Magazine article American Theatre

Oedipus at Sing Sing: Behind the Fortified Gates of the Famous Prison, Theatre Is Transforming Men's Lives

Magazine article American Theatre

Oedipus at Sing Sing: Behind the Fortified Gates of the Famous Prison, Theatre Is Transforming Men's Lives

Article excerpt

THERE'S AN UNWRITTEN LAW IN A MAXIMUM-security prison that men in green trousers do not show emotion. Coolness and detachment are among the fundamental rules of survival--the nearest thing to rock-solid protection against predators. Anything short of that--grief, remorse, vulnerability, undue curiosity--is a sign of weakness, and therefore an invitation to trouble. And trouble lurks around every corner when you're one of the 1,700 men locked up together in a fortress like Sing Sing, living behind heavy steel gates and barred windows, so far up the Hudson River that it feels almost like another planet.

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By his own account, Clarence Maclin was angry and rebellious when he came to Sing Sing at age 29, convicted by a jury of armed robbery along with three other men. He didn't want much to do with the other inmates, and he had no patience with the authorities or the rules. A hardheaded loner from Mount Vernon, N.Y., he'd already seen an awful lot of violence and futility, and he felt outraged that he'd been convicted of a crime, which he maintains he didn't commit. Once behind bars, Maclin recalls, he almost never smiled.

In the 11 years since, something remarkable has happened to Clarence Maclin, beginning with the first time he saw a play performed by his fellow prisoners, directed by volunteers, and staged in Sing Sing's Catholic Chapel auditorium. The show was Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Encouraged by an incarcerated cast member of that production--a charismatic and talented man named Sean "Dino" Johnson, who served a 15-year-sentence at Sing Sing for robbery and now works as a youth outreach coordinator with the Council for Unity in New York City--Maclin entered a program called Rehabilitation Through the Arts, known by its acronym, RTA.

Founded by a volunteer named Katherine Vockins--who remains intimately involved with every aspect of RTA, from classes to stage productions--the program has been gestating behind Sing Sing's imposing walls for a decade, producing one or two plays every year on a shoestring and training incarcerated actors, writers, directors and crew members in both theatre arts and community building. You can't put on a play alone. A whole social structure is required--sharing and giving support, pulling together and pooling strengths and resources.

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The walls Maclin erected carefully during his teens and twenties have gradually come down. Not all at once, he says--that would be too dangerous--but little by little. "These plays give us an opportunity to express emotions that we normally don't get a chance to express in a prison setting--like crying is something that you don't do in jail. It shows weakness, and the last thing you want to show in prison is weakness. But up on the stage I can be anybody. I can cry. I can laugh. I can do all those things, and it won't be looked at as weakness because this is my craft."

Once he joined RTA, nine years ago, Maclin discovered a natural passion and gift for theatre. He discovered he was hungry for training. Shakespeare knocked him out. Performing the role of Booster in August Wilson's Jitney inspired him to look at his own family relationships from a new perspective. He took classes with RTA volunteers in the Meisner technique, and he absorbed everything he could. The very largeness of emotion and gesture that stage acting requires is magnetic to him--it gives him a license to dig down into his own emotions and cleanse himself of some of the burdensome ones: the wasting regrets that can eat away at a man's soul while he waits for the years to pass behind bars.

"There are people that I hurt, a lot of people that I let down, in different aspects of my life," Maclin allows. There's a son who was 5 when his father was sent upriver, and who is now 16--and a father himself.

Off stage and on, Maclin, now 41, has discovered that theatre can heal. …

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