Reflections with Mel Nieves

Our third annual Reflections event will be held Monday, September 23rd at Davenport Studios in Manhattan. Playwright Mel Nieves (who is pictured in the poster by Chris Kateff) will share his experience as the 2013 Voices Inside/Out Playwright-in-Residence at Northpoint Training Center outside Danville, Kentucky. You’ll also hear the work of some of the participating inmates — their powerful, moving stories about life on both sides of the bars. And you’ll have a chance to ask questions about arts education in prison. Come and learn more about our exciting program and celebrate another grand year.

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The event is free and open to the public. Seating, though, is limited. Reserve your tickets at voicesinsideout.eventbrite.com. Doors open at 6:45 pm, and the event begins at 7:00 pm.

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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.

 

“You Make Us Feel Like We Matter”

Every year, Pioneer Playhouse takes one of its productions to Northpoint Training Center, the medium security prison where Voices Inside and Voices Inside/Out work. In fact, the prison playwriting program began after a production of Liz Orndorff‘s The Dillinger Dilemma was done at the prison in 2010, and the inmates were then invited to learn how to write a play.
 

On Monday, Tamed by Voices Inside/Out 2012 Resident Playwright Holly Hepp-Galván  was performed for the inmate population at Northpoint. (Holly scored the play commission while working at the prison last summer!) Tamed is an updated version of Taming of the Shrew where Kate is a b-girl from Brooklyn and Petruchio is Woodchuck Man, based on Turtleman from Animal Planet’s show Call of the Wildman. Holly is pictured with the real-life Turtleman below.
 
Holly Hepp-Galvan and Turtleman
 
Here’s Holly’s account of Monday night’s performance and its reception at Northpoint. What a fantastic night.
 
First of all to set the scene:  We all (cast, crew, set, sound, etc) arrived at Northpoint in a blinding rainstorm.  And that’s no exaggeration!  Even locals couldn’t believe the force of this storm.  Thunder, lightning, and TORRENTS of rain that just wouldn’t let up.  As soon as we all assembled in the little holding room there was a deafening crack of thunder that made the whole building jump.  We were then informed that lightning had hit the metal fence and knocked out the computers.  No computers meant no metal doors could be opened.  We would all have to walk through the yard.
 
Well the poor actors were in full costume and few of us had umbrellas.  We all got soaked to the skin.  It was just CRAZY rain.
 
I was concerned that the men might not want to venture out, but I needn’t have worried.  They soon came pouring in.  They filled every seat in every pew.  It was completely packed with only standing room at the back.
 
We started right on time and the actors were amazing.  Even soaking wet, they gave such an energetic and thrilling performance.  The whole room was laughing and cheering.  They gave them a standing ovation at the end.
 
We then had a lively talk-back where the inmates asked questions.  (Oh and I forgot to mention that Rob – one of the members of the playwriting circle – gave a nice overview of “Shrew” before we started!)  Then afterwards we were all swarmed by well-wishers.  They all wanted to tell us how much they’d enjoyed it.  One man held both of my hands and told me, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You make us feel like we matter.”
 
I can’t give enough credit to Robby Henson (of Pioneer Playhouse) for bringing the show in (on top of everything else!) and to all the actors who performed in that tiny space with their wet costumes sticking to their skin.  It was just a joyful, joyful experience.
 
And as we exited, the rain – which had continued to pound us throughout the entire performance – somehow stopped and the sun came out.  We all went happily back to the Playhouse and ate fried chicken and biscuits until we wanted to burst.

How You Like Them Bananas? A Lot, Actually | Day 4

Thank you Chopped. Yes, I mean the Food Network show hosted by the adorable Ted Allen. That TV show inspired Mel Nieves (2013 Voices Inside/Out Resident Playwright, pictured below) to create a writing exercise for the circle. Instead of just giving a prompt and letting the men in the circle write about whatever they wanted, Mel gave the men the ingredients for a scene: a setting (an abandoned hotel), characters (a ballerina, a clown, a fisherman and a goldfish in a bowl), props (bottle of soda, four plastic chairs, a three legged table, broken fishing rod, cup) and lines that had to be used in the scene (“Frosty day in Florida”, “How you like them bananas?”, “The chocolate tomato pie was undercooked”). We had no idea what the men would dream up for their scenes. And, we were kept in suspense a little longer due to a fire drill at the prison that prevented our on-time arrival.

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As soon as we walked through the gates and toward the visitor’s center, the men were already outside waiting on us. We headed in, set up the circle and quickly got to work. And we needed every minute of the session to get through the amazing scenes.

Derek’s wild piece kicked off the evening. It was fast, furious and funny and while watching the goldfish — played by Pioneer Playhouse actor Eric – in a bowl (that was really an upside down green plastic table) spew hilarious Walter Matthau-like barbs, everyone in the circle cracked up. What a way to start the night.

And the hits kept coming. Steven’s piece was titled “Worst Horror Movie Ever: Even Though It’s a Play – That’s How Bad It Is – Couldn’t Even Get the Title Right” and was a great send up of the Saw movie series where the goldfish controlled the action, and the fisherman, ballerina and clown died when they each spoke one of the required lines of dialogue. Watching Voices Inside/Out co-founder Synge Maher play a really bad actress/ballerina was beyond hilarious.

Eric (inmate, not Pioneer Playhouse actor)’s piece, “The Dance”, was an astute espionage play where the ballerina was a spy from Georgia (the country, not the state), and the clown and fisherman were covers for two agents caught in an Albanian conflict. They got their orders from a very monotone goldfish. Hilarious! And you, can see his handwritten work below.

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Rob and James wrote really solid pieces. And Voices Inside/Out co-founder Lanie Zipoy acted (a first for her in the circle!) out the ballerina role in James’ piece alongside playwright-in-residence Mel. She even got one of the best lines of the night, spoken to her fisherman husband, “You ain’t catchin’ nothin’ with that broken rod of yours and I ain’t telling you where your pills are.” (Takes a drink of soda).

Andrew’s piece titled “Alligators” felt like a mash-up of True Romance and the bizarro world of David Lynch’s Wild At Heart, two films he’d never seen. What a very specific world he created. Jordan’s “Last Chance Losers” found Dr. Drew (Pinsky) trying to hold a counseling session with the lost inhabitants of the abandoned hotel. He did not succeed (Dr. Drew, that is). Jordan succeeded in every way. And how about the “cover art” for their pieces?
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Cal hit a grand slam with his piece “Ghosts and Soda”. We’re ready to put this play on stage in New York. It is a whacked out comedy with shades of Sartre’s No Exit. There’s a moment when the play turns surprisingly tender and dramatic that gutted everyone in the room. But, being Cal, the play had to end on a poop joke, a funny one at that. So proud of his work.

We gathered the circle one last time, collectively shouted the word “goldfish” and then said good night. The great week was over. Another successful playwriting residency at Northpoint came to an end. Mel did the program and the previous playwrights-in-residence (Mac Rogers & Holly Hepp-Galván) proud. Voices Inside/Out is 3 for 3. How you like them bananas?

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.