Plays by S. A. Shipley 
 
 

Director Marti Sivi's Production Journal

  • Performed by the inmates of Iowa Correctional Institute for Women

THE PERFORMANCES
9/8/99
Sharyn,
They kicked ass!!
I mean wonderful!!!!!!!
I have never seen the four or them respond so well! They picked up the vibrations from an audience and ran with it! The last scene was just moving with Bonnie left alone on stage, plaintively calling out for daddy and mommy. I looked into the audience and saw half of them crying. It gave me goosebumps to see that reaction.
They all inhabited their characters so well..........they lived.
Allison. Bonnie. Elizabeth. Rosalyn.
They made them come alive for the first of four audiences.
My heart was pounding so loud inside of me. It was THEIR SHOW. And they made it come alive.
You would've been so proud of all of them and of your writing that made it happen. All of the audience wanted to know afterward if the playwright had ever spent time in a holding tank and I said no. They couldn't believe it because it was so " realistic" in their words. They felt you captured all of the nuances of incarceration.
My hat is off to you Sharyn. You have moved the hardest audience in the world...............those in prison. And your story came alive. And in the process, you gave life to inmates that had nothing in their lives. For that, you gave them something they will never forget.
What a night...........what a night!!
( I am having a drink toasting all of them now! BRAVO! BRAVO!)
Thank you Sharyn.............for everything! This was one night they will never forget!
Marti

9.9.99 I have good news for you Sharyn! They are going to video this show on Saturday and have the inmates sign releases for it.
The problem is the quality. The acoustics in that gym are beyond bad. I can't guarantee what is will sound like.
But we shall do it.
The inmates have this thing 95% memorized, but still as a crutch hold the scripts.
They really know it though. Hopefully the soul of it will come through regardless.......
Tonight the staff gave me a corsage to wear. I was so touched by it............
My dad is coming on Saturday, and Sunday I will collapse! Tonight they were a little off......last night was better. They were "on more" but as I told them......this happens in the theatre!!
Later,.......goodnight, I am bushed!!!
Marti

9.10.99
Dear Sharyn
I do want to tell you something that I forgot!
In the first two rows last night at the show were about 25 "violators", which means these women are new in prison. The treatment director had asked them all to write a paper on their reaction to the show as a requirement of their new incarceration. The cast knew of this beforehand and it was exciting to them that these women would be writing about it later this week!!! Amazing, huh?
Boy, would I love to see those essays.

I am writing notes to myself now and to the cast tonight about little things I see every night that need to be " tightened". Basically, they gave a flawless show last night, but I still see things. I just want them to keep enunciating.
The gym is horrendous for sound, so hopefully you will hear it well.
Talk to you later. I feel like I am giving birth repeatedly here each performance! Its exciting but sooooo nerve wracking too. I can never watch the first 10 minutes of this, just listen to it.... and then I slowly look up.
YOU CAN'T TELL MY MOOD, CAN YOU??!!!
Later,
Marti

(The playwright sent the following sonnet to Ms. Sivi (her director) and cast) because gifts are not allowed to the cast members.

Sharyn,
...I am going to give it to each of the cast members tomorrow night when we tape, along with a laminated play program.
God, I have been up since 4:30 here.
You see what doing a play does to me......happens everytime.
My body feels the exhaustion, and when I woke up I started to cry. There is always this reaction as the summit is reached finally for me. It is the reaching of the goal, it is the winding down of the project that has a certain melancholy to it. I feel it keenly.
Each of these women will probably go through the same high, then letdown, to get to the ultimate good memories that they will keep.
It is the bittersweet experience of having a passion and following it through.........
Talk to you later.
Marti

THE HISTORY OF THE PRODUCTION

3.11.99
To the International Center for Women Playwrights
I am looking for a script that would meet the guidelines for production at a women's prison. The script must be oriented to treatment issues. For example substance abuse or parenting. It must be a play where the audience, in this case female inmates, will receive a message that might motivate them to move in a more positive direction. It will be directed by someone from the community but all actors will be inmates. Cast size probably no more than ten, simple set. Any ideas?? Thanks.
Kay Rhoads The Mitchellville Theatre Project Marti Sivi, Director

Dear Sharyn,

I have your script " Mother's Day in the Holding Tank" and I love it!
I am working with the women up at Mitchellville and I just finished Directing them in Neil Simon's female version of THE ODD COUPLE. I felt strongly that they needed humor up there, and so I recently chose Blythe Spirit by Noel Coward to do as our second show. ( Every show takes quite a bit of time up there for many reasons that you can imagine!). But I also wanted to try out a more gritty show on them and see their reaction. And, your show is perfect. I know that they live existences that are depressive at best at times, but They also have a lot to share within them, and your characters touched me. I Found myself caring about them. I would like to have the group read this together and then see what they think. We might do it for our third show, but then again, maybe it could be next. I would like their input on it. I will let you know; I am going up there the first weekend in April, and it will take a couple of weeks to talk about it, and decide. If the group is serious about doing it, we will definitely love your input, and any ideas from the inmates themselves for you to hear. If anything, these women are hungry for humor in their lives, as I said. But the reality of these characters is so good, with some humor inside them, that maybe this will be fine. Or if anything, maybe some more moments of humor could be found for each of these women, within the realities of their lives. I loved the theme of forgiveness and accepting help from others who seemed adversarial at first. There is a spirituality that I see also......of meeting people in our lives, whom a higher power seems to have put in our path to learn from..... Thank you for sharing this with Kay, and thusly to me. I will let you know what happens.

Origin and Concept

In 1997 I attended an interfaith forum at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women in Mitchellville, Ia. I spoke with the chaplain about inmates who are often routinely depressed and suicidal within the population there. Many of them have long sentences, some for life. We discussed the cathartic nature of drama, and what might be the possibility of getting a drama class started for some of the inmates; she referred me to the volunteer coordinator. Due to administrative changes,and some reluctance for this idea, it took well over a year to get permission to start this program. I finally got the "green light" in late Spring of 1998.
I went through the orientation program required for all volunteers at the ICIW, and I began The Mitchellville Theatre Project on August 15,1998. My original concept was to have a script reading class in which the women could take various parts, discuss different scripts, and generally have a good time exploring the creativity of the writers, and themselves as reader/actresses. I had thirty women sign up for the course, ( which I divided into two classes of 15) and we began reading Neil Simon's female version of The Odd Couple.

The Process

The women in both groups loved the play and asked if we could perform it. I was told by management that they had never had a play up at ICIW performed by inmates. The rationale was that there was a risk putting inmates onstage in front of an audience for fear of something done inappropriately. The stage (in the gymnasium) was used only for recreation. It had a huge weight machine bolted to it that the inmates used for exercise and a pool table and foosball table along side. A volleyball net was hung on the main floor for other recreation. There were curtains hanging on the stage and some working lights. While management was considering the idea of a play, I went ahead and chose two casts from my classes, with extra women in each group volunteering to be stage managers, working props, or understudies to the roles. The women wanted to meet more than once a week, so I got permission to be up there for two hours on Saturday and two hours on Monday nights. About one month into the practices, a major shift happened at the ICIW. Due to overcrowding, 100 inmates were selected to be transferred to Virginia's Maximum Security Prison for a year while additional room would be built at Mitchellville. On one Saturday, I lost two thirds of the women in the project to the transfer. It was very emotional for all of them to witness the transfer of fellow inmates they knew, but the remaining members wanted to continue on, and so we added a couple of new members and began again, this time with one group of 10 women. In October we were given the go ahead to do the show, and were given a date in mid- November to perform. A week later, one of the cast members quit the group because of " personal reasons" with two of the inmates in the group. Two weeks later, the same two inmates went into solitary confinement due to major rule infractions. I had to recast again. I put the word out to the cast to bring in new women, and more inmates came in to audition. We were desperately trying to get the show up before the end of 1998 because I had been informed that the inmates could have only one "event of entertainment" a year as a rule. So if we got it in before the end of the year, we could do another one in mid-1999 (if there were no problems.) We rehearsed the new cast members intensely, and by that time I was going up to the institution three times a week. Two weeks before the scheduled show, my lead actress went into solitary confinement (for depression). At that point, we met as a cast to decide what the group wanted to do. Morale was low due to this, but none of them wanted me to cast anyone else in her role, nor wanted us to scrap the show. This particular inmate had been with the group since its inception and they all respected her a lot. She also loved her role, and so we decided that we would wait and hope that she came out of solitary soon. We realized that our performance date would be after the first of the year, ( it was getting close to Christmas and the prison ministries program had December dates taken up). As disappointing as it was for us to miss our 1998 goal, we still had the goal of putting on the show. In January, my lead actress got out of confinement, and we started again. At this point, the group revitalized. But they were honest in telling me that as close as they were to knowing much of their parts by heart, they wanted to hold the scripts for 'emotional backup' onstage. We agreed that this would be more difficult to work with the props, but we rehearsed it in a way that it would not be obvious to an audience. One of the women who had been in the group as a supporting role and left due to drug treatment, was now back, and wanted to help with props and as a stand-in in case another cast member went into solitary confinement.( This is the reality of working in a prison). Our original stage manager had been with us through it all, thankfully, and she found inmates that wanted to design and paint the set. I was told from management that the dates of February 26 and 27 were our new show dates. Donations The Des Moines Playhouse donated a used backdrop for the set and the inmates designed an apartment background for the show. Iowa Paint generously donated 8 gallons of paint to us, and women came in after their assigned jobs at the prison to paint the set.We planned the costumes. I received a discounted price on clothes from St. Vincent De Pauls resale store, and I scouted for other clothes for cast members that were larger sizes. Shoes were donated from friends. Props were taken either from my home or friends' homes or purchased. A friend at KGGO mixed music for us for the various scenes to use. The scripts were falling apart through overuse, so I had new ones reprinted in a smaller size so they could hold them easily in one hand on stage.

Working within the ICIW rules

Everything is done at all times for security purposes in a prison. When I first brought up the costumes to try them on the women,every item had to be marked in suit bags for each inmate in the show. A guard sat with me and counted all of the items in each of the bags before I brought them in. After the women used them in a rehearsal, I had to recount them all over again with the control center and return them to my car. No clothing is allowed to be left in the prison at any time (rationale: an inmate could break out and the clothing used for disguise.A pair of pantyhose equals a possible suicide device, so literally everything is counted and then taken back out). The props, (luckily for my car's limitation) could be locked up in a storage room above the stage. Each rehearsal we unlocked it with a guard and it took time to bring everything down. This was our routine.The inmates have a headcount five times a day, and after a rehearsal, they needed to literally rush back to their units for the headcount, while I had to finish up the props/costume count with a guard sometimes completing it an hour later. As a funny side note, the weight machine on the stage was a problem that was just not going to go away. I was told that they would not unbolt it for our show, as they needed to use it the next day; so we decided to write the weight machine in as a part of the show ("Olive Madison" had a weight machine in her apartment). We hung her clothes on it, we mentioned it every several pages, it became a character in itself. The pool table and foosball table were placed behind the backdrop thankfully! The Odd Couple is Performed Since the cast had never had an audience to gear their laugh lines from, we got permission to have a mother's support group from the institution assemble to watch it three days before it opened. The cast finally heard laughter, and applause from a small group for the first time, and now had to perfect their timing more. But they had gained great confidence from that first small audience!

February 26 was our opening night. We had a full gymnasium of inmates that had to sign up days before to see the show. The cast was nervous but very ready! For many of them, this was the first time they were wearing real street clothes in years.( In prison they wear blue jeans and tops). One of my actresses was 62 yrs.old and had not worn dress clothes ,i.e.earrings, heels,in 20 years. It was very exciting for them to see themselves this way to say the least. The set looked wonderful.For many of the audience, this was the first time they were seeing a play I was told. I had a table with my stage manager on the floor for the music/sound effects. Several inmates helped with scene changes and one pulled the curtain. And it was now their show. As the curtain opened, the audience errupted in applause to see the cast......and it was like that throughout the rest of the show. They laughed at every laugh line, the cast holding for the laughs. Their timing was great and after every scene there was wonderful applause. They worked beautifully as a team, and at the end,as they took their bows, the audience gave them a standing ovation . We had a second night February 27 and it went even better, with the cast perfecting their timing, and their roles. I was extremely proud of all of them.

The Response

There are 400 inmates up at Mitchellville and only 200 were allowed to see the show, due to our two performances, but the response has been wonderfully gratifying from all the inmates and staff alike. More inmates have asked how they can join the Mitchellville Theatre project. The cast, through the intense ups and downs of 8 months of trying to put this show on, has grown in many ways. The psychologist mentioned the sense of teamwork and purpose felt by the women involved. Individual officers have voiced amazement that the inmates could do this. With a show that took so long in getting up, this was the greatest reward. The ICIW has said that we could continue with performances as long as they were "educationally based" until we have a new calendar year to have an "entertainment" show as this one was. I am looking for scripts that reflect the needs of the women up there. I also feel strongly that laughter is a powerful force. Pain is a given in their lives. You rarely hear women laugh at ICIW, and to see an audience of inmates laugh throughout both of the shows was fantastic.I want to find scripts that will reflect humor while giving some sense of hope or a message that will be relevant to them.

Future Goals

The Mitchellville Theatre project has been a breakthrough at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women.The goal of inmates putting on a show for fellow inmates has been a morale boost for all concerned. The costs of this production were paid for by myself , a total of $150 for scripts,$35 for costumes, $35 for props. As always, donations from interested individuals, local theaters, or businesses remained the focus for my 'first crys' for help. I would like to see this project continue, as there is a strong consensus now that it has benefited the women up there, both culturally and emotionally. Women in prison also have their "own stories" to tell, (a future project). Finding scripts that will advance a philosophy of rehabilitation during incarceration is a challenge; but the process of confidence gained in putting on a show is very real. I believe that financial help could be earmarked for this project within the Mitchellville administrative structure. My contact person at ICIW has been: Amy Love, Volunteer Coordinator, ICIW, Mitchellville, Ia.50169

Personal Background

Marti Sivi

Criminal Justice Administration major (BA) Drake University 1981

Ft.Des Moines Correctional Facility, volunteer 1978-1980

President, The Drama Workshop 1984-1985

Actress/producer within the Des Moines theater community for 20 years

4.22.99 Dear Sharyn,

Good talking to you today. I will ask the women in the cast to write a couple of things about themselves and their characters, and we can send them to you. As with any play, ( and, in prison, there are more constraints than most venues!) we will shoot ( no pun intended here!) for performance dates in August. If, by some miracle, things move along faster, I will be letting you know, for sure. This time, we shall have more flexibility than the last time, and I will take advantage of all of it! I want to be able to take pictures of the cast.........so hopefully that will work out too! Marti

Dear Sharyn,

I am in Des Moines, Iowa. I have been an actress/producer in this community for 20 plus years with a degree in Criminal justice. This is the first opportunity that I have combined my theater background and my prison experience. It is powerful to say the least. I am sending you the proposal that I have sent to several Arts agencies to try to get this project financed, other than myself. At this point, I will persevere, regardless as the need is great, and the talent out there abundant. I told my volunteer advisor up at the prison about your show and if it flys, I will let you know and you and I will correspond as we go........ I love the play!! You are just what I see happening there at this time. Its up to more than me to get this up.......but I have faith that what is to be is to what is to be........... I am sending you the original proposal of what I am doing up at the prison....... Marti Sivi

4.27.99 Dear Sharyn

The editor of our paper is a very good friend of mine, and he has been clamoring to have a big article written about this thing for months. I had him hold off for some very good reasons at the time. We were deep into the Governors election here and a very strong "right wing tough-on-crime ex-cop" looked like he might win. At that point, I didn't want publicity for it because the powers that be might've canceled me right then and there. There are a lot of people who would be disgusted if they heard that inmates were putting on plays besides doing time. As it turned out, his challenger won, and it is a different ballgame entirely now. With our second play up there, I will ask for the publicity and get it easily. The inmates deserve it too. As for the production, laws prohibit a show up there ever being sold to the public, and the existing warden won't let anyone see it but the inmates themselves( I could get a reporter in to see it though) They were not even allowed to have family in the state come and see them in this last one. Like I said, with this change in government, things can change, albeit slowly. Iowa is not known for its rehabilitative stance in corrections, although people like myself who would like to see the arts come into prisons are now saying it loud and clear to be heard. The benefits to the women are immense..........strong teamwork skills and a sense of accomplishment that will be valuable as they re-enter society. Thank you for your donation of the script. I will let you know what the inmates reactions are after we read it together.... Marti.....

6.7.99 Dear Sharyn

I am on my way out the door, but wanted you to know that I am having to cast two roles again. One of the women was released who was going to play Elizabeth Nardle and the other is in solitary for having sex there. ( Here we go again....) But, as I know now, this will get done, just in its own time frame. So I am reaching out to other women. We still have our stage manager and two other roles, but even in a four cast show, in prison, it can get down to a couple of stable individuals. Sometimes that is an oxymoron in prison!! Talk to you later................ Marti

Sharyn,

Just got home from the prison and we have blocked most of the play. Of course, as things go on, it will change in various ways. I was so excited to hear that you might be able to come out to see the play!! So were the women. They have written you things about themselves and I will be sending it to you shortly. I have a ton of things to do in the next few days ( I am leaving to NY to see my daughter), but will get these things copied and out to you. At this point, there are concerns of mine with ( as always) who will be remaining in the show by showtime. The best women in two of the parts might be leaving shortly, which is good for them. But it will leave a couple of openings for actresses. I have two now in solitary lockup now too! As excited as I was for a "foursome" in that it didn't seem hard to cast, the reality is, in a prison, nothing is for sure at any given time. Now I have a Ms. Meth, I have an Elizabeth Nardle, the runaway Bonnie, and the part of Allison is up for grabs. We are aiming for a summer performance, but no date as of yet locked in.

I have a question for you. One of the treatment counselors in Mitchellville saw the script and really liked it. A woman in my group is being transferred to a facility in Rockwell City, Iowa that deals with sexual offenses. It is a small facility with less than a hundred women. The women really have no programs there at all, and the treatment counselor felt that the play might be a good stepping stone to talk about their problems, attitudes. In other words, she would like to take it there for women at Rockwell to read it as a group, maybe perform it, on a small scale. I wanted to run this by you. You are the playwright, so you decide. If you want the script to stay here in Mitchellville, so be it. You see the potential here in your play. I honestly think this play could be a two act play. The ideas are all there.........just elaborated on in time. In fact, the phone booth is the most wonderful prop, because everytime a woman would talk on the phone, it would be a monologue for her of her life. The parts that deal with flashbacks ( like with Elizabeth at the fair, or with Allison) could be done for all the women.......so that the play is enlarged. Basically you have all the nuts and bolts of it. I just think we want to see more of the women and find out more slowly, so that it doesn't wrap up so fast. But as a one-act, its great. I love it and so do the women. The part of the stillborn child of Ms. Meth gets to them each time. I want that blocked very slowly.

Let me know what you want me to tell this counselor about the script leaving Mitchellville. I told them it is totally up to you, and that I would email you. They all know you are doing a favor letting us perform it here in Mitchellville.

Marti

8.5.99 Sharyn,

Last night the reporter went up with me to watch a rehearsal. She is going to come again later in August with a photographer. Then she will come to one of the performances, the first two are for the inmates and I am sure she will see one of those. The last performance is for a group of volunteers that work at the prison, that werent allowed to see my last show. So far, I have the green light for this one........

Talk to you later!!! The women would be very excited to have you there!!

Marti

8.6.99

Sure you can forward that info to whomever you want to!

The reporter here at the Des Moines Register who will be writing the piece about this play is Rekha Basu, if they care to contact her.

I will keep you informed on the status. My four actresses, in real life are:a woman in for murder, a young girl in for drugs,prostitution, another who is in for murder, and a woman dealing with Methamphetamines. The two in for drugs will be released the next week after the play, that is why we have to perform this on the dates we have. This is the first play any of them have been in and there are challenges to each one and her part. But I know they can do it, and they love the play.

Later, Marti :-)

8.10.99

Today we painted the backdrop of the show. It was sooooooo exciting. Tons of inmates came in to add their signature to this show in the form of personal graffitti. They have written love notes to family, numbers of the closest pizza parlor, bail bondsman numbers, lawyer numbers, "Jesus saves" and quotations from the bible, a huge graphic of FREEDOM! across one section, " I miss my kids" on another, tic tac toes, lines x-offed for days spent there, boyfriend names, " this place sucks!" and on and on. The background is this flesh toned wall, with a bit of sky that you can see above it. And all the graffitti is in brown, blue, green and black. The phone booth is white with all kinds of numbers written on it too. Visually, it is awesome! And it was so powerful watching these women write on it. Some are drawings too........

I will have my last practice with them Saturday afternoon. The following Wednesday, they will be on their own with the first of 4 audiences. They are nervous, excited and ready I believe. All of them are finding the spirit of your characters within them. It is a most powerful transformation to see. My Ms. Meth just got her parole, and is the only one that is leaving the prison ( actually the next week after the show!). The other three are in for life. But they are having the time of their lives doing this......it has given them a sense of purpose, and for that, it is everything.

I am attaching a flyer that one of the inmates designed for our show. Tell me if you get it ok.

Talk to you later..... Marti

8.11.99 Sharyn,

Believe me, I have already asked for a picture for YOU! Now I just need to hope it will be done. Would love a video to send you, actually, but I don't know if thats possible, so I have been HOUNDING THEM about having pics for you. Tomorrow, the reporter and photographer from the paper are going to be there for our last rehearsal, and then next Wed. for our first performance.So pictures will be taken for the paper and I will ask to get the negatives from them for pics. Of course, you will have the paper spread. Will send you a couple of copies. It is due to come out Tues, Sept 14. WOW. Of course, I don't have control of what she writes, but hopefully she will pick up the jist of whats going on. She wants to talk with each of the cast members tomorrow before the rehearsal.

Basically, I want to send you as much as I can, so that you can get the feel of the show, and the experience. YOU SHOULD BE HERE, GIRL! But since you can't, I want you to feel what I see........

I will tell the cast what you said to me tomorrow; its a support that they really need now.

Marti

8.15.99 I will definitely try! I am sending you the opening of the play anyway...... a powerful piano rendition of Amazing Grace that then becomes their voices that start the poem, then merge into a cacophony of voices until Ms. Meth says her first line.

I love hearing from you.........I can tell you are as excited as I am!!

Marti Yesterday, they were interviewed by a reporter at our paper, and then went through their last rehearsal. Yes, they are excited and nervous. But, YES! they are ready for an audience. They have inhabited these characters for quite awhile, and now need to tell the story of " Allison, Rosalyn, Bonnie and Elizabeth." All I said to them now, is breathe in your character, react to each other and your story will unfold. Its a powerful one of forgiveness and acceptance. The belly dance scene ( great music) is wonderful. They talk and dance with each other just until the " control voice" says " Allison Storey, your husband has arrived, youre checking out!". We are all happy with the decision to leave Bonnie the runaway on stage alone looking out at the audience as "Amazing Grace" plays and the curtain slowly closes. Its unsettling, but powerful, and it just gives you goosebumps to hear her plaintive sentences and visuals alone there. Wednesday is the day! We are all ready to go for our first of 4 performances!!

   
 

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