. Then, Mel announced we would do a three-part writing exercise called The Letter. In the first part, everyone in the room — the inmates, playwright Liz Orndorff, actor Eric Hedlund and producer Lanie Zipoy — had to write a sincere letter of apology to someone they hurt, someone they knew they would hurt by their actions, but still did the thing. Everyone was instructed to use fictitious names for the letter writer and receiver. The mistake could also be fictitious, but it could also be something real from the writer’s past.  After 10 minutes of writing, everyone folded up their letters and put them away.

Then, we read Jordan’s and Eric’s expanded scenes from yesterday’s exercise — Where Do We Go From Here. Jordan stayed up until 2am expanding the universe he created about a couple meeting up at a bar. It was beautiful, deep and also had a stark economy of writing. Eric expanded his story about a husband and wife meeting in a prison’s visitor center and arguing about her ex-husband’s current involvement in her life. Eric continued this story in a spellbinding way, creating a short play called CHOICES. Any actor in New York would want to play this couple; Liz and Eric did a great job of bringing it to life in the room. The play is rich, heartfelt, and deep. Eric has written his first play after only three classes, and it’s fantastic. So good we will present it in the Big Apple.

Then, Mel gave out the second part of The Letter exercise. Now, everyone had to write a response to the first letter from the person who had been wronged. The other side of the coin, so to speak. After a ten-minute letter writing session, we put these response letters away. Mel asked the class what was easier or harder to write: Letter 1 or Letter 2. Many people thought Letter 2 was easier to write because there was something to respond to while others thought it was easier to write Letter 1 because it was hard to imagine how someone who was hurt would respond to the first letter. Rob said he loved the exercise because it was a neat way to create characters and to become a character while writing. Drew suggested that Mel not reveal it’s a three-part exercise at the top of class because he tried to figure out what Letter 2 would be before he even wrote Letter 1. The guys in the circle even give notes on the exercises! The whole circle cracked up about it.

For the third part of The Letter exercise, Mel asked the guys to write as homework a scene between the two people who exchanged letters. They will present these works in class today. We cannot wait.

When we ended the day in a circle, we said one word — a la an athletic team before a match, game or contest — and yesterday’s word was choices — because it was the title of the Eric’s first play and because The Letter exercise had us grapple with ones we’ve made.

Pioneer Playhouse

When we left Northpoint, our Voices Inside/Out day wasn’t over. Liz, Mel and Lanie headed to Pioneer Playhouse to see TAMED, an updated version of Taming of Shrew set on the set of a Bachelorette-style show How to Marry a Southern Gentleman, and the play was written by Holly Hepp-Galván, last year’s Voices Inside/Out resident playwright, and stars Synge Maher, Voices Inside/Out co-founder. Holly’s  returning to Danville next week with her family to see TAMED and to help teach a senior citizens writing workshop through Pioneer Playhouse this summer. These terrific opportunities came about because of her residency last year. We are thrilled that she’s gotten other great opportunities because of Voices Inside/Out. Here’s to many more!

“Where Do We Go From Here?” – First Day Success!

June 24th was the first day of the third annual Voices Inside/Out playwriting residency at Northpoint Training Center, a medium security prison near Danville, Kentucky. Here’s a short interview (less than a minute!) with the 2013 playwright resident Mel Nieves before we headed to Northpoint yesterday.

Our first day of the 2013 residency was a huge success. And the great vibe started before Mel walked into the Visitor’s Center yesterday evening. Last Wednesday, the circle members (as we call the group since we sit in a circle – also inspired by Curt Tofteland’s great Shakespeare Behind Bars work) read ten pages aloud in class of Mel’s play IN DA BOOGIE DOWN. By the end of the weekend, most of the guys in the circle had finished reading the play. Not a small feat considering they only had one copy to pass around. They responded so favorably to it. The characters were real to them. The poetry was fresh.

The first day started with introductions and a great catch up about what everyone is working on. Derek and Rob – both founding members – were there along with James, Steven, Ryan, Jordan, Drew and Eric. Also in the circle on Monday were Robby Henson and Elizabeth Orndorff, the founders of the playwriting class; Synge Maher and Lanie Zipoy, Voices Inside/Out co-founders; and three actors from Pioneer Playhouse.

Mel told the class about his life history, interest in theater, how he started out as an actor, and then how he has spent the last dozen years working as a playwright. He then asked everyone to do an in-class writing exercise. Everyone could choose the setting, but he assigned the characters — one woman, who was a little upset (playwrights were to decide why) and  one man, who was a little elated (playwrights were to choose why). The scene started with the line: “Was it something I said?” and ended with the line “Where do we go from here?” They had 10 minutes to craft the scene. And the work was outstanding. The circle’s work never ceases to amaze.

Drew, one of the newer members of the circle, read his scene first. Set in a nightclub, it was peppered with great dialogue and focused on a romantic affair. A great way to start. So strong. The other settings included a diner, airplane, flea market…all unique. Eric, who has written a novel, but was in only his second playwriting class, wrote his first ever scene for a play. And it was crackerjack. If expanded, it could be part of our New York reading series next year. It was set in a prison visitor’s center (much like where we met for class) and captured the fraught tension between a wife and husband over control of their family life outside prison. So good and real. Everyone wanted to hear more about the characters. And, James’ piece packed a punch, dealing with a veteran and his wife arguing over his re-upped enlistment. Moving stuff with real stakes and real heart. Candid work.

And most of the guys in the circle mentioned they had written short plays over the weekend. Their ability to create and work in challenging conditions continues to inspire. Ask any playwright in New York City or elsewhere if they could get any writing done in a room with 29 other roommates, and I bet the answer would be a resounding no. Yet, this is precisely where the men in the circle create their work.

Looking forward to today’s class.

Third Annual Residency Set to Begin June 24th

Mel NievesPlaywright Mel Nieves (pictured above) arrived in Kentucky yesterday for the third annual Voices Inside/Out Playwriting Residency at Northpoint Training Center, a medium security prison just outside Danville, KY. Tonight, he meets the circle of playwright-inmates, and they meet him.

The circle members have  read one of Mel’s latest plays — In Da Boogie Down — and will get to ask him questions about the piece, his process and what it’s like to be a working playwright in New York City. Mel, likewise, has prepared a number of playwriting exercises for the men.There is a letter writing one that should really inspire some great work.

We’ll report more on these over the next couple of days.