Since January 2014, the Stella Adler Outreach Division has provided free training and classes to people incarcerated at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. I have seen a number of different projects rehearse and unfold, and recently had the pleasure of observing our most recent work. The Healing Project was presented on Wednesday, November 18 and I wanted to share some of the experience as I found it deeply gratifying.
I found myself with a mixture of emotions on the eve of the performance: gratitude on the one hand; aching hope on the other. I felt grateful first of all to the magnificent women, all 15 of them, who participated in the Healing Project, for their generosity, courage and willingness to faithfully make theater with us, theater to heal. I felt grateful to Joanne Edelmann for her leadership and deep love for and dedication to her students; grateful to Calaine Schafer for her boundless generosity, enormous talent and endless playfulness; grateful to Tommy Demenkoff without whom we wouldn’t be at Rikers. Tommy’s courage and wisdom have made a lifetime of dreams come true. And grateful to Suzy PetchEam whose love for our students whether they’re at Rikers, Phoenix House, a South Bronx Middle School, or the Stella Adler Studio’s home base in Manhattan is deep and true. The love each of these teachers and brave actor warriors have for our students reminds me of Shakespeare’s Juliet when she says, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep. The more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” Finally I felt grateful to Commissioner Joseph Ponte, for his vision and healing efforts to exercise humanity at Rikers, to Deputy Commissioner Winette Saunders for her endless appetite to make a better world, and to the wonderful Corrections Officers we encounter on a daily basis, Officer Boyd, Perez, Gonzalez and Williams.
So gratitude was a big part of what I felt during the last days of rehearsal. But I also felt a hope that aches inside of me in a way I need to ache. My hope is that the glorious women we worked with will see themselves as I see them–as truly glorious–and by seeing themselves that way, will heal. I’ve told them that they are glorious. Joanne and Calaine have told them, as have Tommy and Suzy. Beyond telling them, we’ve given them the opportunity to experience their own magnificence, their beauty, their own eternal and god given validity as human beings. And yet I know–as I’ve told the women myself–how difficult it is to fully and totally internalize the affirmation of self that theater affords its practitioners. As an ever grateful recovering drug addict, I know how difficult it is to turn your life around, become whole and heal. But that’s why we bring theater to Rikers. Not to discover the next generation of American actors but to empower worthy women with voice, with self-worth, with a clear and accurate understanding of who they are so they can take possession of their lives and live fully.
The Healing Project, the title for the piece, came from a conversation that spontaneously emerged between the staff and faculty in response to the massacre at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC on July 18, 2015. We felt helpless and hopeless as the news came out about the shooting and we wondered what we as an arts organization might contribute to a world replete with so much violence and hatred. We were deeply inspired by the incredible faith and capacity for forgiveness of the parishioners of Emmanuel A.M.E. when they confronted Dylann Storm Roof, the perpetrator of the crime. Tommy Demenkoff and I discussed how we might at another time end up serving someone like Dylann with acting training and how complicated these issues truly are. We began discussing the capacity of the arts to engender deep human understanding and forgiveness. Tommy and Suzy came back to the Stella Adler Studio that fall with the concept of devoting the work of the Stella Adler Outreach Division in 2015-2016 to the work and spirit of healing, hence the Healing Project.
For me, this most recent experience had the effect of engendering healing, not only for the participants, but for us all. I hope my effort to describe this experience and the efforts of the brave participating women engender some healing and understanding for you too.