February 4, 2015 by WSKG

Text transcribed from original radio piece.

One of New York’s oldest state prisons also has a long-running educational program. Since the 1990s, faculty from Cornell University have taught classes for inmates at the Auburn Correctional Facility. But a few inmates wanted more. They’ve started their own theater group based on strong group discipline and trust.

The eleven inmates meet in a bare classroom inside the maximum-security prison’s “school” building. They stand in a circle, and one of them leads a breathing exercise.

This is the Phoenix Players Theater Group. It started with two inmates at the Auburn prison in 2009. Now it’s grown to a dozen members. The men meet every Friday evening. They practice monologues they write themselves. They study acting theory. And they run the whole thing on their own.

They do have a facilitator from the outside – a prison requirement. When inmate Michael Rhynes first started the group, he chose a Cornell theater professor to facilitate. But not until he’d interviewed the professor for the job…three times.

“We were just looking for somebody to come in and let us get the opportunity to know ourselves,” Rhynes says.

When that professor retired, the inmates found another: Bruce Levitt. Levitt also had to interview.

Today, he greets the men as a correctional officer brings them into the room. They say hello with handshakes and hugs. The group doesn’t even miss a beat when Levitt proposes a warm-up skit that most grown men would never agree to.

“So we thought it would be fun if you did Snow White and the seven dwarves,” Levitt says.

The men laugh. Rhynes hands out the starring role and the supporting characters.

“You be Sneezy. You look like a Sneezy,” one of the men says. The seven dwarves march across the room singing, “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go.”

This is clearly a unique thing at the Auburn Correctional Facility. Taking on a female character, acting out a Disney story. The next part of the practice gets even more personal. The inmates perform material they wrote themselves. Sheldon Johnson, one of the newest members, recites a poem.

“Love is devotion, appreciation, respect and admiration,” the poem begins. Johnson says normally he would never talk about this kind of thing.

“Nobody wants to be vulnerable in prison,” he says. “It just goes back to when you’re growing up and they say, ‘Men are not supposed to cry.’ And here it’s you’re not supposed to be emotional, and you’re not supposed to complain about what’s happening.”

Johnson says that makes prison really artificial. The way he normally communicates in the prison is nothing like what he would need on the outside to talk to his family – or get a job.

“Because you’ve got rules in prison that don’t exist in society,” he says. “Prison is almost like stuck in…it’s almost like the Flintstones. And everybody in the street is in the Jetsons.”

He finishes his poem. “So why do I love love, when love seems to hate me?” The group applauds.

David Bendezu was one of the original Phoenix Players. He refuses to call this a rehabilitation program.

“Because to rehabilitate means to fix,” Bendezu says. “Means to fix someone. And this program is a free space. You can grow. You can be who you naturally were before you committed your crime.”

Bruce Levitt recalls a piece from last year’s performance that was especially powerful.

“We staged the crime that one of the guys had written out that he’d committed,” Levitt says, “And he was in tears, saying, ‘This is the first time I’ve witnessed my own crime.’ Unless you can begin to absorb that and translate it into some positive action, you leave prison seeing yourself as someone who is irredeemable. Then it’s much easier to commit another crime.”

With all that personal expression, this has to be a safe space. In other words, what happens in class stays in this room. Adam Roberts is one of the newest members. You might know him from his work as Snow White. He says the group is like a secret society.

“It’s definitely under wraps,” he says. “It’s like fight club, and you don’t talk about fight club, but that’s for good reason.”

Imagine if the rest of the prison found out he played Snow White.

That means the men are careful when they pick new members. New guys have to be invited before they can even apply. They use a really rigorous application. Johnson says it has “like a thousand questions.” When a new member joins, there’s a six-week trial period.

And Rhynes is strict about attendance.

“Once you sign the application and we accept you, we expect you to live up to that commitment,” Rhynes says, “And that commitment means that you be here every Friday.” Rhynes turns to Bendezu. “How many days have I missed?”

“None,” Bendezu says. “Five years. As a matter of fact one time, and that’s because you were sick.”

The group is clearly a link to the real world for these guys. Current events keep coming up in the pieces. In his, Roberts plays a hostage imprisoned in Syria.

“The gunshots are closer than they were last night, and my fixer stopped showing up two days ago. I’m scared,” the monologue begins.

Roberts says he comes to the group for that connection to the outside.

“For me it’s a dose of reality, a dose of humanity once a week,” he says.

The men finish their pieces and gather in a circle to close. Bendezu says when he first joined, he would skip practices to avoid this part of the meeting.

“When I leave here I get this depressing feeling inside me like, damn, I want that love again, and I don’t get it,” he says. “So that’s why, sometimes, I don’t want to feel that.”

Bendezu doesn’t skip anymore, thanks to Rhynes’ attendance policy. The men take one last breath together and recite the group motto:

“We are a community of transformation. Through the power of self-discovery, we create the opportunity to know and grow into ourselves.”