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.

''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.

''After two days,'' Bergman says, ''I lay down a challenge. I say, 'OK, you can either have two days that were fun, or two days in which you're preparing yourself to do something. If you do something, we'll try (to) come back and help you. If you don't . . . I enjoyed myself, so did you. See ya!' Two weeks after we left Joliet (a maximum-security men's prison in Illinois),'' he adds, ''they set up a theater program.''

Inmates can use the theater program for entertainment, says Bergman, ''or they can turn it round and start to examine. It's a window for them. And it's a window for the administration.''

Sal Godinez, Stateville's assistant warden for programs, warns that ''you have to combine a lot of things'' to make a difference in a prison, and that even when things do change, it can be hard to pinpoint the reason.

Nonetheless, says Godinez, prisoners in Stateville's Actors Workshop ''hardly ever cause problems,'' even though ''some of them were real troublemakers at one time.'' He also says that each time Geese has come to Stateville, the inmates have responded with enthusiasm and appreciation.

''I find this strange,'' says Godinez, ''because the cast members are white, middle class, and most of our guys are from inner-city Chicago. But they seem to communicate well with each other. Anytime (Geese wants) to come back,'' he adds, ''they're welcome.''

The troupe has also been invited back to Powhatan Correctional Center, a 600 -man maximum-security prison in Virginia, where prison teacher Wendy Garraghty says the inmates offered to raise half of Geese's fee.

The program is meaningful to the men, says Ms. Garraghty, ''because it's real.'' When the men saw Geese, she says, ''they really went crazy, saying 'how do they know? how do they know?' ''

Unlike some prison-reform advocates, Geese doesn't romanticize prisoners or denigrate prison workers. The deputy superintendent of an Iowa men's prison, for example, sent Geese a letter praising them for their versatility and realism.

''I personally viewed (your visit) as one of the most positive programs we have provided in the past year,'' he wrote, adding ''your awareness of security practices and willingness to work within our policies was greatly appreciated.''

''The Plague Game'' was ''heavily researched,'' says Bergman, who spent time with lawyers, judges, prisoners and their families, advocates, teachers, prison officials, and correctional officers. ''The line officer knows more than we are ever capable of knowing,'' he says.

But the learning process never ends, Bergman adds.''I tell (inmates) 'look, if you don't identify with what you see up here, don't wait, let us know right away, because we'll change it.' ''

Bergman also tells inmates that he's ''not going to the Parole Board, (no matter) how good they are in the session.

''I want to be sure that they're not conning me.'' he says.

Despite the excitement they've generated, the troupe is perpetually dancing on the knife-edge of financial ruin. ''It's touch and go as to whether we'll survive,'' Bergman says.

According to program director Hilary Kruger of the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Coalition for the Arts and Human Needs - a nonprofit network that funds demonstration arts programs for special-needs groups - it was a real struggle to raise the money the coalition used to bring Geese to Wisconsin this February.

What makes them do this hard, dangerous thing Bergman calls ''theater for the forgotten'' for little or no money?''They're not in it for the money or for any other thing,'' Ms. Garraghty says. Inmates realize this and it explains why even the toughest prisoners seem to trust Geese, she adds.

''They honestly seem to enjoy coming in here,'' says Mr. Godinez, the Stateville assistant warden, with a note of surprise.

Statistics on a program's impact are important. They can boost credibility, win funding, help figure out what works and what doesn't. But they aren't what keeps the nation's more skilled and dedicated prison workers from leaving what most agree is a tough, thankless job. What sparks them - and what seems to drive Geese - is best summed up in a story told by many human-service workers - the people who struggle to help others change their lives:

A young man ran along a beach at dawn, picking up stranded starfish and throwing them out to sea to keep them from dying in the morning sun. An old man, amazed by his efforts, asked why he spent so much energy doing what seemed a waste of time.

''There must be thousands of miles of beach,'' he said, ''and millions of starfish. How can your effort make any difference?'' The young man looked down at the small starfish in his hand, and as he threw it to safety, far out in the sea, replied, ''It makes a difference to this one.''

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