Sherie Rene Scott on the Transformative Prison Experience That Became Whorl Inside a Loop
Scott and cowriter Dick Scanlan begin to change the world, one story at a time.
It was a Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown opening-night present that Sherie Rene Scott didn't expect. Rather than flowers, Scott's Everyday Rapture writing partner Dick Scanlan got her a day in prison. Not as a prisoner, of course, but as a teaching artist. The pair would travel to Woodbourne Correctional Facility in New York State where together they'd listen to a group of inmates perform their own personal monologues as part of the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program.
The result made Scott want to "change the world." Her first step was to create, with Scanlan and their directorial collaborator Michael Mayer, a play based on her experiences. In Whorl Inside A Loop, running at Second Stage Theatre through September 20, a Broadway star begins volunteering at a prison, helping inmates write about their lives, but slowly it is revealed that her reasons aren't so selfless. Like in Everyday Rapture, Scott lays it all on the line — to emotionally overwhelming results. In a recent conversation with TheaterMania, Scott discussed the importance of storytelling, the significance of arts education, and the dire need for policy reform.
Since you already had one semiautobiographical show — Everyday Rapture — under your belt, was it easier or harder to write Whorl Inside a Loop?
It's different. In Everyday Rapture, I tried to tackle big issues, like having an abortion. [Coauthor] Dick [Scanlan] and I believe in doing that in a way that is surprising and entertaining. That was felt very deeply by Dick and I, but we also knew that if we had a political or personal agenda going in, it wouldn't be interesting. I think it was harder, a little bit, because it's an ensemble. I'm excited and happy to be part of such a great group of actors, but emotionally, it's hard for me as a person to betray them [in character].
Tell me about your actual experiences volunteering at Woodbourne Correctional Facility.
We were offered [the opportunity] to come in for one class and observe their work and give them notes. That first day, I think, was nine hours long and I think we had thirteen students. It wasn't really a "volunteering in prison" thing; it was a one-time master class that then did turn into volunteering. We became full volunteers for many months and it ended up being a transformative experience for everybody in the class, and Dick and I.
It was different in many ways than in the play. A lot of these guys were hearing each other's stories for the first time. They'd known each other for twenty, twenty-five years, but had never heard these. There were a lot of tears and a lot of laughs and a lot of real deep revelations in a very unique experience for all of us. We were asked to come back and craft their pieces, and over time that turned into them wanting to present the pieces in the prison and we helped with that. It was really about the work, which was great. When the focus is on the work, all of these things are revealed without people knowing it. Connections are made in their minds and then with others, so that was good.
How involved with the production process were the five inmates who contributed their stories?
They've been with us from the very beginning. We wanted our actors to create characters first…After several months, when everybody felt like they knew who their characters were, they met the guys from our program. The characters are not based on the guys themselves; one character is usually a combination of more than one inspiration. We made sure we had the top lawyers to make sure we were doing everything correctly by the guys and the victims' families when we decided to really focus on making the play.
Several of them were even there on opening night.
Four of the five guys who were contributing authors were paroled in time to see the first workshop. Statistically, the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program has an incredibly low recidivism rate. The people in these programs don't return to prison.
And yet, the arts are always first to be cut in schools.
There were frightening comparisons to the school system and correctional facilities, and one of them is that arts programs are always first to go. It's such a gift when any place has them, and yet statistics show that people exposed to arts programs fare so much better in all aspects of life.
Have the guys told you what they've gotten out of the experience?
I don't want to reveal any private conversations that we've had, but they've kind of never been part of mainstream society. I think all of the guys went in [to prison] when they were teenagers. They're finally coming out as grown men and contributing members of society. They take their family members to come and see the billboard outside of Second Stage and look at their names. You can't overestimate what a great thing that is, to be a good citizen.
What have you gotten out of the experience?
I feel like I've contributed to the community by having these guys be part of the community. They certainly contributed to our lives and helped us learn. By hearing each other's stories, we do contribute to each other's lives more and become a greater society. All I want it to do is change the world. I don't have big expectations for it. [laughs] And I won't be happy with anything less. But we're doing it, one show at a time. Shaping hearts and minds through the arts is really huge, and now we need to move it into policy reform. One step at a time.