Drama of hard time; Inmates in the mental health unit like Heidi Stubblefield’s classes.

Posted April 20, 2008

Note: This article won first place in the arts-and-entertainment feature category from the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors in 2009.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

It’s another bone-chilling Tuesday afternoon.

Sheets of snow sweep across I-70 as Heidi Stubblefield makes the weekly drive to the Lansing Correctional Institute, the biggest prison in Kansas. It looks like she’s driving into a blizzard.

“Unfortunately, the people I teach don’t get snow days,” Stubblefield deadpans as she motors west.

Stubblefield, 29, is one of the best young actors in Kansas City. She’s energetic and serious, with a quirky sense of humor and hair that occasionally changes colors. Today she’s blonde.

Once a week she has to hold her own with a handful of inmates in Lansing’s mental health unit.

They struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and other problems. Some of them have spent huge chunks of their lives in institutions of one kind or another. At times Stubblefield feels like she’s herding cats.

“I have a really interesting thing for them to do today and I’m not 100 percent certain they’re gonna go for it,” Stubblefield says. “They’re criminals. They’re not fools.”

Heidi Stubblefield (now Heidi Van) works with an inmate in the mental health unit of the Lansing Correctional Facility. (Shane Keyser/Kansas City Star

Stubblefield works for Arts in Prison, a Kansas City, Kan. nonprofit that sponsors classes in prisons and youth facilities. Arts in Prison is best known for the East Hill Singers, a male choir made up of inmates, former convicts and members of the community. In addition to the choir and other music classes, Arts in Prison sponsors visual art and creative writing taught by volunteers.

Last year the group hired herStubblefield to develop new programs. The prison music therapist envisioned a performance that blended music and theater and turned to Stubblefield for help. Theater enhances language skills. Theater requires teamwork. When these inmates get out — and they all likely will — exposure to the arts will equip them to interact with people in a positive way.

Or so the thinking goes.

“The goal is that they don’t end up back in Lansing,” Stubblefield says. “It’s all about empathy.”

Stubblefield began with a class of eight inmates in October. She lost one to the “the hole” (officially called the Segregation Unit) because of disciplinary problems. Another was released. Some just stopped coming. By February she was down to four with a collective criminal history that includes burglary, forgery and, in every case, sex crimes.

This snowy afternoon Stubblefield makes her way through series of security checks, picks up her electronic “panic button,” heads down a frozen sidewalk adjacent to the yard and enters the maximum security building.

She signs in, heads upstairs and asks a guard to unlock one final door. At last she’s in her classroom, which is generic as it gets: fluorescent lights, long tables topped with fake wood veneer, folding chairs and chalkboards. Written on one board are guidelines for getting along:

Show respect to each other by

No interrupting

No sidetalk

No put downs

No swearing

Then the guys show up. A little after 1 p.m., the prisoners start coming in.

Michael McKinnis, 28, walks with a side-to-side swing, his shoulders pumping up and down as though he’s trying to keep his balance on a rocking surface. When he laughs he barks. On the outside he has three children by three different mothers. He’s in prison for indecent liberties with a 15-year-old.

Kenneth Groat shuffles, dragging his feet like a teenager told to clean up his room. He’s 23 but looks like an overgrown 10-year-old in his oversized blue prison denims. He carries a half smile that can morph into a sneer and speaks with a high tenor. He grew up in Chicago but came to Kansas to live with relatives. When he was 19 he was arrested in McPherson for having sex with a minor.

Severo James Sanchez, 25 moves silently, anonymously, his face largely concealed by a beard and mustache, hair hanging to mid-chest and a stocking cap pulled to his eyebrows. His voice is low and relaxed., never loud. Sanchez was a burglar. He began breaking into schools and businesses because there was little else to do in Scott City, his hometown. He says he enjoyed the challenge of beating an alarm system.

Jerry Noblitt is 28. He moves gracefully and talks quickly. He has a sandpaper voice and an easy laugh. Unlike the others, he wears a yellow jumpsuit — part of his punishment for disobeying a direct order. He’s in a bad mood because he just got word that his favorite aunt was brain dead after an overdose of methadone and PCP. He’s in for forgery.

Today’s session begins with writing exercises. Stubblefield distributes pencil and paper.

“I love writing stories,” Groat says to no one in particular. “I love poetry, stories, all that stuff. I love makin’ stuff up.”

First Stubblefield has them write without forethought, scribbling the first thing that comes to mind. Later she has them rewrite nursery rhymes to be sad or happy.

With a straight face McKinnis says: “Can I ask a question? How the hell can a cow jump over the moon?”

Somebody cracks a blonde joke and Stubblefield makes them rewrite that to be tragic. Stubblefield puts up with lots of blonde jokes from these guys.

Later she has them write haikus.

“I’ll be here till Christmas tryin’ to write haikus,” McKinnis says.

McKinnis knows how he feels about writing. He hates it.

“Thank goodness,” he says when Stubblefield tells them the writing exercises are over. He pushes his pencil away to arm’s length.

Stubblefield’s plan is this: She wants to try an exercise from the Theatre of the Oppressed, a style developed by Brazilian Augusto Boal partially in response to repressive regimes in Latin America.

One of Boal’s concepts was that the audience knows as much as the actors and should help create theater.

“Have you ever felt oppressed?” Stubblefield asks her inmates.

To her quiet amazement, these four men serving prison sentences aren’t sure what the word means. She explains it: People are telling you what to do, limiting your movement, keeping you down.

“Oh, like a juvenile detention center?” says Noblitt.

Stubblefield wants them to do some “people sculpting.” One inmate will place the others in a physical arrangement that somehow suggests a narrative or shows us a picture of oppression.

Groat is selected to be the sculptor. He tells McKinnis to sit at one end of a long table at one end of the classroom. Then he tells Sanchez to sit at the opposite end of the table. Then he sits in a chair facing “the audience.” How, Stubblefield asks, does that illustrate oppression?

“They ain’t got no food and they’re sittin’ there with their plates in front of them,” Groat explains.

A moment later he articulates what’s already on his face: “I’m confused.”

Stubblefield decides to go with the narrative. She tells them to improvise monologues but say them silently to themselves for several minutes.

“Now I want it to come out of your mouth,” she says.

Sanchez and McKinnis begin blurting their “dialogue” — “I’m hungry,””I ain’t got no food,””I’m gonna starve,””We’re gonna die,””Where we gonna find food at?”

McKinnon looks at Groat and says: “You called us up and said come on over but there ain’t no food.”

After two more exercises the 90 minutes are up and Stubblefield is back on the highway.

“I’m trying to guide them through telling a story if we can figure out what story to tell,” she says as she heads south on K-7. “At the end of the day they have to make something inherently theatrical and if they succeed I think they’ll feel pretty cool about themselves.”

Now Stubblefield has to prepare for her other job. In a few hours she’ll be in lingerie running in and out of dooron the stage of the New Theatre in a comedy about a politician with hanky-panky on his mind.

~ ~ ~ ~       

A week later Jerry Noblitt stays late after theater class and says he turned 18 in the Wyandotte County Jail after he was busted in a group home for having sex with a younger kid.

Noblitt has been in Lansing since 2005 and expects to get out in six months. He plans to go back to his hometown of Coffeyville to live with his mother. He never finished high school because he went through so many group and foster homes.

Noblitt never thought much about theater until he got into this class.

“At first it was just a sign-up-to-get-out-of-my-cell thing. Then I fell in love with the group.”

Now he’s toying with the notion of being an actor.

“I’ve always been wanting to go to Kansas City and see the theaters and stuff,” he says. “I’ve been telling everybody that. And I’ve even told my mom — that when I get off parole I was gonna try to do something like that. I also want to get into cosmetology.”

Noblitt says he suffers from “severe” depression and takes three kinds of medication. And, he says, he has a “gender disorder.””I believe that I’m a female on the inside,” he says. “I know I’m a male but I believe I’m a female. And I’m bipolar.”

Severo Sanchez has been in prison since 2004. He hopes to be out by November.

Unlike Noblitt, Sanchez has stage experience. In high school he played the male lead in “Romeo and Juliet” and a coach driver in “Cinderella.”

These days he’s more interested in drawing and painting. But he likes Stubblefield’s class. He says he’s learning social skills.

“It gives an outlet for expression,” he says. “It relieves our anger in a positive way and helps us with depression and stuff like that.”

Sanchez says that in childhood he suffered from depression. Now he takes no medication, but he wants to stay in the mental health unit. He doesn’t want to mix with the general prison population.

“Too much drama,” he says.

~ ~ ~ ~

Some actors wait tables to supplement their acting income. Some are nannies. Some do office temp work. Some are fortunate enough to work in theater writing press releases or building sets. They need the money to supplement their meager acting income.

Stubblefield is different. She’s lucky. Her “day job” allows her to use her theater training to make a difference in the world. Or at least try.

Stubblefield grew up in Kansas City, Kan. She was trained as clown in the European tradition at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater in California.

“Out of Order,” the comedy about the naughty senator, opened at the New Theatre in November, a month after she began teaching the Lansing classes. For more than two months her weekly routine broke down this way:

On Tuesday and Wednesday mornings she taught at-risk teens at the Alternative Resource Center in Kansas City and performed shows at the New Theatre Tuesday night, Wednesday afternoon and Wednesday evening.

On Thursday and Friday mornings she taught teens at the Langford House, a residential facility in Lee’s Summit, and performed each night. Then she performed a Saturday-night show (and sometimes a Saturday matinee) and two shows on Sunday. On Monday, the traditional day off for actors, she would catch up at the Arts in Prison office. Then the cycle would start all over again.

She got hooked on “Lockdown,” the MSNBC documentary series about maximum security prisons, but her packed schedule doesn’t allow much downtime. “This is just how I function,” she says. “If I stop, I’ll fall apart. The momentum keeps me going.”

~ ~ ~ ~

McKinnis has news when he arrives for class. “We was in lockdown for three days,” he tells Stubblefield. “We had a fight in chow. Big old fight.”

Stubblefield’s goal today is a different kind of drama. She distributes one of William Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies to the guys and begins going through it, line by line, word by word, helping them to find meaning in 400-year-old verse. She tells them to take turns reading. Noblitt kicks it off.

“To be or not to be, that is the question,” Noblitt reads, uncertain of the correct phrasing. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them . . .”

They go through it once, then twice, stumbling at times on the unfamiliar words.

About midway through the soliloquy Stubblefield stops them.

“I like it,” Noblitt says.

“Ok, good,” she says. “Why do you like it?

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because it gives you more vocabulary . . .”

Stubblefield wants to know what they think it means.

“What are we talking about?” she asks. “What do you think’s happening here?”

“Suicide?” Noblitt hazards.

“You’re right! But why do you think so?”

“I don’t know. I’m just guessing.”

Noblitt says he figured it was about suicide when he stumbled over the phrase “mortal coil,” even though he didn’t know what it meant.

“It sounds like you’re killing yourself or something,” he says.

She has them start again, from the top.

‘”Does anybody know what that first line means?” she says.

“It’s like a poem,” McKinnis says.

“Anybody have an idea? If you could put it in plain talk?”

“Nope,” says McKinnis.

“Maybe it’s sayin’ that you’re tryin’ too hard to be something maybe,” Noblitt suggests. McKinnis stares at his sheet.

“Did you make this up?” he asks Stubblefield.

“Naw, this is ‘Hamlet,’ man,” Groat says. “This is Shakespeare.”

Gradually they grasp the sense of it: the choice of ending life, which will end torment but the good things, too.

“You ain’t got no more pain,” Groat observes.

“No more sufferin’,” McKinnis says.

Noblitt adds: “You don’t feel nothin’ when you’re dead — do you?”

Stubblefield gets the guys on their feet. She wants to begin hammering out the beginnings of a performance. She assigns words from the soliloquy to each inmate.

She begins arranging the guys like mannequins. One sits in a chair looking forward. Another has to walk in a pattern that requires him to step around the man in the chair. At one point McKinnis and Sanchez have to walk in diagonal crossing patterns muttering their lines, each one a fragment of Shakespeare’s famous speech.

“Can I just mumble and pretend I’m saying it?” Sanchez asks.

“No! This is serious.”

Stubblefield has them run through the routine once again, making adjustments here and there. She wants them to remember their blocking so they can work on it in the coming weeks.

“Unfortunately,” says Sanchez, “I don’t think I can forget it.”

Stubblefield wants to keep going.

“OK, let’s add another layer,” she says.

Somebody groans.

“I reserve the right to say ‘one more time’ as many times as I want to,” Stubblefield says.

~ ~ ~ ~

Kenny Groat and Michael McKinnis play chess almost every day. Groat says he suffers from a “depression disorder.” His sentence began in 2003 and he’s got five years to go. He was convicted of aggravated criminal sodomy with a child younger than 14.

Groat writes songs. But he doesn’t play an instrument. He makes the songs up in his head.

“Every song I’ve done so far, I’ve been told they’re good enough to be country hits,” he says. “You know, I could possibly get a singing career, whatever.”

When he gets out he wants to go back to school to study “broadcasting or something.” He’s taken two English classes in Lansing. He wants to earn an associate’s degree.

McKinnis is from Winfield. He says he’s bipolar. In high school he did sports, not theater. On the first day of Stubblefield’s class he was nervous.

“Oh, man. I didn’t know what to say to her,” he says. “I didn’t know if she was gonna be nice to us, mean to us.”

McKinnis says his mother gave him up for adoption but he grew up in foster homes. He misses his children.

McKinnis lived with a woman, the mother of one of his kids, for two years before he was arrested.

“When I got locked up I told her to go on with her life,” he says. “Don’t wait on me.”

~ ~ ~ ~

It’s another Tuesday afternoon. Stubblefield is working hard but the guys aren’t into it.

“Can I just sit here and watch today?” McKinnis asks. “I got a tooth pulled.”

Stubblefield tries to teach the guys acting techniques. She shows them physical performance techniques. She plows ahead, determined to make something out her “To be or not to be” performance.

“We’re trying to create a rhythm, not only with our words but with our movements, with the shapes that we make in the relationship to each other,” she says.

The guys follow Stubblefield’s instructions but they don’t understand the words. They don’t understand the performance. They don’t know what to do when Stubblefield asks them to create characters for themselves or to decide where all of this is taking place.

“Will you stop looking at your hair?” she says to Noblitt at one point. “You can look at your hair at 2:30.”

She wants them to understand what acting is — that it’s making a connection, finding “that invisible thing happening between people.”

She walks them through the blocking of their performance, trying to get them to think beyond their words and actions.

“OK, we’re gonna start from the beginning,” she says.

“Oh, man,” says Groat.

The work continues. Noblitt reads his part of the soliloquy. He pronounces the words correctly. But something’s missing.

“Do you have any idea what you’re saying?” Stubblefield asks. “I’m just curious.”

Hours later Stubblefield makes a phone call to express her frustration. Never, she says, had she seen them act so immature. The performance she has in mind may never materialize.

“I just wanted to create something pretty and contemplative,” she says, sounding a bit wistful.

~ ~ ~ ~

It’s a long winter. February bleeds into March, March into April. Trees begin sprouting blossoms but most days are cold. The wind still bites.

Somebody erases “no” from the guidelines for getting along on the chalk board; now the message reads “show respect by interruption, sidetalk, put downs, swearing.” Tired of the blond jokes, Stubblefield dyes her hair auburn. Noblitt gets in trouble, first for fighting, then for engaging in a “lewd act.” He misses a few weeks of class.

By early April she’s finished up her programs with at-risk teens in Kansas City and Lee’s Summit. On April 8 she taught her last class at Lansing before a month-long break. Now she’s in rehearsals for a comedy at the American Heartland Theatre. She plays a chamber maid.

When she goes back to Lansing the class will be opened up to more inmates. Once again she’ll try to instill something from classical theater into their heads. She wants to show them they can go on a journey.

“That was always my first idea and I refuse to let it die,” she says.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

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