It is Saturday, Sept. 24, and a dozen men imprisoned in Two Rivers Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Umatilla, wait in the prison’s visiting room for their guests to arrive.
They are not dressed in their prison uniforms, the blue denim jeans and navy blue t-shirts with the red stamps that say “INMATE.” Instead, they wear cream-colored tunics with ruffled sleeves and black tights. One inmate is dressed in a full tuxedo and plays Chopin on a piano that sits on top of a small stage bordered by Grecian columns.
Two inmates hand out a playbill at the door.
“Enjoy the show,” one says, smiling broadly.
It is opening night, a night the men have looked forward to and worked toward for six months. Tonight, and for five subsequent shows, they perform Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” a Tony Award-winning play adapted from the classical Roman poet Ovid’s epic work.
The play tells the tales of various Greek myths, such as the story of King Midas, a greedy king whose wish to turn everything around him into gold by touching those objects brings about ruin and heartbreak when he touches his daughter; of Echo, a mountain nymph who repels the advances of her would-be lover until her heart is broken by Narcissus, whose own beauty makes him so proud and vain that he falls in love with himself; of Erysichthon, who was cursed by the gods to be endlessly afflicted by hunger after he cut down a sacred grove of trees.
The stories are ultimately about love – how we find and lose love, and possibly regain it. The play is almost radical in how starkly its message – and the warnings implied in it – is portrayed.
In many ways, the stories mirror the love and sense of self-discovery the inmates have found because of the man who originally brought theater to them: Johnny Stallings.
Stallings, 65, is an actor, a theater director and the founding executive director of Open Hearts Open Minds, a Portland-based nonprofit that seeks to transform the lives of Oregon’s inmates through dialogue, music, theater and artistic expression.
He has never stopped thinking about the meaning of life – how we can be happier, more peaceful, freer, more loving. Since 2006, he has facilitated a weekly dialogue group at Two Rivers, where a group of self-selecting inmates gather in a circle and spend two hours talking about their lives and how they can be better.
In 2008, they asked him if he would direct them in a play, and since then, inmates at Two Rivers have performed an annual production.
Through the work done in the dialogue group and as actors intersect, the inmates consider people’s motivations, how anger or frustration or happiness is expressed, how a person’s actions affect others – some of the most fundamental questions we face.
“I think all people are hungry for meaning and to think about and be asked, what’s going on here? What does it mean? What is your life about?” Stallings said.
He calls the work of Open Hearts Open Minds “the nonstop love-in.” He is not being facetious or expressing nostalgia for the late 1960s. He has met dozens of prisoners, many of whom have committed heinous crimes. What he found is that they all have a humanity and potential that is rarely expressed.
“At the core of everybody, everybody, without exception, there is something extremely beautiful, something perfect, something good,” Stallings said.
To the inmates, Stallings is part father figure and part guru who has helped them to completely change their lives and discover the good within themselves.
“Metamorphoses” begins with the Cosmogony, the story of the creation of the universe.
The audience of 30 – family and friends of the inmates, as well as theatergoers who support Open Hearts Open Minds – took their seats arranged in a U-shape around a shallow pool built out of board and decorated with colorful fabric.
Minutes before the play began, a couple of inmates scurried throughout the room, placing props and organizing the costumes they and their fellow actors would change into. Two of their co-directors, Victoria Spencer and Anna Crandall, gave last-minute advice.
The piano had been removed from the stage, but the tuxedo-clad inmate, who was trained in classical piano since he was a child, had written an original score for the play and began playing, a signal that the play had begun.
Jack Baird, 52, an inmate with silky, swept-back hair, a trim goatee and prominent cheekbones, was perfect in the part of Zeus. He smoked a fake cigar as he looked down into the pool, what would be the universe. The rest of the actors surrounded the pool and gazed into it, as well.
Zeus creates order out of chaos – land and sea, air and fire. But he realizes something is missing: man. He creates man, played by the actors sitting around the pool. But something is still missing – words, so Zeus gives man the power to speak.
The actors exit the stage, murmuring, “Words, words, words. Words. Words, words.”
Words are at the heart of what brings the inmates together.
The group at Two Rivers, which changes depending on whether someone is released or leaves the group, has discussed fatherhood, what it means to be a good citizen, how to live a happy life, or a better life, and, inevitably, why they are in prison, the mistakes they’ve made in their lives, and their pasts.
Stallings used to create topics that the men would talk or write about. But more often, there is something they want to talk about – whether it is something that happened to them during the week or something from their life they want to share.
“It’s really just listening,” said Spencer, 31, who co-directed “Metamorphoses” and helps facilitate the dialogue group at Portland’s Columbia River Correctional Institution. “It’s not trying to answer, not trying to fix, not trying to help; it’s just giving air time to whatever is going on.”
Rocky Hutchinson, 40, said he was a broken man when he started attending Stallings’ dialogue group in 2013. His mother had died the year before. She was his only contact outside of prison.
When Hutchinson was a child, his mother was a prostitute and was addicted to crack, leaving Hutchinson to be raised by his grandfather who abused pills and alcohol. As an adult he lived in Portland and had “been through it all,” using and dealing drugs, living as a junkie.
Participating in the group has allowed Hutchinson to step back from his life and “see my faults, admit my faults.” He finds inspiration in hearing other people’s stories; they all find camaraderie in gathering to talk and, oftentimes, commiserate.
Hutchinson has lost 50 pounds; he disparages the criminal lifestyle he once lived. He is at turns serious and thoughtful, then happy and cracking jokes – it is nearly impossible to think of him once living life as a thug on the streets.
He likens Stalling to a compass.
“He pulled me from broken wreckage and turned me into a pretty decent person, I think,” Hutchinson said. “He gave me the ability to take myself back to be who I always intended to be.
“He brings out what’s in your heart,” Hutchinson said.
The inmates in the Two Rivers dialogue group have participated in the group for years. Week to week, they most look forward to the two hours they spend with one another each Saturday.
They have come to love one another – their closest friends, their chosen family.
“When I was out there robbing banks and realized that it was inevitable I would be going to prison, I never thought there would be a time during my incarceration that I would meet people who I cared about,” Baird said.
They have long sentences, up to life without parole. But sitting in a dialogue group, a person might never guess they faced charges of sex abuse, drug possession and dealing, attempted murder, robbery and burglary. The inmates are polite and so forthright and thoughtful about their lives that it is almost disorienting. Many of them are talented musicians, singers, writers. One wonders, what is this person doing here? And for so long?
The answer is easy: They committed criminal acts against victims. But many of them are also victims – of abuse or neglect at the hands of their parents, of undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses, of growing up and living in a world of gangs, drugs, poverty, violence, chaos. The odds of escaping that reality for anyone is miniscule. For the inmates, it was zero.
“It’s hard,” Spencer said. “They’re sad stories, a lot of the time. Once I know the context they’ve lived in, I have a hard time blaming them for their actions.”
Of Hutchinson, who grew up with drugs all around him, Stallings said: “His life is over-determined. How could he not go to prison?
“Crime is seen as an individual moral failure: ‘You knew right from wrong, and you didn’t do the right thing.’ This is nothing at all like how the world actually works,” Stallings said. “You could go to any random house, look in, and decide whether the 3-year-old inside is going to an Ivy League college or is going to prison.”
Stallings believes we are all that 3-year old.
“If we get the right nourishment and love and attention, we get to blossom and flower,” he said. When we do not is when many of society’s problems are created, including criminality, he said.
Undoing the trauma the inmates have faced, Spencer said, “takes so much self-work.” That is the overarching goal of the dialogue group. “We want everyone to see a better life for themselves … to thrive and have joy in their life,” she said.
The inmates in the groups led by Stallings are self-selecting. There are 16 regular attendees – roughly 1 percent of the prison’s population. “We do get guys who are at a certain point where (they say), ‘I’m done with this,’” Spencer said.
Over the years, many inmates have told Stallings that they had never had the opportunity to reflect on their lives. Many tell him they think it’s good they wound up in prison, saying that at the time of their arrest, they were on a trajectory of pain and chaos that would have only worsened, perhaps resulting in their deaths.
“One opportunity of prison is that it’s a time out,” Stallings said.
Scott Strickland, 60, said he needed to put the brakes on his life. He joined Stalling’s group one month after he arrived at Two Rivers, in October 2010. He said it was the first time he had ever talked about his childhood, which he described as traumatic, or the way his life spiraled out of control due to undiagnosed depression, he said.
The mood problems he experienced, which he could not explain before, made him “develop this protective coating” around himself. Lying and deceiving those around him became normal.
“It was so icky,” Strickland said.
He said that he’s learned how to be vulnerable and honest with himself, together with “a good bunch of people repairing themselves.”
Stallings found his way to Oregon’s prisons by happenstance.
He was living in a small cabin near Antelope, Ore., in the early 2000s, spending time “feeding the birds, drinking coffee and eating cookies” while he deepened his meditation practice, a practice he began while living and traveling throughout India during his 20s.
“I was on the full-tilt spiritual quest kind of thing,” he said.
College had not suited him. He dropped out after half a year and never finished. Of his time in India, Stallings said, “it set a trajectory, maybe.”
This was an understatement. His backpack has been filled with books on spirituality and philosophy ever since.
In 2004, the state announced that a new prison, Deer Ridge Correctional Institution, would be built east of Madras. A Jefferson County commissioner organized a tour of Two Rivers for people interested in learning what Deer Ridge would be like.
Stallings was curious, so he went. He later asked prison officials if he could perform a solo version he wrote of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” for the inmates. He gave a second performance, then returned the following year to perform his one-man version of “Hamlet.”
After each performance, he invited the prisoners to discuss the performance. Their questions and comments inspired him to start the dialogue group at Two Rivers in 2006. Shortly after, Stallings moved to Portland. He made the six-hour round trip to Two Rivers, along Interstate 84, every week. He formed Open Hearts Open Minds in 2007 and has since attracted dozens of volunteers, such as Crandall, Spencer and Patrick Walsh, who help facilitate the dialogue groups and the theater programs. The organization now runs similar groups at Portland’s Columbia River Correctional Institution and Wilsonville’s Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, which also has a theater program.
Since they started the plays in 2010, the Two Rivers inmates have performed “Hamlet,” “A Winter’s Tale” and other Shakespeare plays.
This year’s performance of “Metamorphoses” was the first time Stallings did not direct the play. Crandall and Spencer alternate the weeks they drive to Umatilla to direct rehearsals. Walsh, a professional theater director, joins one of them most weeks.
It was also the first time the inmates picked the play. Previously, Stallings had always chosen the play and the play had always been Shakespeare.
The inmates selected “Metamorphoses” after reading a dozen plays, including Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide,” Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and Sam Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class.”
Over six months, the actors gathered once a week for three-hour rehearsals. Outside of rehearsal, they found time to practice lines and act out scenes with one another.
“They work harder than some of the professional casts that I have had,” Walsh said. “They are heavily invested in it.”
Actors not only memorize lines when they learn a role; they assume the persona of their character and must figure out how that person thinks and feels and why they speak the words in the script and react as they do.
“You find yourself relating to the themes of the play, different situations of how people really are,” Hutchinson said. He said he recognizes parts of himself in a character and thinks, “I’ve done things like that. I don’t like what he’s doing.”
It might be strange to imagine prisoners, with big muscles and tattoos and tough-guy struts, playing women, crying on stage, or expressing the anguish of a parent who has lost a child. But many of the inmates relish taking on complicated roles or women’s roles.
There are funny moments in “Metamorphoses,” but much of the play is heartbreaking: characters die, are punished by the gods, lose loved ones.
One of the final scenes tells the story of Eros, the god of love, and Psyche, a mortal. They fall passionately in love with each other, and Psyche goes to Eros’ palace to live with him. But she does not know what he looks like; Psyche cannot know that he is a god. Her jealous sisters tell her that he is a monster.
Psyche, played by Strickland, sneaks into the palace while Eros, played by Tim Hinkhouse, is asleep in the middle of the stage to see what he really looks like. The story is told in a question and answer format, with Hutchinson playing the questioner and Josh Friar answering his questions.
“She doesn’t trust what she has felt herself?” Hutchinson asked, watching Psyche approach Eros.
“Not with the radical trust we need,” Friar responded.
The gods punish Psyche, subjecting her to labor, such as picking up thousands of tiny seeds. But then the gods put a stop to it and make Psyche immortal. The marriage between Eros, or Cupid, and Psyche lasts forever.
“So it has a happy ending?” the questioner asked.
“It has a very happy ending,” the answerer responded.
“Almost none of these stories have completely happy endings.”
“This is different.”
“Why is that?”
“It’s just inevitable. The soul wanders in the dark until it finds love. And so, wherever our love goes, there we find our soul.”
The play culminates in the final act, when Baucis and Philemon, an elderly couple who, out of their entire village, are the only ones to treat a disguised Zeus and Hermes with the respect wanderers and guests deserve, are turned into trees so that their love lasts forever.
All the actors gathered on stage and sing a song authored by Casey Wood, the inmate who played Narcissus. Their deep voices fill the visiting room:
Let me die the moment my love dies
Let me embrace my fate and join their ascent to the skies
Let me not stick around to cry
Let me die still loving, and so never die.
Stallings is an emotional person. Whenever he “sees someone who never had anything get something,” he inevitably begins crying.
As the inmates sing, tears drip down his face.
After the actors playing Baucis and Philemon sing two solo lines, all the actors repeated the chorus.
As they sing the final lines, many of them look straight at Stallings.