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.