Feb 24, 2010

Artwork from the men

We have received artwork from some of the men at PBSP and here are some samples:
this is by Eric P
This is by Mario N
This is by Robert L
this is by MEV

pluggin away

Today we just heard some great news! Helen G, the mother of Donny J (one of our participants), is going to be in the live show! We are so honored to have her with us and we hope that more loved ones who hear Sista's Place and check in on this blog will be at the live performance March 14 at 2pm in Blue Lake, Ca

The performance will be free, but reservations are required. So, call Dell'Arte's box office at 707.668.5663

Feb 20, 2010

What we are doing

First, we are so happy to hear that word of this project is getting out thanks to those of you who check this blog. THANK YOU!!!!

Then we realized you all might not have all the information you need about what it is exactly that we here at Pelican Bay Speaks are doing... so... here we go:

Elizabeth and Gabe, are students from Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theater in our 3rd year of study. Part of the requirement of our training is to develop a piece of theater with a community group of our choosing.

We choose a group that we knew it would be next to impossible to ever see or touch, a group united by location and isolation, a group that many have deemed the "Worst of the worst"- the men imprisoned at Pelican Bay State Prison. It was this choice that has made all the difference.

For the last 4 months, Gabe and I have been going on Sista's Place every Sunday on NPR's KHSU station and giving the men up at Pelican Bay State Prison creative writing prompts. This was our only way to really get to work with the men... men of words and thoughts and ideas...

These great letter writers have supplied us with over 275 creative writing pieces. The joke and say, "All I have is time, so here is another piece." But in reality, the work that these men have poured into this writing project has gone over and beyond our initial ideas of what was possible.

We are now in the second stage of a three part process. Currently, we two are compiling these pieces of writing and forming them into a play, a play written entirely by the men at pelican Bay State Prison.

The play, "Pelican Bay Speaks", will be performed live on Sunday, March 14th at 2pm at Dell'Arte's Carlo theater. It will also be aired on KHSU 90.5fm and live streamed on www.khsu.org/listen_live. The show will be free, but reservations are required you can make reservations simply by calling Dell'Arte's box office at 707.668.5663. Following the show will be a community forum.

In so many of the letters we receive from the men, they speak about the love they have outside the walls of the prison that help them survive daily on the inside. Early on we realized that this play was as much for the loved ones as for the inmates. We would love for as many loved ones as possible to be in the audience, but we understand that many of you all thousands of miles away. If you cannot make to the show, we hope you listen in either on the radio or on the internet.

Again... Sunday, March 14th, 2010 at 2pm followed by a community forum
Performed at Dell'Arte's Carlo Theater in Blue Lake, CA (7 miles from Arcata)
live on KHSU and KHSR 90.5
and on www.khsu.org/listen_live

hope to see you there
Elizabeth and Gabe

Feb 19, 2010

"The Laughing Heart" - Charles Bukowski

In our Holiday Cards to the inmates, we included this poem... it is a good one... hope you enjoy it too

"your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you."

Weekly Prompts 1-16

We thought many of you would like to know the prompts from which the men are creating their play. Here are they are- prompts from the last 16 weeks.

Elizabeth and Gabe

Pelican Bay Speaks Writing Prompts

Prompt 1

Write a rant; a speech at the height of some strong emotion (fear, joy, rage, sorrow, anything). The Rant can be from your own personal voice or the voice of a created character. When you write it, write without stopping, without lifting your pencil from the paper. A rant is an outpouring of an emotional speech. So please, feel free to be truthful, take the audience to the height of that emotion with your words. After you have run out of rant to write, you can either send us the raw thing, or an edited version. Whatever you want.

Prompt 2

Write a scene between two people based on the following scenario:

Two men are sitting along a roadside, waiting for a third man to come pick them up. They two men have been waiting a long time. They know each other. Write a scene (1-3 pages) that begins with one man saying to the other: “There is nothing to be done.”

Prompt 3

Beginning now, take a word or a phrase that you hear someone say and create a two-person scene inspired by that word or phrase. The scene can be between any two people, and be set anywhere and at any time. The scene does not have to take place in the original context in which you heard the phrase. It is best if the phrase you use stirred strong feels or provoked strong thoughts in you. The scene should be 1-3 pages long.

Prompt 4

Write a poem, of any style and any length, with the following title: "The Heart That Will Not Quit."

Prompt 5

Write about your earliest memory.

Prompt 6

Write a piece based on Family and the five senses. Give each of the senses its own paragraph and begin each paragraph with the phrase "When I think of family, I hear... When I think of family, I taste... I smell... I see... I touch... I feel...." When you begin writing, try to write without stopping your pen. Write about each one of the senses separately. A wide range of images, characters, events or emotions may come up during this writing process and that is great.
Use as descriptive language as possible to make these things vivid for the audience.

Prompt 7

Write a Character each day. Create this character through doodling a hand a face or a foot and then write from that characters perspective about the world they live in. If you don't feel comfortable drawing, then just think of a person’s foot, face or hand and write from that imagined person's perspective.

Prompt 8

From the Characters you created in week 7, pick your 3 favorite. Put these characters in a scene in a confined space (e.g. a taxi cab, an elevator, a shirt pocket, etc). Give each Character a
want or need that is in direct opposition to what another Character wants or needs. The scene must have a beginning, middle and end.

Prompt 9: (Jan 3)

Write a short story or scene that centers around a powerful event. An event is a convergence of many smaller, seemingly unrelated incidents that result in an unpreventable act or situation. The event should involve at least two people and take place in one location. Try to write in an objective point of view, describing what happened, how and why, but not taking one particular character’s point of view. Let it also have some surprises and turns of fate. For example, a regular wedding would not be an interesting event, but a wedding in which the bride reveals she’s actually a man would be. Write your story and hang on to it for a next week. Next week’s prompts will be a continuation of this one and you will want to have it handy for future reference.

Prompt 10: (Jan 10)

Take the event that you wrote about last week from an objective and descriptive point of view. Rewrite the story of that event based on the personal points of view of two characters and one inanimate object involved in the event. These new stories can (and should) be significantly shorter than the original event story you wrote last week. The meaning and facts of the story may also be significantly different due to each character’s different point of view and different take on the event. Mail in this week and last week’s pieces together. For example: if your original event involved a waiter, a customer and a flying potato, retell the story from the point of view of the waiter, the customer and the flying potato, respectively.

Prompt 11: (Jan 17)

This week, we want to make a go at comedy and we are asking people to rewrite a fairytale, but with a twist. Choose a favorite fairytale or popular story from your youth. Retell that story under the following parameters: Set it in a modern prison, and condense the entire action down to a five minute satirical sketch or scene. Some examples could be retellings Goldi Locks and the Three Bears, Snow White, Pinocchio, Romeo and Juliette, etc. Feel free to take liberties with the original story and have fun with it!

Prompt 12: (Jan 24,There were two this week.)

a.) Compose an original song. Write the lyrics and describe what genre of song it is to be. If you can, say if it needs particular kind of instruments, if it’s fast or slow, etc., just describing as best you can what the music and melody is like in your head. The song can be completely original, or a satirical version of a song that already exists. This prompt is a bit risky. We are not sure if we can pull it off, but would like to try to have songs in the show that you guys have written. So we’ll go from this prompt and see what we can put together on our end of things.

b.) Write about the funniest incident you’ve ever seen between a guard and an inmate.

Prompt 13: (Jan 31)

Create a poem of any style with the following title: “Flee as a Bird to the Mountain.” (This title is taken from a jazz ballad of the same name.)

Prompt 14: (Feb 7th)

This week’s prompt is based on music. Sista will play this song : “What Time is It” by The Jive Five . As you listen to it write down what you hear, see, taste, feel, smell and touch. If you feel more inclined you can also sketch or draw what you think hear, see, taste, feel, smell and touch. This prompt is also open to the loved ones of those in Pelican Bay who might be listening. They can participate in this prompt as well and send us their submissions.

Prompt 15 (Feb 14th)

Top Ten list. Inspired by David Letterman’s “Top Ten,” create a top ten list titled “Top Ten Best Things About Being Incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison.” It can be as honest, satirical, or silly as you want. You guys are often very funny so we thought something might come of this. Also, much good comedy is born from anger and frustration.

Prompt 16 (also presented on Feb 14th show)

Write a poem or a creative free write of any length or style entitled “I am . . .“

Life After Death Row

A HUGE thanks to Adriana, for this article.

Sunday, April 7, 2002

Life After Death Row
Two actors traveled the country to meet people wrongly convicted. The result: a drama and a new perspective.


Two summers ago Jessica Blank and her boyfriend, Erik Jensen, embarked on a road trip from New York to Minneapolis. It was no vacation. They were visiting survivors of death row.
"We'd drive to one person's house, do an interview for two or three hours, get back on the road, drive 12 hours into the next state to get there just in time for the next interview. One of us would sleep and one of us would drive," recalls Blank, sitting in front of the empty stage at the Actors' Gang theater.

Beside her is the congenially rumpled Jensen, who picks up the tale: "And the whole time we've got the cell phone in the car with this weird Radio Shack recharger, and I'm charging the phone and Jessica's typing on the laptop transcribing stuff while we're driving in the car."
In the course of that frenetic journey and six other trips through Texas and other Southern states, New York actors Blank and Jensen interviewed 20 people who'd been released from prison after being wrongly convicted of murder. "The Exonerated," a documentary drama opening for previews April 13 at the Actors Gang, weaves together six of those stories.

Stories like Gary Gauger's. His mother and father were found stabbed to death on Gauger's Wisconsin farm. After being questioned for 14 hours, the disoriented hippie farmer gave a "vision statement"--a what-if scenario in which Gauger described how he would have killed his parents, if he had killed them. That statement was described in court as a confession. Gauger was sentenced to death and spent seven years in prison before two motorcycle gang members confessed to the killing.

Then there's Kerry Cook. In 1977, he was a frightened 22-year-old bartender who made the mistake of lying when homicide investigators asked if he'd ever been in a murdered woman's apartment. Cook's fingerprints were found on the door frame. He was convicted of murder and spent 20 years in a 6-foot-by-14-foot Texas prison cell before DNA tests proved the victim's ex-boyfriend was the culprit.

Or Sunny Jacobs. She and her husband, ex-convict Jesse Tafero, were sentenced in 1976 for murdering two policemen at a Florida rest stop. Tafero was executed before an associate, Walter Rhodes, admitted his guilt. By then, Jacobs had spent 16 years in prison.
Jensen says, "I think our initial idea was that these stories would be very dramatic, like 'Hamlet' dramatic, and very serious"-- "and maybe just very, very sad," adds Blank. "But when the interviews started happening," Jensen continues, "it was weird because they were also filled with incredible hope and gratitude. Like with Sunny, the one time she teared up in our interview was when she talked about this juror who had gotten in touch with her when it was all over and said he was sorry. She just had this incredible forgiveness."

Blank is reminded of their visit with Gauger. "We went to talk to Gary on his amazing organic farm where he gave us garlic..." "... that's still growing on our fire escape in New York," adds Jensen.
"And here's a guy, when they found the people who really did kill his parents," Blank continues, "Gary requested that those guys not be given the death penalty. You hear things like that, it's pretty astounding."

Listening to the survivors' tales first hand shook the couple considerably, Jensen says. "I've been in New York for the last 10 years, and I take pride in what I can handle. But hearing these stories blew us away and the people themselves blew us away. I'd never seen anyone so courageous as the people we met that summer.

"Doing those interviews put our lives into an incredible perspective. Somebody cutting me off in traffic, that is not a big deal anymore."

Blank interjects, "Who cares!"

Jensen: "Or like personal things between Jess and me, we can work it out, because there is nothing in our lives that can compare to being on death row when you shouldn't be."
Growing up in Minnesota, where his grandfather worked as a highway patrolman, Jensen remembers being the only student in his Apple Valley High School history class willing to argue against capital punishment.

Blank says she's been interested in prison reform practically all her life. Her parents were Washington, D.C.-based antiwar activists in the '60s. She double-majored in theater and philosophy at the University of Minnesota, gravitating early in her acting career to documentary theater as embodied by performance artist Anna Deavere Smith.
Jensen, who earned a bachelor's in fine arts from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, cites as an inspiration his friend Moises Kaufman, who conceived and directed "The Laramie Project." Recently televised in a version on HBO, the piece used interview material to reconstruct the aftermath of Matthew Shepard's murder.

By the time they began dating in early 2000, Blank and Jensen were paying the rent with film, TV and stage gigs while tapping into Manhattan political circles through benefits and spoken-word performances. But they hankered for a more ambitious project that would meld activist impulses with compelling storytelling. A few weeks after they met in a New York restaurant, Blank and Jensen got the push they needed in the form of a heart-rending phone call.

Jensen recalls, "Jessica dragged me to this anti-death penalty conference at Columbia University. It was gonna take six hours, it was a pain ... but I went." They sat through typical talking-head forums, then gathered around a speaker phone. "It was this inmate in Chicago," Blank says. "His confession was basically tortured out of him. There was something in him that was just pleading for somebody to hear his story."

Blank and Jensen decided it was time to act.

Raising $12,000 in dribs and drabs to finance their expeditions, Blank and Jensen hit the road with a tape recorder, video camera and a list of contacts provided by the Center for Wrongful Convictions and other groups. In Chicago, they visited Delbert Tibbs, who spent three years in prison after he was convicted for murder in Florida. Tibbs, a former seminary student, was a foot taller than the real killer. But, like the actual culprit, Tibbs was an African American, and that was sufficient for a witness to point to him as the guilty party.

When he was first contacted by a mutual friend, Tibbs recalls, "I wondered, 'What is this, somebody working on their master's thesis?' And they tell me, 'Well no, they're artists and want to use their art to do something about the death penalty. And I said, 'Do they have any money?' because I wasn't working at the time.

"'No, they don't have any money.' And to myself I say, 'Well, maybe this is something good. Just for the sake of the cause--well, yeah, I'll talk to 'em.'"

When the two showed up at his door, recalls Tibbs, "they told me when they get back to New York, they'll be looking for an angel and put it on, and I'm thinking, 'Well ... everybody's looking for an angel in New York to put on a play.' But anyway, I did an interview with them, and I just sort of let it all hang out. They recorded it. And then they called me three or four months later and said, 'We'd like you to come to New York. We're gonna pay your fare.'

"They had pretty much put what I had told them right back in the play. When it was over, the people just kept applauding, it seemed like for 10 minutes. They took, like, three curtain calls." Afterward, Tibbs met actor Charles Dutton, who portrayed him. "He and I had some bubbly wine and hors d'oeuvres and all of that afterwards. I thought it was a fine thing."

In September 2000, Blank and Jensen returned from their travels with 150 pages of unedited manuscript. They didn't find an angel but did hook up with a priceless connection in the person of Bob Balaban. An astute New York actor-director-writer-producer, Balaban hired character actor and first-time writer Julian Fellowes to create his Oscar-winning screenplay for "Gosford Park."

Balaban had befriended Jensen after directing him in Arthur Kopit's play "Y2K" at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2000. "My main contribution was access," says Balaban. "I knew celebrities who were very interested in the subject, so when Erik and Jessica called me with the piece, the first thing I said was, 'Susan and Tim are friends of mine. I'm going to ask them if they'd like to do a benefit.'"

That would be Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. When the two actors signed up for a staged reading at the Culture Project at the 45 Bleecker Theater in November 2000, "The Exonerated" gathered momentum. Richard Dreyfuss, Parker Posey, Blair Brown, Steve Buscemi, David Morse, Cherry Jones, Martha Plimpton, Debra Winger, Ossie Davis and Dutton participated in four benefit performances, including one at the United Nations.

The play's dramatic potential was obvious to Robbins. "I think the thing that makes for interesting acting and interesting plays is high stakes. I don't think it gets much higher than what you find in 'The Exonerated.'"

After the readings, Balaban urged Blank and Jensen to undertake another round of research. "I wanted to give 'The Exonerated' a reason to be an evening in the theater and not just a benefit," says Balaban, who will direct the expanded version of "The Exonerated" when it moves to New York for an off-Broadway production. "I suggested that Erik and Jessica add court transcripts so that you feel some structure to the piece. And structure, whether it's TV or plays or movies, is really everything--what to begin with, what you choose to put back to back."

The couple made more trips, read thousands of pages of trial records, examined microfiche newspaper articles, sorted through affidavits, read depositions and looked up police interrogations to add dramatic counterpoint to their protagonists' monologues.

Compressing all that raw material into a 90-minute performance required months of rewrites. Says Jensen, "It was like writing a play the way Moby writes music: We were mixing words. Depending on how you juxtaposed things together, different things, completely different meanings, would pop. That's what really created the power of the piece."

While Jensen was in North Carolina shooting the medieval comedy "Black Knight" --he played a warrior sentenced to be executed--Balaban and Blank labored on in New York. Last winter, Robbins offered to stage "The Exonerated" at the Actors' Gang where he serves as artistic director.

One could easily imagine that Blank and Jensen, conversant as they are with crime statistics, pending legislation and case studies of prosecutorial misconduct, would be more than happy to get on a soapbox.

But Blank and Jensen, who got married last summer, deliberately kept their personal views out of "The Exonerated." Says Jensen, "The last thing we want to do is some kind of revolutionary beret-wearing, fist-in-the-air kind of theater. That turns more people off than it draws in, and we're not doing that with this play. We just want to present these stories as cleanly and clearly as we can."
"I see our roles as being a conduit," Jensen says. "People think actors are kind of self-involved, and it's kind of nice to do something that doesn't really have anything to do with us."

The effects of imprisonment have left their scars on the real-life "Exonerated" characters, some literal, some figurative. Cook still has marks carved on his body by convicts who attacked him in prison. Freed from Florida prison, David Keaton cannot get a license to practice his former profession as a horse groomer, even though his felony conviction was later purged. Blank says, "It's not just like, 'Oh, it's a happy ending, they're freed from prison, yay, hooray!' You know, the effects are really not that different from coming home from a war."

Tibbs, for one, forges ahead in Chicago, where he's writing his autobiography in between odd jobs. "As the guys on the road used to say, it was a hellified experience. I don't know if I will ever get over it," he says. "It's changed me in ways I'm not even sure I can articulate. I'm not sure it made me a better person. But I did not allow those times to make me a worse person. I'm not a kid. I'm 61. And yeah, it traumatized my life to an extent, but I'm a persevering bastard. For the most part, it's good to be alive, man."

* * *
"The Exonerated," Actors' Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Previews, Saturday; runs April 19-June 16. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Preview, $10. Regular shows, $15-$20, with $5 student and senior discounts Thursdays and Sundays. (323) 465-0566.

* * *
Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar.

Feb 11, 2010

We are back!

Hi all,
Just a quick note for now....we realize that we've been a bit off the grid and unplugged, literally. The PB SPX crew has been on a cultural immersion program in Bali with Dell'Arte. The program explores the cultural aspects of Bali such as dance, shadow puppetry, mask making, vocal chanting, etc. Sounds kind of random but in the scope of the kind of theater studied and practiced here at Dell'Arte it make sense.

Anyway, we have gotten some emails from folks (Shannon, we couldn't figure out how to respond to your comment asking if the program was still a go, so we're going to do it here...) We are glad to say...yes! The Pelican Bay Speaks program is still a go! Now that we are back in the good ole' USofA, we have a clear schedule to work on nothing but PB Speaks. And with just a month to work, we're going to need every minute.

Some of you may have heard that the NPR station got cut off from the TV signal, and yes this is true, but the prison says it's not because of our project. What matters most is that we try to get it back on so the guys can hear their work performed! We'll keep everyone posted on the situation.

That's all for now...we will try to get better at updating this blog and keeping things posted here.
Take care and be well!