As opening-night gifts go, there seemed to be some question of appropriateness about the one that Dick Scanlan laid on Sherie Rene Scott as she was preparing for the red carpet right after launching Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Jaws dropped with a collective thud all around her crowded dressing-room, but the star herself lit up like a Christmas tree. "Oh, my God," she squealed, "I'll love that!"
It's called knowing the market. Scanlan and Scott first met when she auditioned (unsuccessfully) for his Thoroughly Modern Millie, later hooked up to do liner notes for her first album and have collaborated ever since, notably on a Second Stage piece that went to the Broadway stage and got them Tony-nominated: Everyday Rapture.
"Dick said, 'I've a gift specifically for you that you'll appreciate. I can't wrap it. I'll just have to tell you: We're going to teach a personal-narrative class in a men's prison.'"
Through a volunteer organization called Rehabilitation Through the Arts, started in Sing Sing in 1996, Scanlan wangled a gig teaching 13 inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility how to turn their life experiences into three-to-five-minute monologues they'd memorize and present in a performance called "Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative." This mountain-top prison outside Woodbourne, NY, is one of six medium, maximum, men's and women's New York State prisons to embrace this program which focuses on theatre, dance, creative writing, voice, music and visual arts as powerful tools for social and cognitive change. The stories the class told represented, if not the exact truth, at least what Scanlan calls "the emotional truth."
"I thought, 'I'd love doing something with that' — and I knew Sherie would, too," he remembered. "She was the only person I thought of. She doesn't mind doing this kind of work at all. Initially, it was to be for one class, but it went so well that the men asked us if we'd come back on a weekly basis — and then, later, twice a week."
Right from Day One, they realized they had not jumped into the shallow end of the pool. Stories rushed forth in torrents of heart-wrenching pain and unexpected hilarity — compelling anecdotes with common themes of errant or absent mothers, despairing children, unresolved mysteries, unrequited loves, violence and regret.
"What was striking was how gifted these men were," Scanlan recalled. "Like any sort of facilitator, or editor or director — we were playing all those roles — we helped them separate the wheat from the chaff, saying things like 'You don't need this section,' or 'Your story is really this,' or 'If you cut this, look how directly this goes.'"
Two years out of prison, the pieces of these broken lives started settling into a play, and S&S put pen to paper, drawing four monologues and a scene from the class work of five participants: Andre Kelley, Marvin Lewis, Felix Machado, Richard Norat and Jeffrey Rivera. (All get "Additional Material" credit.) The program helped all but one get paroled — some, after 20 years — and they attended the first day's rehearsal. Expect them to be first nighters when their show premieres Aug. 27 at Second Stage.
"Going into prison, we had no political agenda and no intention of writing a play," Scott said. "This was about us wanting to understand the depth of that experience. It was too important a life experience not to write about it. It jelled within us for a long time, and ultimately this play came forth. Surprisingly, it has little to do with prison."
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Their first presentation was for one person: Michael Mayer, who directed Everyday Rapture and the current Hedwig revival, and he instantly came on board to co-direct with Scanlan. The two met as Jets in a summer stock West Side Story at 18 and have been friends ever since. "Our collaboration is so familial," said Scanlan. "It's very easy for us, in a fluid sort of way, to sit next to each other and co-helm this show."
Scott's role in the proceedings — The Volunteer — is essentially what she and Scanlan played in the classroom, and the resulting stories are dispatched by six African-American actors fielding 22 different roles. The "Sammy Williams of the monologues" (i.e., Paul in A Chorus Line) is Jeffrey, played by Chris Myers, An (Obie-winning) Octoroon. Derrick Baskin of Memphis and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee essays the only fictional character in the show, and Ryan Quinn was recruited from Hudson Valley Shakespeare. The rest — Donald Webber, Nicholas Christopher and Daniel J. Watts — all hail from Motown, for which Scanlan was script consultant. Topping their Everyday Rapture title, Scott and Scanlan call this one Whorl Inside a Loop, based on something they learned when they first entered the penal system.
"It's a fingerprinting term," explained Scanlan. "Typically on your finger, you have a whorl and a loop. If you got a whorl inside a loop, that's a peacock eye, and it carries with it a certain set of extreme attributes. It's thought to be the sign of someone with artistic talents — someone who is happily marching to the beat of their own drum."
By any other name, Whorl Inside a Loop is, one assumes, Reflections in a Peacock Eye.