Geese Theatre Company; This troupe helps prison inmates draw a bead on their lives
Theater can have an impact on the nation's troubled prison system. So says John Berman, British-born founder and director of the Geese Theater Company based in Iowa City, Iowa - a troupe of young actors who perform exclusively in prisons.Skip to next paragraph
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''Theater can deal with anything,'' Mr. Bergman says. Inmates ''have issues they want to deal with,'' he says, ''relationships, the legal system, mail, cars , getting out of gangs. Most people don't think that theater can handle that.The thing is, theater can.''
The effects of a theater program may be seen first in small acts and changed attitudes. ''I went back to my cell and wrote a six-page letter to my wife,'' one inmate told the players. ''I wish my wife and I could have seen this before she filed for divorce,'' another prisoner said.
But first-rate prison-theater programs, observers say, can have a powerful effect upon a prisoner's ability to break free of crime. By holding up a mirror in which prisoners see themselves and their families as others see them, theater seems to strengthen family ties and show prisoners that they have choices in life.
Traveling, and occasionally living, in a rickety school bus, spending about $ 25 a day to feed anywhere from five to eight troupe members, sleeping out at campgrounds near the prisons in the warmer months, Geese Theater has taken its act to 14 states since its inception in 1979.
The troupe was born when Vera Cunningham, a leisure-time activities worker at the 2,250-man maximum-security Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois wrote to Bergman, who was then teaching in the University of Iowa's theater program, where he had earned his master's degree. She was seeking scripts for Stateville's Actors Workshop, but she wound up sponsoring his idea to found Geese. The name honors the Irish penal workers in Australia, who were called ''the Wild Geese,'' says troupe member Kathryn (Kitty) Sandholm.
Since that time, the troupe has worked with men, women, and young people confined in more than 50 institutions, and has been acclaimed by prisoners and prison officials alike. For instance:
* Influential professional organizations - including the American Correctional Association (ACA) and the Correctional Education Association (CEA) - have showcased the troupe at regional, national, and international conventions.
* Geese has managed to galvanize prison workers, who often become demoralized by grim prison conditions. ''Your visit and work provided me . . . incentive to keep risking,'' wrote one corrections worker, ''and to help others learn the delight and satisfaction derived from chasing windmills.''
* They've proven they can work with delinquent youths - widely viewed as tougher to work with than adults - and with women.
Edward Pickett, an administrator at Virginia's Rehabilitative School Authority, was impressed with the way Geese adapted their play for young offenders - and by their ability to reach and hold their audience.
''As John Bergman says, these are some of the oldest young people you could ever meet,'' Mr. Pickett notes. ''They're 14 going on 55.''
While most success stories about theater programs are anecdotal, there's at least some data documenting their impact.
''Infraction rates (prison-rule violations) of people who have been in theater programs go down,'' says Bergman. ''Sometimes as much as 85 percent. That's what you're looking for.''
Gary Hill, president of Contact Inc., an information, referral, and service organization in Lincoln, Neb., agreed with these figures, which he says were drawn from a national, federally funded study.
Mr. Hill also says that when he conducted a theater-program survey - writing to every prison in the US and Canada - a number of respondents singled Geese out for praise, and not one criticism of the troupe's work surfaced.
The centerpiece of Geese's repertoire is ''The Plague Game'' an original, constantly evolving play that shows what prison does to families. The ''plague'' referred to in the title is crime itself, which destroys everyone it touches: victims, inmates, wives, friends, and children.
The play is built around the family visit. Players try to ''win'' by coming through three visits with their marriage intact. While the picture it paints is bleak (only one couple in four wins) and the language raw, the message is one of compassion and of hope.
Bergman directs the play from within, in the role of The Fool.
The Fool, less a person than a suggestive force, is that voice in the back of your head which nags and whines, wheedles and taunts, stirring up doubts and confusion. He's also the character who draws the most intense audience response - prisoners know him well.
The emphasis is on communication. A Geese performance - blending mime, dance , music, vaudeville, and acrobatics in a raucous, rowdy, improvisational format - is always followed by workshops.