LA Poverty Department, based in Skid Row Los Angeles, is a permeable performance ensemble.Â A core group of 12-20 people have worked together onÂ projects over a period of years, but at the same time, anyone from the neighborhood can walk in and participate.Â In fact we put energy into getting new folks involved.Â For State of Incarceration we went to parolee re-entry programs and invited participation.
As a result, the performance is a a collaboration, with creative input coming from everyone involved in the process.Â Â This performance evolved through an extensive workshop process of improvisation, writing, movement, and more writing. Some texts came from lived experience.Â Some were responses to improvisations. Texts were shuffled and inter-cut like a deck of cards.
For LA Stage Times we wanted to generate a text that reflected our creative process and the contributions of all involved, so we asked everyone in the show to help.
Austin Hines: We share stories, personal experiences, improvise and do writing sessions.Â Usually something beautiful comes out of it.
HenriÃ«tte Brouwers: It started with the reality that many company and community members have experienced jail/prison.
Ronnie Walker: The process brought about honest discussion about our experience in jail, which is painful in itself.
John Malpede (LAPD artistic director): The journey began by everyone spending time in their rehearsal space “cells,” 30 minutes at a time, and then writing about it. Writing focused on enduring loneliness, isolation and how people do time. Most writings described specific activities, like exercising and contacting or fantasizing about girlfriends and family.Â But, Riccarlo Porter wrote philosophically, of self”“healing activities, and envisioned them extrapolated across society and around the world.
HB: People came into the rehearsal space to share their story.Â Some could not stay, so we wrote down what they told us.
JM: One-third of the parolees coming to LA settle in Skid Row. We made presentations at area parolee re-entry programs. People rushed into the workshops, with a need to be where could they talk about their experience.
HB: A woman who was incarcerated, but is now a parolee counselor at a Skid Row re-entry program, told us that the people she works with stay angry and can’t let go of the injustice they’ve experienced in prison.
JM: In workshop we began doing improvisations on how you get beyond your anger and pain. The parolee counselor saw the show months later and realized she’d guided us to look for the answer she was seeking.
HB: We improvised the situation between prisoners and guards.Â They don’t speak to each other but imagine what they think that the other is thinking.Â John wrote text that articulated this hall of mirrors:Â “I know that you know, that I know that you don’t like CO’s [correctional officers] “¦.”Â Â We don’t treat material in a literal “realistic” way, but amplify it, put a magnifying glass on it so you can see what it does to people.
JM: We came up with guard gestures and moves.Â We explored them as a group.Â Then half the group witnessed the guards in action and wrote what the CO gestures seemed to say.Â I, and then cast members, elaborated on the imagined responses. These scenes reveal the trapped condition of prisoners and guards.
HB: We found a rhythm for the performance in the material that we developed.Â It’s the trajectory, from being incarcerated to getting out and beyond.Â The central concern became personal development — “how to heal yourself from the experience”.
JM: Riccarlo’s vision of healing one’s self and the world shows up at the end of the performance when we share food with the audience.
HB: Riccarlo picked up on John’s talking about the cleaning force of garlic and it became a metaphor for cleaning yourself, your cell, the world. When Linda Harris minces her garlic she makes the connection in every performance.Â You can feel it.Â You can see it.Â It is painful to get rid of the pain.
JM: Another Riccarlo text, a litany of the history of incarceration, was harmonized by HenriÃ«tte and is the song we sing at the beginning of the performance.
Jimmie Johnson: I came to understand people who have been incarcerated. The process is to open yourself up to reality, your character and the other actors.Â You have to do it, otherwise you’re just acting.
Kevin Michael Key: The US imprisons 2 million people in atrocious conditions.Â We need to confront this reality and change how we deal with the harms we do to each other.
Carmen Vega: Ignoring is not the same as ignorance, or is it?Â Â It is a social disease.
Walter Fears: The show shines a strong light on what is happening to a growing percentage of black males in this country.
JM: Kevin came up with this project idea.Â It builds on our other works about the criminalization of poverty.
KMK: Obstacles overcome? Too many.Â One cast member has been jailed.
Riccarlo Porter:Â Hurdles overcome: anger, rage, bit by bit.
Ibrahim Saba: It’s hard playing a guard who keeps going by using dehumanizing force.
KMK: I learned that many people care and share my feelings about this barbarous system.
Charles Jackson:Â I hope the audience takes away an understanding of the prison system and of those struggling to re-enter society with a guilt-free mind and the will to learn from their mistakes.
Adrian Turnage: An unexpected gift was to be able to see people relate to something that is taboo, because the people we play are the forgotten.
AH: I learned the meaning of: “CO”, “kiestering”, “burpees,” and to make a BBQ out of a bunk bed –and the amazing experience of having a creative family.
State of Incarceration is presented as part of RADAR L.A., an international festival of contemporary theater,June 14-19, 2011 in Los Angeles. For tickets and more information, visit www.radarla.org
DATES & TIMES:
Wednesday, June 15 at 8:30 pm
Thursday, June 16 at 8:30 pm
Friday, June 17 at 8:00 pm
Saturday, June 18 at 5:00 pm
TICKETS: $20 ($10 w/ festival flex pass)
RUN TIME: 90 minutes
LOCATION: LATC, 4th Floor, Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 South Spring Street, LA
PARKING: $5″“6 event parking at several locations off Main and 6th Streets.
Los Angeles Poverty Department, founded in 1985, is made up of people who make art and live and work on Skid Row.Â LAPD tells the rest of the story, what you don’t hear elsewhere.Â Â LAPD makes performance, installation, movement, public art and public conversation events.Â LAPD projects express the realities, hopes, dreams and rights of people in poverty. Los Angeles Poverty Department is dedicated to building community on Skid Row and to participating in worldwide art dialogue.Â Current in-the-works projects involve collaborations with French, Dutch and Nicaraguan theater groups.