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Act I: Unlocking inmates' anguish

BY any standard of the American dream, these are the ones not making it. Not in this low-slung prison around which snakes one of the surer signs of their failure, a razor-blade-studded, barbed-wire fence. For many of the two dozen men and one or two women crowded into this cement-block room, society's normal ethos has not held. Fifteen are classified as a community's worst pariahs - convicted child molesters and rapists. But nine are here voluntarily. They are underemployed actors who have chosen to work not in film or on stage, but behind bars in some of the toughest prisons in the United States.

Together, they are part of an innovative experiment: a prison-arts program that uses traditional theater techniques to help unlock - not entertain - some of the most disturbed criminal minds.

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Here, in the Massachusetts Treatment Center for Sexually Dangerous Persons, the Geese Theatre Company, the country's only theater troupe to work exclusively in prisons nationwide, spent a week-long residency. The troupe helped the inmates reinact some of the more troubling incidents of their pasts. The scenes were then fashioned into a 40-minute production performed before fellow inmates and prison officials. It is part of the company's ongoing effort to move inmates' senses of self-worth beyond that of victim and victimizer.

The process begins casually enough, just like any beginning acting class: Company members conduct vocal exercises, warm-up improvisations, and a few movement games. Suddenly the inmates are grouped into small teams and told to act out autobiographical scenes. It becomes an invitation for some wrenching verisimilitude. During one performance, one of the men breaks from the others and begins to sob against the wall.

``Everything I was saying suddenly became real,'' says Bob, wiping his eyes and speaking quietly to his fellow inmates. (All of their names have been changed.) ``I was living the scene all over again.''

What Bob had just acted out was a scene from his own childhood, one that expressed some of the abuse he has experienced. Of the center's 275 inmates, 90 percent were sexually abused as children. But for those 15 who volunteered for the theater project, that means acting out childhood memories checkered by alcoholism, mental illness, abandonment, and even rape. Bob's reaction is the kind of result prison administrators and company members are seeking from the theater project.

``I can't promise you that's the response we will get every time,'' says John Bergman, founder and director of the Geese Theatre Company. ``But it is the kind of emotional authenticity we are looking for.''

Inmates seem to agree. ``I've been in and out of therapy since I was 12, and I like this better,'' explains Ron, a nine-year veteran of the treatment center and one of the theater program participants. ``Here I can act things out, pretend to be who I want to be. I can allow myself to get close to people.''

``This theater program is one of the most important experiences of my life,'' says Ben, another program participant. ``It helps me get in touch with those feelings and experiences I can't talk about.''

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``Regular theater thrives on itself as a star. But we're interested in a different kind of communication,'' Mr. Bergman explains. ``Instead of talking about an inmate's traumatized past, we're taking a look at him now.''

The seven-year-old company usually performs one of its several plays that explore prison-related themes. The troupe has already worked in over 250 prisons and jails, including some of the country's more infamous facilities: Soledad, Riker's Island, Stateville. But company members prefer to deal directly with inmates, letting them create theater reflecting their own concerns.

``They work improvisationally and do their actual research in prisons,'' explains Vera Cunningham, director of the Theater Program at Joliet's Stateville Prison. ``This is what makes them unique.''

It is an accurate assessment of the dogged, hands-on attitude of this company that at first glance conjures images of a bygone era: a ragtag acting collective spouting social-consciousness-raising slogans more common to the '60s. ``I'd go crazy doing the audition thing in New York,'' says actor Tom Swift. ``This way I'm helping people.''

``I'm tough, and I'm demanding,'' adds Bergman. ``But I'm not a miracle worker.''

It is this against-all-odds determination tempered by an '80s-style pragmatism that most characterizes these New Hampshire-based actors, who roam the country in a converted yellow school bus and whose work days consist of cajoling, probing, and even angering the imaginations of convicted criminals.

If the company's artistic process means mining some especially gritty memories, it also reaps some big rewards. The final production here at the center concludes with a sobering, but moving moment: One of the inmates literally shouts down his nightmarish past: ``No. No. Not any more!''

Bergman's own undiluted fervor stems from his background as the London-born son of German-Jewish refugees. ``I had a terror of concentration camps back then,'' he says quietly. ``They were a primary question in my life. They still are.''

After studying drama in London, Bergman emigrated to the US to work in New York's avant-garde theater during the '70s. He eventually became disillusioned and moved to the Midwest, where he worked in a foundry with ``real people.'' But he returned to theater, earned a Masters degree in drama therapy, and founded his unorthodox company. ``I wanted to make theater for people making decisions about their lives right now,'' he says.

It's an attitude that seems to have found its niche within the nation's correctional system. Although the federal funding that initially buoyed the plethora of prison arts programs in the late 1970s has dried up, the Geese company has managed to survive, performing in more than 35 states since its inception in 1980.

``Of all the groups that visit prisons every year, the Geese company is the most innovative. They portray the inmates back to themselves,'' says Anthony Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association.

Despite praise from prison administrators, hard statistics on the company's impact are elusive. Those that do exist indicate a substantial reduction in prison rule infractions immediately following the group's visit. But any long-term effect? ``No one can statistically measure that,'' cautions Mr. Travisono. Nonetheless, the company's unfashionable ideology seems to be gaining ground. A sister company, ``Geese Theatre of Britain,'' has just been formed, and at least one state, New Hampshire, is exploring a long-term residency for the company within the state prison system.

But perhaps most impressive are the comments from the inmates themselves, many of whom had never before had any opportunities for artistic self-expression.

``I never learned anything about myself in any prison until now,'' says Arnie, a beefy Vietnam veteran who has been in and out of prison for the last 16 years. ``Here I've learned enough about myself not to be a repeat offender. The theater project is a part of that.''

``This theater program? I learned that I want to have fun,'' seconds Billy. ``I missed out on that my whole life. Now I'm getting my chance.''

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