Rehearse for Release: Inside the Fight for a Maximum Security Prison Theater Behind the walls of New York’s Auburn Correctional Facility, men learn to play protagonists. The payoff is vital, if too little consolation.

Post published on INVERSE by Winston Cook-Wilson. The original post can be found here.

Demetrius Molina — everyone calls him “Meat”— sits in a folding chair, poring over a pen-written script and miming a phone with his thumb and pinkie. He is in the middle of a scene, talking to an actor playing his son.

“Remember,” he says to a Cornell graduate student in theater, Nick Fesette, who portrays his son in this scene. “You’re coming on a trailer visit with Mommy in December.”

But I want to see you now.” Fesette, sitting parallel to Molina, emulates the voice of a child. “December is forever.”

“Do you remember what Daddy said about when we miss each other?” Molina says.

“Yes, you said you need me to be strong when I miss you, and that you’re going to be strong when you miss me, so that we’re both strong for each other,” Fesette reads back to him.

“That’s right, Pop,” Molina says. “We have to be strong for each other. Are you strong, Pop?”

“Sometimes,” Fesette murmurs.

The actors begin to take their time a bit more with lines, building in breaths to signify fighting back emotion.

“What’s your name?”

“Demetrius Enrico Molina, Jr.”

“And what’s Daddy’s name?”

“Demetrius Enrico Molina, senior.

“And is Daddy strong?”

“Yes.”

“That’s right,” Molina laughs. “And since you’re my son and we have the same name that makes us both strong.”

Fesette and Molina

Fesette and Molina

The piece goes on, without Molina or Fesette changing position. Finally, Pop reads the letter he composed in class — just after revealing to his teacher that his father is in jail.

“Dear Dad, I really really miss you. I wish I could see you. I’m at school right now. My teacher Mrs. Davis is letting me write you, because I was crying because I miss you. I just really want you to come home. For my birthday this year, Mommy asked me what I wanted. Guess what I told her? I don’t want no presents. I just want Daddy to come home, and Grandad to get out of the hospital. I love you, Dad. Love, Pop.”

The scene ends, and the 11-person audience, mostly composed of fellow inmates at New York State’s Auburn Correctional Facility, applaud.

One member of the audience — Bruce Levitt, a theater professor at Cornell — is the first to leap up. The professor has been shepherded into windowless, linoleum-floored classrooms in Auburn’s Osborn School like this on most weekends for the last six years. He’s the unofficial leader of the volunteer, or “facilitator”, contingent that works with the Phoenix Players Theater Group: a prisoner-founded-and-run theater company based out of Auburn.

“I bet you visualize Pop when you’re talking to him,” he suggests to Meat. “So pretend you’re there in the room with him.”

It’s very light encouragement, and Meat and him go back and forth a bit, weighing the merits of the idea. The interaction between the two men evidences Levitt’s ancillary role in PPTG, one that is very unusual in prison theater groups. In almost all cases in this country, similar arts organizations are proposed and run by outside educators, artists and activists, not the incarcerated. These are often part of larger ”rehabilitation” programs. Among New York state’s 54 state-run correctional facilities outside of the five boroughs of New York City— which cumulatively house approximately 53,000 inmates — the most well-known group of this sort is the [Rehabilitation Through the Arts] program, based out of Sing Sing in Ossining.

Molina and Fesette run through the script again, but this time Molina stands and circles around “Pop” in the chair, as if having a face-to-face conversation. This time, it becomes clear that Meat hardly needs to glance at his pen-written script. This is a very real conversation he has replayed in his head endless times. Molina’s son and his mother recently moved from upstate New York — where they had, for many years, lived a modest distance from Auburn — to take a better job. As much as than the details of the phone call, the piece feels like it is about the significance small, too-remote correspondences like these take on for the incarcerated.

Levitt cuts the second run-through off after glancing at the clock. Meat and Nick clear the space for the next performer.

“Great stuff coming out the last couple of weeks, guys,” Levitt says. “Just fabulous.”

Second runthrough

Second runthrough

The Phoenix Players Theater Group facilitators pass under this gate every Friday night at around 6:30. Usually this is a group of around five people; Bruce Levitt, accompanied by a rotating crew of his graduate students and other theater professionals. The volunteers come to participate in the work and contribute suggestions to the men of the company. On the crisp November night I’m allowed to visit, we are led through the gargantuan Auburn compound by Dave Roth, the jovial Head of Volunteer Activities for the Elmira hub of New York state prisons. Along the way, a total of about 20 stonefaced corrections officers call forward to one another to herald our arrival.

We’re escorted through the center “yard” — about the size of a football field — where inmates will take one of their recreation breaks later that night. It’s overlooked by the prison’s five enormous cell blocks. Other notable landmarks include a shadowy shop where inmates work odd jobs forging license plates and other manual labor, and the three trailers where prisoners who are in the good graces of the system are occasionally permitted to stay overnight with their families.

Auburn Correctional Facility

Auburn Correctional Facility

Bruce and his wife Judy have been following this route most Fridays since approximately 2009, the year PPTG was started by Michael Rhynes, a passionate writer and Auburn inmate serving 53 years to life. Another prisoner named Clifton “Skye” Williamson assisted Rhynes with the project, though he was transferred from the prison less than a year after the group began rehearsals. After outlining and revising a plan for a prisoner-run theater group for over a year — inspired in part by a theater class Rhynes took through the Cornell Prison Education Program — Rhynes’ prospectus was finally approved by the Department of Corrections.

Rhynes writes in an early PPTG manifesto:

“I, for one, do not subscribe to what I call “THE HEART OF DARKNESS” approach. This is a theory I extrapolated from reading Joseph Conrad’s book THE HEART OF DARKNESS… I don’t believe people from outside of any situation should come in to solve problems without conferring with the people who are affected by what’s going on in that particular situation. PPTG is rooted in the authenticity of our lives. The thing that sets us apart is that we generate the vast majority of our material from our life experiences. We have complete autonomy over our scripts.”

Rhynes asked retired Cornell theater professor Stephen Cole, through a supportive Dave Roth, if he would be interested in serving as an outside advisor. Cole was interviewed three times and further vetted by Rhymes before eventually becoming PPTG’s first facilitator. A few months afterwards, Cole’s former colleague Levitt began to sit in at meetings, and eventually became a crucial part of group operations.

These days, PPTG still meets on Friday nights, from roughly 7 to 9, in the Osborn School, a bunker deep in the heart of the Auburn complex. Its halls are lit by sickly fluorescent lights; hand-carved signs indicate room numbers and function, and a few stock motivational posters — one involves a skier at the summit of a slope and the word “SUCCESS” in caps — dot the walls. The classrooms seem too big, and are various levels of barren. It’s impossible to tell how many of them are packed onto the labyrinthine floor. The facilitators and I clear our assigned room — strewn with old-fashioned schoolhouse desk chairs — to create an open stage area.

About 15 minutes later, the members of PPTG are led in by cellblock, one or two at a time. These are Molina, Raymond “Soldier” Van Clief, Phil Miller, Sheldon P. Johnson (also known as “Superb”), Jim “JR” Ryant, Larry “LG” Greene, Leroy Taylorand Nathan “Nate” Powell. (The day I visit, Adam Roberts and David Bendezu — one of the group’s first members and main leaders — are absent.) The men greet Levitt and the others one-by-one with handshakes, pounds and hugs, holding folders full of handwritten notes and drafts of original scripts.

PPTG following their 2014 performance

PPTG following their 2014 performance

The immediately warm atmosphere in the room — today, unmonitored by COs — is a testament to the power of Rhynes and Williamson’s vision, outlined in numerous essays and documents Rhynes wrote in conjunction with PPTG. The goal was to create something that functioned very differently from the prison arts group begun by the non-incarcerated, or the offerings of Auburn’s own Cornell Prison Education program, where inmates can receive an associates degree (a number of PPTGers, including Rhynes, have been involved). Rhynes was not interested in a codified “rehabilitation” program. He wanted to establish, more than a normal theater company, an integrated space for members to undergo self-realization — or, as the group calls it, “transformation” — on their own terms.

To be sure of maintaining a productive and positive environment, the prisoners who join the group — there are usually only seven or eight at a given time — are generally recruited by PPTG members. In the early days, it was often Rhynes.

“I didn’t want to tell him no, because he was excited and he had created it,” Meat, who worked with Rhynes in Auburn, recalled. “I said ‘Maybe, let me think about it.’ But he didn’t give me long to think about it. He brought me a printout with the responses to the performance they just did … All the positive feedback they got from that made me want to go.”

Rhynes following the 2012 performance of 'Maximum Will'

Rhynes following the 2012 performance of ‘Maximum Will’

Interested candidates are required to submit a nine-page application. Every member of the group must sign off on every candidate before they are invited to attend PPTG meetings, and the names are handed over to the Department of Corrections for a background check — that is, to make sure that the applicants don’t have any “points,” or reported instances of bad behavior within the prison.

The group then undergoes a six-week workshop with the new round of candidates. Afterwards, they are formally accepted into PPTG. No one who has ever gotten through the workshop has ever been turned away at the end; it’s mostly a time for the new group to become used to one another, and build trust through exercises and discussions.

By the time I visit the group in November, this installment of PPTG has been working together for over a year, and it shows. They launch with ease into the first stage of any theater class or rehearsal in the world: warmups. The opening ritual is led by Meat, the group’s de facto leader this week. This is the recitation of a mantra written by a former member of the group, Michael Shane Hale. The group throws their hands in the middle of a circle.

“We are a community of transformation.
Through the power of self discovery,
We create the opportunity
To know and grow
Into ourselves.”

Following this, the group begins to pass an imaginary ball around, giving everyone an opportunity to talk about how their week went. After miming a catch in the goofiest way possible, everyone shares — myself, facilitators, and PPTGers alike — without going into too much detail. People’s weeks were okay; the worst complaint was “long.”

Some Fridays aren’t so smooth. Since PPTG’s beginnings, over a dozen of the members of the group have left; at this point, only one founding member, Bendezu, still attends PPTG. This is, in the vast majority of cases, because they have been extricated from Auburn. Michael Shane Hale — “Shane,” a founding member of the group — was removed the week before the performance of their 2014 work, An Indeterminate Life, having asked, months prior, for a transfer to Sing Sing to pursue a masters degree. Transferrals come through — requested or not — without warning; there is no chance for goodbyes. When a member departs, PPTG invokes a Rhynes-invented ritual called “Flames” — named for an essay he wrote — in which the group sits around an imaginary campfire, and shares memories and thoughts about the person.

Excerpt from Rhynes' “Flames” essay

Excerpt from Rhynes’ “Flames” essay

Provided everything is in order that week, the group does a series of breathing exercises after the initial ball toss. In one known as the ”Dao breath”, sweeping, Sun-Salutation-like arm motions help the group align their breath with their bodies. Then comes the inevitable slew of tongue twisters and enunciation exercises, led by Alison Van Dyke, a retired drama teacher and vocal coach at Cornell. This is followed by a series of group movement games (called”Viewpoints,” led by Ithaca College professor Norm Johnson. Everyone explores a set series of “planes” with their body, attempting to “take up as much space they can” — or as little — while moving between one another as swiftly as possible. All motion halts when one person freezes. When someone else in the group elects to move, they must adopt a new physicality, thereby cueing the whole group to do so.

Johnson’s specialty is physical theater, or as Fesette dubs it, “psychophysical” work. His techniques borrow from both avant-garde theatrical practice and a post-Jungian therapeutic method called bioenergetics, but the theory is very minimally studied in PPTG, simply learned in practice (“We don’t do pedagogy,” Levitt specifies.) These exercises are ways of getting the PPTGers’ bodies involved when expressing emotion — part of teaching them to show, rather than as opposed to tell, on stage.

In Johnson’s exercises the physicalities often embody codified personality types. The group enjoys the clowning — making as much furtive eye contact as possible with one another, bugging their cheeks out, walking in long, jagged strides around the wide classroom.

“When they return to the prison after doing bioenergetics, the guys say they can recognize these characteristics on people around them,” Fesette explains. “They’ll notice people holding tension in certain spots and say, ‘Oh, that person’s a masochist, that person’s psychopathic…’ No one is ever just one thing, but the exercises are a way to understand that everybody has defense mechanisms and hangups, and it makes them act in weird ways.”

During warmups

During warmups

When everyone is loosened up, Levitt asks who has something to perform that day. The men have been working on writing and developing short pieces, and are bringing them in to be critiqued and built upon by the group. Eventually, selections from this body of work — usually, focused around some sort of monologue — will be sutured together to form one continuous production, unified around some theme that the group detects in the writing being brought in.

The fact that pieces are still being workshopped means that PPTG is still months off from a potential performance. Though their last show was back in the spring of 2014, there have been unexpected setbacks to the normal 14 to 18 month performance cycle. A high-profile prison break from Dannemora, New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility by two inmates in June meant that Auburn and most other New York state prisons were in and out of lockdown for months. Meetings became fewer and farther between.

Then one Friday in September, Rhynes did not show up for rehearsal. The group discovered that he had been relocated to Attica, a much more stringent maximum security facility over 100 miles from Auburn. One of the most widespread consequences of the Clinton break was the relocation of prisoners who had been stationed at one facility for longer than 11 years.

Rhynes’ absence was a debilitating loss for the group, and through the grapevine, it came back to the members that the experience was “absolutely excruciating” for Rhynes, now 54. Not only had he been at Auburn for well over a decade and made a home for himself there, but he was being relocated to the facility in which he had been housed before that. One of Rhynes’ essays, published by a local press during his time at Auburn, gives a haunting account of his experience at Attica. He distills the prison’s strict M.O. into one sentence in the piece: “Afterthe riot in ’71, Attica was remodeled with the theme in mind. Never again.”

Rhynes’ untimely departure forced first- and second-wave PPTG members who were formerly more reticent — like David Bendezu and Meat — to assume more of a leadership role. The period normally reserved for workshopping with new applicants and team-building was extended. Today, over a year after the last performance, the group is just now looking toward the next written production.

Nathan Powell performs “Una Vida Mejor”

Nathan Powell performs “Una Vida Mejor”

The monologues the men present are very rough drafts, but it’s easy to see the vestiges of something great in all of them. Nate Powell, 51, begins with the most difficult: a narrative piece titled “Una Vida Mejor.” Inspired by a Latin American history class he is taking, it is, as Bruce and Judy delicately put it later, very “loaded,” suggesting images of a woman being raped and shot at the Mexican border for smuggling drugs. Nate reads it breathily and solemnly.

After the first, somewhat monotone readthrough, Levitt takes Nate aside to talk. In Levitt’s experience, the group — as it has grown — has cumulatively figured out where the “sweet spot” for a given piece is: that is, the moment when it strikes the correct balance between conveying the “authentic” experience of the performer, and functioning well as an extroverted, digestible piece of theater.

“What we talked about was tempo, variety, the rhythm of it,” Levitt explains to the group after another more energetic, varied, and successful runthrough. “The matter-of-factness at the beginning, descending into the horror of it, and the manic energy at the end. We want to give it shape. So Nate is moving us through the story, but not telling us how to feel. It settles into a rhythm that doesn’t necessarily support the piece. So we tried stillness, movement, stillness.”

The quality of the “notes” — either from facilitators or members — is different than those given in a normal theater company. They get closer to a therapist’s form of gentle encouragement — suggesting that a client go a step further with a thought, and are received just as earnestly and graciously.

“I wish I could see from the outside,” Nate says humbly, thinking hard. “Thank you.”

Sheldon “Superb” Johnson performes “Hands Up”

Sheldon “Superb” Johnson performes “Hands Up”

After Nate and Meat comes Sheldon “Superb” Johnson, 41, from the group’s newest batch of recruits. He is a writer whose work has made it outside of Auburn; a Buzzfeed reporter is coming to speak with him the next day. His piece today, “Hands Up,” is inspired by Black Lives Matter, and he delivers it confrontationally, in the vein of slam poetry.

“My skin, a hereditary dossier of rebellion, passed via the DNA of my kin…Was not 1964 supposed to be the lynchpin to your lynchin’ Mason-Dixon Dixieland pimpin’?” he yells, standing directly in front of our row of chairs.

He laughs ironically. “Guess it’s Black Friday in Ferguson.”

Ideas circulate amongst the group after the first run. Eventually, Ray, LG, JR, Meat, and Leroy help dramatize Superb’s piece, raising their hands and joining in each time he yells the piece’s refrain “Hands up, don’t shoot…” It’s the start of a staging. Superb slows down, pacing himself more and letting lines sink in as Levitt goes over individual sections with him. The piece seems like an apt choice for use in the final show: It revolves around only one person — so that it can be practiced extensively outside of rehearsal time — but provides opportunities to integrate the rest of the group.

Johnson and Levitt

Johnson and Levitt

Leroy Taylor’s piece is next: a free-associative essay he’s been scribbling away at throughout the rehearsal. It begins forcefully, with memories of his impressions of what jail was before he came — “Oz, Shawshank Redemption, Face/Off” — to what he heard about state facilities while awaiting sentencing.

“All the stories from dudes in the county jail who had already been up north had me believing I had to beat the first guy who gave me something for free upside his head with a can of Jack Mack and a sock,” Leroy said, eliciting some laughs.

The piece then settles into a reminiscence about a project Leroy did with the Veterans’ Knitting Club, an organization at Auburn that donates their handiwork to charity. It was during one of its meetings that Leroy first noticed PPTG meeting nearby.

“There was this one very special blanket that landed on the lap of my wife’s 89-year-old Irish grandmother,” Leroy reads. “She did not know her granddaughter was married to a black man, let alone a black man in prison. But she did know how much that blanket warmed her, on those chilly days on her front porch, where she loved to sit and rock in her rocking chair.”

When the woman dies, she asks to be buried with the blanket Leroy knitted.

“I wonder: if she knew who made that blanket, would it still comfort her? I like to think it would and that she’s smiling now.”

After applause, Levitt asks, “I wonder if you can crochet while you do it.”

Leroy and the group like the idea, but running through the piece again will have to wait for another session.

Leroy Taylor performs

Leroy Taylor performs

PPTG has made the most of the limited time they have together — approximately an hour and 45 minutes — but it’s staggering to consider how much longer they have to go before a performance is possible. Even outside of the rigorous drafting and redrafting of the script itself (since the inmates have no access to computers, Levitt and his students type and make edits for them), there are countless bureaucratic hoops to jump through.

For each show, Levitt negotiates a night to use Auburn’s chapel as a performance space with the chaplains. He then assembles an audience of exactly 80 community members to attend the one-night-only event. Due to strict visitation restrictions and security concerns, family members of the prisoners are not permitted to attend. Levitt solidifies his guest list using a rolling admission process to make sure every seat is filled. The Department of Corrections needs the list two weeks in advance of the performance.

The group arrives a little less than two hours in advance of showtime, to be admitted to the auditorium in groups of 10 or 12. About 15 to 20 COs work overtime to monitor the production; walkie talkies go off intermittently, and there is generally side chatter. There is one single-stalled bathroom for the auditorium, and no intermission.

As for the actors and volunteers themselves, they have only one very strenuous week to rehearse in the chapel prior to performance. A lot of work is crammed into this time. The group scrambles to find a way to stage their pieces smoothly in the space — to make a production that flows quickly so as much material as possible can be fit in. They are allowed no props or costumes, and hardly any backstage area, so it takes a great deal of resourcefulness to get a theatrically effective piece hacked out under the limitations.

From 'An Indeterminate Life'

From ‘An Indeterminate Life’

“I wanted to bring in a Yankees baseball cap last time and they wouldn’t let me do it, because it has a logo,” Levitt explained, discussing their 2014 production. “We transformed a hoody into Trayvon Martin’s body, into Leroy’s daughter that he danced with and a few other things.”

After all of this work, and the great adrenaline high of the performance, it is over just 90 minutes later. For the PPTGers who have experienced it, the comedown is the hardest experience they have had while being in the group.

“We were in a room with like 100 people,” Leroy describes. “Everyone was there to see and witness, and it was a very emotional performance. And then when everyone left they left in like [*snaps fingers*] five minutes, they got whisked out of there. And then all five of us are standing there with all this energy, and we’re like ‘Wow, it’s just us in here now,’ and we’re waiting to go get strip searched. And then you go back to the cell. And that is hard. It’s really hard.”

Leroy dances with the hoody

Leroy dances with the hoody

Levitt has worked hard to preserve this ephemeral moment in all its glory. For two of the three productions PPTG has mounted, Levitt hired a three-camera crew. Clips from these are available at the comprehensive website he keeps up for the group. This material is also being put toward a documentary about PPTG Levitt has been working on for years — with limited help and no funding — in his spare time.

Leroy performs a piece similar to Meat’s newest, ”Na’cir’s Google Search,” which dramatizes a phone conversation with his son, in which he reveals to Leroy that he has Googled his charges. One of Meat’s pieces is the story of his crime — a bar brawl gone wrong — told entirely in gerunds.

Later on, David Bendezu leads ”Ghost Bus,” a reflection on his experience of riding past his neighborhood on the way to prison. Nate, Bruce, Judy, and Nick have all separately cited this piece as their favorite PPTG work. Bendezu begins by recalling having seen the prison bus pass his block as a child. As he narrates, the rest of the group mill around him in hurried, stylized motion — passerbys on the street Bendezu is gazing at through the bus window. Periodically, they freeze as he sings sections of an improvised hymn.

“That bus was the D.O.C. state bus that transfers humans from downstate to upstate[,] similar to slave ships from east state to west state,” Bendezu ends.

David Bendezu and Michael Rhynes during 'Ghost Bus'

David Bendezu and Michael Rhynes during ‘Ghost Bus’

But the main attraction of the video is Michael Rhynes. He’s a stunning presence on stage, a fearless performer who incites the audience to take a step closer to his reality. He uses silence effectively, never nervously rushing his monologues — he’s also an excellent physical comedian. In one piece, he mimics imprisoned animals he saw in the zoo as a kid, and discusses how those memories resonate with his experience watching prison tours pass through Attica.

“Curious George would never disrespect me,” he cries emphatically, in both the funniest and most heartbreaking moment of the piece. “That monkey should be grateful that he has free bananas and a jungle gym!”

Watch highlights from An Indeterminate Life here.

Part of the purpose of PPTG’s performances is for the men to be, as the group’s members frequently put it, “witnessed.” In his first piece of promotional literature for PPTG — one which he handed out to potential recruits — Rhynes explained the integral importance of the hermeneutic relationship between group members and facilitators, audience members, or those are simply aware of their existence.

“By bearing witness to our redemptive attempts,” he writes, “society-at-large can attest that rehabilitation is possible and transformations real for people who have made mistakes by making themselves accountable[,] by becoming better people ready to serve a community they were once at odds with.”

Since writing and reading about PPTG is a form of “witnessing” — and one of the few ways that they can pass on their stories to the world outside of Auburn — the group forms a final circle to share any last pieces of information with me that they feel are important to communicate. Most of the responses circle around the same theme: the desire to be seen as people, like anyone else.

Larry “LG” Green, 26 — one of the group’s “third wave” of members, gregarious and always smiling — waxes serious for a moment. “This group is about humanity, about showing that we are people too even though we are in prison. We have lives, we have families, and they matter and we matter.”

Jim “JR” Ryant, 29, has also been in the group for only 14 months. “Since I’ve been in prison this has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It makes me want to thank everybody that opened doors for people like us to have a better life.”

Meat asks me to thank Michael Rhynes, and let him know that the group misses him. Someone outside of the group corresponding with Rhymes is the only way anyone in PPTG can communicate with him.

Superb has the last word. “I want to say that people remember us for who we were, but we’re not necessarily the same people we once were. And I ask that if you’re reading this, take the opportunity to know who we’ve become, because we may not be the same people who you remember.”

Jim Ryan, Sheldon Johnson and Larry Greene, early 2015

Jim Ryan, Sheldon Johnson and Larry Greene, early 2015

The group comes together one more time to intone the motto, with a final chant of “PPTG!” After that, we chat in groups as men are tapped out — two or three at a time, called by cellblock. They will then be escorted to the bullpen, led down the stairs and taken out into the main yard.

Meat, LG, and I talk as they wait. Molina comments on the extent to which his experience with the group has given him a kind of glow in his daily life in Auburn, one that helps him remain impervious to the “toxic” energy and “ego” coming from others he crosses paths with daily, in his block or the yard. There’s an increasingly nervous energy to his speech as he asks me about my impressions of the meeting, and if I’d gotten everything I needed.

I remember something he said earlier, during our group chat, about the demoralizing experience of leaving rehearsal. “As soon as [the facilitators] leave,boom, I have no idea what Judy’s doing, and how she is, or Alison, or Nick. We can’t communicate with them outside of being here on Friday night, and it’s really hard.” I’m already trying to imagine his walk back to his cell, and his night ahead — the contrast it will bear to mine, and those of the facilitators. I wonder when PPTG will be able to perform again, and if I can be one of the select group of witnesses.

Excerpt from Michael Rhynes' “Attica”

Excerpt from Michael Rhynes’ “Attica”

Just then, Meat and JR are barked at and beckoned away, deprived for at least another week of the feelings they can only access through their work here.

The Levitts, Johnson, Van Dyke, Fesette, and I are guided back across Auburn. Some of the cellblocks are out for a quick rec break, but the crowds are too thick and far across the yard for us to make out any individual faces or voices.

“When one is relocated, 4 bags are brought to one’s cell and you pack up a life time in those bags,” Michael Rhynes wrote to me in December, from Attica. We corresponded by post, as he is not allowed internet access. “It felt like I was packing pieces of my broken soul into those bags… Prisoners are transient beings here today gone tomorrow leaving no trace of who they were.”

The letter is lengthy: Rhynes is enthusiastic about the fact that the group is moving forward, though despondent that he is not doing so with them. He reflects on one of his most life-affirming experiences with the group, which came during preparations for his final performance as part of PTTG:

“While at rehearsal…in the middle of my lines I just stop and start to tear-up. Because the writer and actor had finally merged with my true self and it hurt. To be standing them emotionally stark naked I had arrived. Because PPTG was brought into existence not to create actors, but to invite us back into our own humanity.”

Rhynes hopes to design a branch of PPTG at Attica, though — because of Attica’s tighter restrictions — the process will be much more of an uphill battle than it was at Auburn. His current dream project is an autobiographical piece inspired byThe Tempest:

“My first line will be, ‘I am not Caliban, but I endure his circumstances.’”

He asks me to pass the following along to the members of PPTG, whom he cannot contact himself:

“Tell the men of PPTG that Shakespeare said, ‘The world is a stage, and we are all bit players.’ What he didn’t say is, ‘If we dare, we have the power to write our own scripts, thereby having the ability to change our lives.”