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TBA Online: News & Features: July 2019

Red Ladder Theatre Connects Inmates With Their Creativity

Wednesday, July 17, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by David John Chávez 

It’s rare to hear of a prisoner pleading with a judge to postpone their release date.

For Karen Altree Piemme, that request, from an inmate participating in Red Ladder Theatre Company’s improvisation class a few years ago, spoke to a much larger life lesson that might not have been discovered without theatre education. This inmate and his classmates had spent weeks rehearsing for their final show and his date with freedom conflicted with the performance. 

Only a judge can change a release date and the judge wanted to know the genesis of this odd request—why on earth would anyone ask for more prison time?

Two more days was all he needed, said the inmate, with a firm belief that once those two days were up, his life would be changed forever.

“He just told the judge, ‘I have come to the realization that all the problems I’ve run into is because I’ve never seen anything through—not my education, not my jobs, relationships, anything, and if I have the opportunity to complete this, it changes everything for me,’” recalls Altree Piemme, the director of Red Ladder. “He stayed in jail for those two days, we had a big audience, and as soon as he finished, he walked out the door having completed something he worked hard to accomplish.”

Red Ladder instructors lead a class. Photo courtesy Tasi Alabastro and Peter Merts.

Since 1992, Red Ladder Theatre Company has inspired such stories through its work with underserved, disenfranchised populations. The social justice collective follows rigorous curriculum implemented by professional artists who use improvisational theatre to help participants develop positive life-skills.

The company was originally part of San Jose Repertory Theatre. Back in 1990, the Rep’s associate artistic director, John McCluggage, searched around the country for a model of a community-based theatre company that produced educational work and outreach as a branch of its parent company. He found that model in the Living Stage Theatre Company, housed and funded by Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage.

Upon McCluggage’s recommendation, the Rep raised funds to bring members of Living Stage out on a residency in the spring of 1992. The purpose of the residency was to train a new group which ultimately became Red Ladder’s first company of artists. Altree Piemme, one of the instructors from Living Stage, decided to stay with Red Ladder after the training concluded and has been in San Jose ever since. 

Karen Altree Piemme.

For 22 years, Red Ladder’s footing was on solid ground. But on June 11, 2014, that ground rumbled mightily.

San Jose Rep, the first professional theatre company in the city’s history, founded in 1980, closed its doors permanently when it filed for chapter seven bankruptcy. Jobs were lost, shows were canceled, and a beautiful, 584-seat theatre in downtown San Jose was preparing to go dark for good.

While San Jose Rep was dealing with its demise, Red Ladder was trying to fulfill a new offer on the table. The California Arts Council wanted to present Red Ladder with a contract to work in state prisons—a contract that became immediately threatened with the Rep’s pending bankruptcy. 

Altree Piemme was able to hustle and acquire financial support through Silicon Valley Creates, a group of investors who provide leadership and funding to creative endeavors. And while there was new support for a venture that wasn’t necessarily created to strike out on its own, the budget for the new solo endeavor was merely $50,000. But this financial backing, and its dedicated team of educators, enabled the company to move forward.

Tasi Alabastro.

One of those dedicated educators is Tasi Alabastro, a San Jose-based theatre and multimedia artist. Alabastro was doing outreach for San Jose Rep ten years ago when Piemme recruited him to be a part of the company. Initially, he wasn’t sure if he was interested, but decided to give it a shot. 

He soon connected with the thrill of working with people who were loaded with creative potential despite making choices that landed them in prison.

“Our job as facilitators is to create an opportunity to reconnect with someone’s imagination, and I leaned really hard into that belief,” said Alabastro. “There is that thought that occasionally creeps into me that someone here might have done some harm, no doubt, but when I’m in the middle of creating something with someone, their joy in what was created in front of me and with me is all I see.”

Working in prisons presents some challenges that have nothing to do with the population. For the Bay Area-based staff, traveling up to two hours one way for a morning workshop is one thing. The unpleasant surprise that occasionally awaits them upon arrival is another.

“Sometimes you arrive to find the facility is on lockdown, and that’s frustrating,” said Alabastro. “When you return the following week, no one has told [the inmates] we were there and ready to program. We’ll show up a week later and they ask, ‘Where were you guys?’” 

Building trust with the participants is critically important, and moments like those make that trust more difficult, but are completely out of the instructors’ control. Despite these unexpected challenges, the program is as critical as it’s ever been, now housed in nine prisons and 13 different yards, allowing participants to tap into creative skills that were lost long ago. 

John Tafuna Fa’avesi is serving a 36-year sentence for manslaughter and has been incarcerated since he was 17 years old. Now 31, he is currently housed in his seventh prison, and firmly believes that things could have been different if theatre education were a part of his early years.

“What the workshops did for me was to help me gain insight about how to see the world and opened my mind up to different ways of perceiving people,” said Fa’avesi. “What we interpret when we see people is not necessarily who they are.”

For Fa’avesi, those critical lessons speak deeply to what he expects from himself when he ultimately regains his freedom and chooses what kind of husband, father, and citizen he wants to be for the rest of his life.

“I’ve learned so many lessons from Red Ladder and the workshops, but in general, my world view is more compassionate and that will serve me well in my life and my family’s life,” said Fa’avesi. “I know I won’t put myself into compromising situations, and even though I may be tempted to reoffend which would bring me back to prison, with my new ways of perceiving the world, I won’t make those same poor decisions again.”

After five years as its own independent company, Red Ladder is composed of sturdy rungs which have allowed it to to expand its services to juvenile correctional facilities, and such organizations as the Yu-Ai-Kai Senior Center in Japantown and the Bill Wilson Center for Homeless and Runaway Youth. This year is also a banner year for the company’s coffers—Red Ladder just filed for its own nonprofit status and now has a budget of $1 million, four times the amount of its largest budget at San Jose Rep. 

Altree Piemme maintains her belief that creativity is at the core of human beings. Red Ladder’s work with these populations gives participants the opportunity to reconnect to that creativity. 

“Most people working in the prison system were fed a lie that they bought, that all they would ever amount to is a thug or a gangbanger, and they were put into a box,” said Altree Piemme. “They didn’t have another model or influence or someone else to tell them they could be something Mother Nature intended them to be. And what they come up with is just amazing.

“They are so incredibly creative.”

David John Chávez is a South Bay-based theatre critic/reporter, freelance director and member of the American Theatre Critics Association. You can read David's reviews and features at bayareaplays.com. Follow David on twitter @davidjchavez