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Michael McKean

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Up the River

Posted: 05/23/11 01:58 PM ET

The train rolls north, away from the city, Hudson River on the left, suburbs on the right. I watch the brown, wintry avenues swing by: towns filled with houses filled with people I will probably never meet. I turn and watch the water a while, slate gray under an overcast sky.

It's Good Friday and I'm going up the river to Sing Sing.

In early March, I received an invitation from Kate Powers, a theater director. She was staging Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts, a play I had performed in 2008 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater and, a year later, at the Music Box in New York. I originated the role of Arthur Przybyszewski, a Vietnam-era draft-evader who has climbed into a hole (the family donut shop in Uptown Chicago) and pulled it in after him. He is dragged into the 21st century by Franco Wicks, a bright young wannabe-writer who is in deep trouble with some not-nice people. It is, to some degree, a play about redemption. And donuts.

This new production was to be staged at Sing Sing State Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, as part of a program called Rehabilitation Through the Arts. Would I be interested, she wanted to know, in coming to meet the cast? I thought about it for most of a second and said yes.

Soon after, RTA and the New York State Department of Corrections sent emails, dripping with attachments: no-nonsense questionnaires about me and my intentions. Nothing too personal; mainly, Corrections wanted to know if I had any friends or kin within. I didn't. I printed out the forms, filled them in and faxed them off.

Once the train has made all the Surname-on-the-Hudson stops, I am met at Ossining station by Kate Powers and RTA's founder, Katherine Vockins. We climb into Katherine's car and head for her "office", a booth at The Landmark Diner. They give me a little background while I take in a turkey wrap.

Katherine Vockins started Rehabilitation Through the Arts in 1996. Theatre, dance, film, and writing can be tools for "social and cognitive transformation", in the words of their mission statement. A very low recidivism rate among men who've been in the program seems to indicate there might be something to this transformation stuff.

"They feel the world has forgotten them, that they've become invisible," Katherine says. I say I can imagine, but I really can't. My imagination balks at a premise like "twenty-to-life". But I can certainly see how a stage, a script and a spotlight might temporarily relieve the invisibility.

Kate gives me a few verbal thumbnails of the cast. She says the man playing Arthur, the purposefully invisible donut slinger, is too young for the part, but "you go with what you've got". Her Franco (played by young Jon Michael Hill in the Steppenwolf/Broadway version) is nearly the same age as her Arthur. But given the limited casting pool, there are other criteria at play. The strength of this cast will not be its picture-perfection, but rather its understanding of the characters and the material.

These women are smart: book smart, street smart, art smart. We all know creativity makes things, why couldn't it make things better? They believe in the transformative power of art as one might believe in True Love or Peace in Our Time. Hey, it could happen.

The turkey wrap is history. We're out of here.

In the gray light, the back roads of Ossining look much like those of my Long Island home town. Even the steep grade toward the river mimics Sea Cliff's seaward slope to the Sound. My first glimpse of the guard tower snuffs the nostalgia. We pass though an open chain-link fence into an unguarded parking area. I am advised that my cell phone will not be granted entry so I leave it behind, along with another electronic talisman: a digital device I'd brought to record the session.

The trip through the security station in the Administration Building lobby is quick and painless: bodies are scanned, laminates distributed, hands stamped. Then we're on our way, through the building and out into the open air again. We follow a narrow footpath, Hudson now on the right. On the left is a low, freestanding stone wall that belies its name: the flat rocks are indeed piled without benefit of mortar, but tightly hugged in a sort of chicken-wire shrink wrap. Now we board a minibus with a couple of volunteer male teachers and are driven the last hundred yards to the school building. Once inside, we are admitted to a corridor of glass-walled classrooms, open-view but acoustically discreet.

It's the first I've seen of the population, the guys in the olive drab pants and work shirts who actually live at this address. They're between classes and talking in groups or hanging back to talk to teachers: it's like high school with a higher average age and no girls.

We are hailed by a fiftyish prisoner with a neatly trimmed goatee. Speaking in a thick eastern European accent, he exchanges a few words with Kate and Katherine. I am told he is the actor playing Max, the Russian owner of the DVD store next door to Superior Donuts' title establishment. He says hello and his accent is gone. Fooled me; guy's got a good ear.

We take a hard right into a classroom where I am introduced to the cast and crew. Halfway round the circle, I'm face to face with the new Arthur Przybyszewski. As I had been advised, he's nowhere near Arthur's proper age, but such fine points matter little in this room. I say, "We are Arthur" as we shake hands. We share a few shuddering words about the sheer number of lines in the part, and I move on to meet the rest.

Kate announces we will begin the session with a focus exercise: keeping a volleyball in the air without catching it or letting it hit the ground. It's the only real moment of fear I experience today, but I don't do too badly.

I recount my experience with this play: how it found its way to me via author Tracy Letts, who had seen me in Dan Sullivan's production of The Homecoming in 2007; how I'd gone to Steppenwolf the following June and spent a mad hot summer rehearsing long speeches, deep silences, and America's sweatiest fistfight under the baton of Tina Landau; how we'd all picked up the thread a year later and opened the play in New York; how we wished we'd had a longer run, but you take what you can get. I tell them this job was the toughest I've ever had and the toughest I've ever had to leave behind.

I do go on. There are things I always say about acting when I address a group and I say them now. I don't forget for any appreciable length of time that I am speaking to prisoners. But the room seems warm with interest, not because of my mellifluous voice nor even my inspirational volleyball work. They are focused on the task at hand, namely their May 11th curtain.

The floor is opened to questions. All are legit, and very few are about The Biz. One man raises a hand and asks a question that is close to being THE question: "How do you get into someone else's head?"

I've never heard this simple, impossible riddle posed so clearly. Of course, I don't have THE answer to THE question. I can only point out that each person in this room, each person anywhere, is made up of all they've been and done, all the years of their lives. Your character, this simulacrum you're asked to animate, ideally needs a story as complex and as real as your own. It's just a start, but it'll help you do whatever the script says you need to do. Beyond that, ask your director. Some of them are damned smart.

We are joined by another Kate. This one's an actress, Kate Kenney, fresh out of Rutgers and playing Chicago cop Randi Osteen in this production. We bounce some more questions around the room, trying not to let any hit the ground.

We talk a little about redemption. I make no parallels to anyone's situation, but I do point out that redemption is one of our favorite stories, from High Noon to Star Wars to Groundhog Day (I don't mention the "Shawshank" variety, though I'm sure it crosses a few minds); we hope that honor, or something like it, will be restored to the worthy when the smoke clears.

Two hours have now vanished, and we wrap things up. I wish them great success. They can see how protective I am of this material and they wordlessly assure me they'll take care to get it right. I may have said "break a leg", but I can't swear to it.

Out the way we came in: a last check of the hand stamp to make sure no one's tried the old switcheroo. Katherine gives us a lift to the station. Director Kate, actress Kate and I board the southbound train. We talk theatre and politics. I'm holding my own, but I'm also quietly going over the evening in my head.

I don't pretend that I've been in the belly of the beast. There are roughly 2,000 in the general population; the men I saw, the sixty or so there in the schoolhouse, were chasing GEDs and even college degrees. These are the ones unwilling to throw in the towel. They are refusing to be refuse. It occurs to me that I've come away with something like hope.

It's two and a half weeks later. Right about now the cast is running lines, walking through that damn fistfight, listening to Kate Powers' last-minute notes, and, three thousand miles west of Sing Sing, I'm weirdly nervous. Maybe it's because Arthur Przybyszewski's story became my own for a year and a half and now it's someone else's.

Break a leg, guys.

The hope of transformation is not just a keynote in RTA's mission statement. It is something I felt in that room. These men, whose immediate future is mapped out to the minute, may be finding a foothold in the world waiting at the end of the stretch.

It's about redemption. And donuts.


Learn more about the "Rehabilitation Through the Arts" program here.

Michael McKean -- who originated the role of "Arthur" in Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts' play "Superior Donuts" at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and on Broadway -- is in negotiations to return to the New York stage in the Fall of 2011. Details to be announced shortly.

A new production of "Superior Donuts" will be at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles June 8th through July 10th.

NY State officials are currently considering closing the 176-year-old maximum-security Sing Sing Correctional Facility.