Performing from prison

<p>From left to right: James Stewart, Joseph Opyd, Jason Beito, Nathan Harris and Brandon Gillespie perform a scene from Shakespeare's King Lear Saturday night at Two Rivers Correctional Institution.</p>

Prior to getting sent to the Two Rivers Correctional Institution, inmate Joseph Opyd said he would never have participated in a Shakespearean play.

It wasn’t until fellow inmate and friend Josh Frier told him about a dialogue group taking place within the prison that he decided to give the activity a try.

“It sounded interesting to me, but I was still a little nervous,” he said.

The dialogue group was started seven years ago by Johnny Stallings, now executive director of a program he created called Open Hearts, Open Minds. Through the program, Stalling works with inmates in the medium-security facility at TRCI in a weekly dialogue class where they discuss how to live a meaningful life while in prison, how to change destructive patterns of thought and their lives so they can find happiness and how to make a positive contribution to society.

“We sit and talk about metaphysical things, about healing, love, the nature of the universe and learning to forgive,” Opyd said. “The experience is irreplaceable. It is something you don’t normally get to do unless you are in a place like this.”

Stallings said about two years into the dialogue program, he was approached by an inmate who wanted to try performing a play with his peers in the group.

“The next thing I know, we are rehearsing Hamlet,” Stallings said.

Since then, Stallings has performed five plays with inmates at Two Rivers Correctional Institution. They begin their rehearsals every March, and while inmates can choose to temporarily opt out of the dialogue group so they don’t have to perform in the play, the majority choose to participate.

Saturday, about 17 of the 20 dialogue group members gave a one hour and 45 minute performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear to a crowd of close to 50 family members, friends and community members.

All parts were played by inmates at the facility, including all of the female roles, which Stallings said is one of the things special about the performance.

“That is the way it was done in Shakespeare’s time,” he said. “That is one of the special things about our production. It is done as it was originally done.”

Because they have little to no budget for props and sets, a lot of emphasis is put on the inmates developing their acting abilities and character portrayal, Stallings said. The inmates, however, did get to experience the thrill of performing in costume after the Portland Opera decided to loan them some of their costumes.

“The whole experience has been very healthy for all of us,” inmate Jason Beito, who played King Lear, said. “It’s been a challenge both physically and emotionally.”

After the group’s performance Saturday, many audience members expressed their shock as to how good the inmates’ acting and character portrayals were.

“You forget that there aren’t any sets because they are so into character,” Charlene Kleinman said. “They were very professional. I was totally impressed. We will definitely bring more people next time.”

Inmate Richard Brumbach, who played a knight in the play, said performing for family, friends and other community members is the inmates’ way of giving something back to the community.

“We don’t have sets, so we have to develop the character,” he said. “It is a lot of fun.”

Jeffrey Sanders, who is serving a life sentence at Two Rivers, said the play is his way of improving upon himself.

“Everybody here is not just being a punk, not trying to seek an education. We are all not just sitting around,” he said. “I’m trying to rehabilitate myself.”

Sanders said, at first, he was wary to do the play, but with the encouragement of his peers in the dialogue group, he decided to give it a go.

He said the hardest part of the experience was memorizing and reciting his lines in front of a crowd.

“Even though I can quote my lines right, I constantly carry around the script and constantly am practicing,” he said. “I don’t want to let my cast members down.”

Inmate Scott Strickland said the opportunity of the dialogue group and the play also gives each of them a chance to make meaningful relationships while they serve their time.

“It gives you a chance to get to know people,” he said. “It is really tough to make meaningful relationships here. Through the dialogue group and the play, we work together and can really work out our differences. It is also fun being somebody else for a little while.”

Opyd said the experience truly makes everyone realize the importance of bettering themselves for the betterment of their families on the outside.

“This environment helps you to focus inward on the type of life you are living and the type of man you are,” he said. “You have your choices in life. With the group, you can really focus on yourself. I want to try to be the best man I can be for the rest of my family.”

Many inmates also said performing in the play gave them the opportunity to develop a relationship with the director, Stallings, and how he has a been a positive influence for all of them.

“Thanks to the work John and other volunteers have contributed, I am a changed man, and I am really happy for that,” inmate William Green said. “A lot of people benefit from this. There is just something mysteriously wonderful here. We just become humans. We open our hearts to one another.”

After the performance, the inmates mingled with audience members and indulged in donuts donated from Voodoo Donuts in Portland.

Voodoo Donuts owners Tres Shannon and Kennet Pogson said they were happy to be able to donate the treats to the inmates and their families this year.

“We were able to finally get approval this year,” Pogson said. “We believe in everything (Stallings) is doing. He is inspiring to us pand makes us happy to do it.”

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