One of the most important theatrical events in Portland this fall won't be on a main stage or star any big-name actors. It was created by prisoners in "the bucket, the hole, the grave." Depending on which prison you're in, there are different names for solitary confinement.
"Each institution is a rarefied little society with its own dialect," says Portlander Phil Stockton.
Stockton volunteers at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem as a theater instructor and has been workshopping a piece about solitary confinement called The Bucket with a group of inmates for the past year. Recently approved for public performance by the Oregon Department of Corrections, The Bucket—approved excerpts from it, at least—will debut for the public this month as part of Stockton's multimedia show about life in prison.
"The first thing they ask you when you get into prison is what car you ride in," says Stockton. "Who do you roll with, basically. It's like your calling card, your credentials."
Stockton isn't in any particular car. By building trust with inmates—some of whom spent up to nine years in solitary confinement—Stockton is privy to a usually sensitive side of these men. "The thing about doing theater inside a prison is, you have to build up trust and a following. They think, 'That's sissy territory.'"
For inmates with long sentences, theater becomes a welcome relief from the reality of life in prison. "He's like, 'Screw that, let's do something fun,'" Stockton says of one inmate, who is lobbying to stage a comedic play. For others, it is catharsis: "Our first play was about dying in prison. These guys get old, sick, and some die in prison. They'll never see the light of day outside. They wanted to address that," says Stockton.
Prison rehearsals are an out, held in a chapel on the top floor of a four-story building, and inmates have to earn the privilege to attend. "Education is held out as a carrot for good behavior," says Stockton. "There is not a guard with us."
Fifteen years of doing theater inside prisons has taught Stockton not to count on anything. "It's more an improv exercise for the teacher than the students," he says. Violence, sickness or transfers take away his actors. Even when the actors stay, the trajectory of the shows morph. One project he did at California's notorious San Quentin Prison started as a game of telephone. "We'd record audio at one place one week, then bring it to the other," says Stockton. "It became a rap battle between the two groups." The day before WW talked to Stockton, he was forced to cancel rehearsals due to a prisonwide fight between ethnic groups. "A hundred and ninety guys got sent away because of, basically, a riot. They ship them out to solitary at Snake River," he says.
"From the beginning of rehearsing this piece, I've lost seven or eight guys," says Stockton. One inmate just disappeared. "Nobody knew where to, and I was never able to track him down. One guy got in trouble and got kicked away to the hole. One guy had a mental breakdown. Then there are the guys where the class is too much for them."
Stockton points out an irony in working with inmates: The ones with more serious offenses are the most eager to participate. "Because they're here for so long, they are really invested in the group and education," he says. "Any time you're dealing with 'short-timers,' it's more of a challenge." When you've been in the hole long enough, any connection is welcome. "Some guys see 23 hours in the cell, one hour out. Their only social interaction is to yell in their toilet bowl, which acts as a telephone."
In a scenario that seems borrowed from Hollywood, jailed inmates will use "kites" to communicate. "[Kites] are little notes attached to string," explains Stockton. "Someone throws a string out with a note on it and another throws a weight out and tries to catch it. They call it 'going fishing'. The correctional officers just kind of turn a blind eye. When you're a correctional officer, how many battles are you going to fight? There's serious stuff going on in there."
Those "kites" are the inspiration for Stockton's theater company, Big House Kite, which he founded to produce the plays outside of jails. At Northeast Portland's Cerimon House, his one-night event titled Within These Walls gives a glimpse inside the Salem penitentiary through excerpts from the inmates.
"There's everything from a portrait of a guy who has an imaginary affair with a star celebrity, to a three-part presentation of a guy who goes from being a really angry young man to a poet," says Stockton.
Within These Walls also includes a talk-back with state legislators and former inmates. It will be intimate—this is not Portland Center Stage. As one ex-inmate who contributed to the show told Stockton: He grew up going to Cerimon House on Sundays, back when it was a church.
Within These Walls is at Cerimon House, 5131 NE 23rd Ave., 503-307-9599. 7 pm Wednesday, Sept. 28. $15.