The Exodus Program

“The EXODUS Program for incarcerated men uses the legendary story of captivity and the journey through the wilderness to the promised land as a model and a metaphor for the prison experience. Carol Fox Prescott visited each of our three groups in December of 2012 and presented the story of Miriam from her play “In The Voice of Our Mothers.” The content was particularly apt and gave a women’s point of view to the story and the prison struggle that is rare. Carol, as an actress presenting her own work, found a dynamic collaboration of actor and character. The men took to her as performer, teacher, and participant with respect and appreciation, and for some, awe. Carol also spent a few moments bringing attention and appreciation to the breath, a core principal in the acting technique she practices and teaches. Though the “lesson” was brief, there was immediate benefit for some of the members. We would love to have Carol Fox Prescott visit our groups in the future.”
Gordon W. Brown EXODUS Program Director

” What I found incredibly moving was that the more you got into the reading, the more I sensed the very presence of Miriam. And not just her presence, but I could “feel” her essence, her cares, her concerns, her joys; all that was cradled in her soul so many centuries ago. You brought that section of the Hebrew Scripture to life, and I felt blessed to be able to witness your reading.”

The Reverend Allan Ford, St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Staatsburg, NY

AND MY REFLECTIONS WITH GRATITUDE, DECEMBER 2012

I don’t know how to write about this. My feelings run so deep sometimes that they tumble over one another and become incomprehensible to me. The over all thought is one of waste. The waste to the men incarcerated but more than that, the waste to us. To our society, our culture, our humanity.

Three trips to three prisons; a double maximum security, a maximum security and a medium security. It is not my first time offering my skills inside prison walls, but these are not experiences that stay or fade. They haunt.

I sat within inches of a man who had spent years on death row. We held eye contact and smiled at each other, shyly at first and later with trust.

I offered them a way to breathe freely and take the time to really see one another. Together we all breathed and took the time to see one another. They were brave to follow me into the vulnerability of the moment. I listened to their thoughts and heard about their process of “humanizing themselves,” that they seem to have given their lives to, as a part of the program they are involved in, and why I was there.

To get there I drove with my friend, who has been volunteering one day a week for many years, to meet with men in one of these three “correctional facilities.” He brought me there to read an excerpt from my play, “In The Voice of Our Mothers,” which traces the journey of Exodus from the point of view of Miriam, known as the sister of Moses but a prophet in her own right.

And I was there to offer a short teaching about acting, and specifically the acting technique I have developed through the years, which is based on breathing. So I was there to offer freedom, creative, and emotional freedom to incarcerated men. Very long term incarcerated men. 25 to life. Life to life.

Yet they live in hope. They measure their days by how many programs the facilities offer, the size of the yard where they can spend time in the fresh air and sunshine, whether there is a wall around the buildings, whether they have TV or packages from home, weather there are college courses and degrees offered. And who has been achieved parole or clemency or pardon.

This program that my friend offers is a chance for men who were born into either poverty, or the drug culture, or families of incarcerated relatives. Maybe I saw 50 men in all and out of those 50 men two were white.

I told them that I would have been hard pressed to go outside the walls and find 50 men who would have been able to speak as honestly about their emotions, experiences and regard for one another out side of the walls. And the conversation was about art, philosophy, personal feelings and experiences and hope.

I can feel my liberal, commie, pinko bleeding heart break. I am proud to claim it. There were no walls between the men and me as long were in the rooms together because of the mutual respect we shared. Yet I don’t know what they did to wind up there. I saw the last group days after the Newtown, Ct. massacre. I don’t know whether or not the acts of these incarcerated men were as hideous as the act of the desperate young man who stole his mother’s guns, shot her and then went on to change the face of America. I only know that I was sitting in the room with men who were living the lives of people making amends. People who have so much to contribute to the world out here. And we are desperate for wisdom out here.

I want to forgive and start over. I want to open up the gates and raise our children with love instead of drugs and guns. I want to offer free education in every sense of the word, job trainings, beautiful places to live, and the chance to create, to praise. to imagine, to address grievances. I want to live in a world that respects it’s citizens and shares in its abundance.

Everything in me aches for such a world. I actually believe in it. I know there are hideous acts done by millions of people but I can’t give up the hope that they are in direct reaction to the hideous acts done to them.

So I drive into the mountains with my friend Gordon, into the beautiful Catskill Mountains and I see the ugly, florescent lighted buildings where we warehouse a huge proportion of our sisters and brothers and I pray that my presence, my time with them, my love for them will make a difference. Yet I ask myself, how long would that love last if I were on the other side of their crimes? I pray that my heart does not close but I don’t know how much strength I actually have and I pray also that I never be tested in such a way.

Still, I carry their courage with me. I think about them waking up each morning knowing they will not see their families, make decisions on what they will eat for breakfast, who they will see during the day. I can feel them lying down to sleep at night, alone in their cells, but without privacy, as their thoughts take over and remind them of where they are and why.

I think about the stupid things I have done in my life that might have, yes even did get out of hand. And although I have never touched a real gun or gotten hooked on alcohol or drugs, I have certainly felt rage and envy and injustice. I am lucky. I never got caught. I always had somewhere to go where I would be taken care of, held and soothed.

Carol Fox Prescott

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Kickstarter to Bedford Hills

To our friends and backers from Kickstarter,

I’m sending this update to let you know how your open hearted generosity towards us has helped us to finish out our spring season of “In The Voice of Our Mothers,” and plan for the fall.

Our performances at The JCC of Manhattan, Stage Left Theater in New York, The Brooklyn Heights Synagogue and my reading of a portion of the play at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women were all artistically successful, deeply meaningful and taught us more about the play so that as we go forward we are in a better position to bring our production to more and more venues.

Just after we reached our Kickstarter goal, we received a $5000 grant from The Wendy van den Heuval Foundation so, feeling a little bit flush, we are moving on, planning our fall season, which includes our long awaited true rehearsal period (up until now the show has developed in one or two days of rehearsing right before performances and it is a testament to our wonderful cast that they carry the courage and passion to work with what is), new promotional materials, our first cast replacement, three amazing professional consultants, the possibility of a choreographer, a summer administrative intern, writing a number of grant proposals and what we hope will be a full season at many varied locations.

Recently I did a reading of a portion of In The Voice of Our Mothers at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. There are times I wish I was a potter rather than a writer/director so I could create an emotion filled, compact piece that would represent my full experience there and then I could just put it into your hands so that you might feel the rich and wide-ranging textures it holds, as I do. Having only words in which to give you a piece of my time there, is frustrating because as much as I want you to know, I also know that so much will be left out.

I met my contact Rabbi Joanna Katz, Acting Jewish Chaplain of the prison, who greeted me in the parking lot and guided me through the voluminous paper work, the locked gates and the strange sensations of stepping into a place of incarceration as I was about to tell a story of freedom.

Before I met my audience, she took me into the gym, which was cheerfully set up for a graduation ceremony for the inmates who had completed high school, college and graduate degrees while in prison. There were photographs of the women in caps and gowns looking as proud and happy as any commencement class anywhere.

As the audience gathered, in one of their classrooms, all wearing the same dark green shirt and trousers (at least they weren’t orange) they carried in chairs with which to make our circle so that we could sit together, see one another and share in whatever the experience turned out to be. There were women from Rabbi Joanna’s group and also women from a group lead by Sister Mary Ann, the facility’s Catholic chaplain. We were there to celebrate the holidays of Shavuot and Pentecost, times of Revelation or the gathering of wisdom in the Jewish and Christian calendars.

I began by speaking of my experience of writing “In The Voice of Our Mothers,” where it came from in me and making sure that each of the women knew something about the Biblical characters I was about to portray. They did (good work Rabbi Joanna and Sister Mary Ann!). I began with the song that opens the show, the spiritual “As I Went Down to The River To Pray,” and some of the women joined in. Then I spoke Miriam’s words, “When the sea parted, when the waters broke, I was among the first to move forward into the far reaches of the unknown. Fear gripped my heart with tightly woven fingers but I could no more have turned back or stayed put in that moment than I could have died right there on the shore of the beginning of the rest of the world.”

They were with me, from the beginning, they shook their heads and chuckled in recognition. They wept and laughed and listened. They took the journey with me and with Miriam across the sea of reeds, when it was over, they shocked me by standing, as one, to applaud and appreciate the offering.

Then they spoke. They told their truths about the children they had been parted from, the times when they needed to wail and cry to express their pain or joy but had to keep their emotions in check to protect them from being sent to “the third floor.” I didn’t need to ask what was up there.

One woman noted the love that passed between Miriam and the Egyptian princess and how that love made room in the world for the liberation that happened years later. They recognized the killing of the Egyptian overseer as an act of anger and how Moses had to spend years in the wilderness in order to understand what had made him act out in that particular way, as he learned in his exile, to make other choices. They celebrated that Miriam, a woman, had been taken seriously as a prophet. The themes moved back and forth from fear to faith and I knew that we were not so different from one another, these women and I. Their sharing was honest, forthright, humorous, serious and beautiful. By the end of the evening we were any group of women in the world who have come together to open our hearts to one another.

Among the many lessons I learned that night was that these women were living their lives. Not just their lives in prison but their lives. The only lives they have. They would probably not have chosen these particular lives but they are living them. I don’t pretend that they have as many choices as some of us or idealize their situations in any way but even so, they help me to see, again, that the work of freedom is available to us all. That balance between fear and faith comes with every human situation and interaction. I thank God that I am able to live this choosing life. Still, I am always aware that where I fall on that balance beam between fear and faith will be the determining factor in how much I enjoy, how much I serve, how much I lose and how much I gain.

I salute the women I met At Bedford Hills, I sense the “here but for you go I” piece of living and I pray for them, for me, for all of us.

Thank you for helping to make this possible.

As ever,

Carol

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Open and Curious

Here we are, at VOOM, coming to the end of our first major fund raising campaign, researching liability insurance and workers comp, preparing grant proposals, getting ready for three performances in varied venues, keeping up our website, our promotional materials and in the process of creating a five year plan which will take us into the future with many shows, many locals, putting many actors to work and reaching many people; men and women, Christians and Jews religious and secular.

It amazes me because until we were in the middle of it, I didn’t really know that we were doing it. There were these stories that I had written years ago. There was some interest from my local community to have these stories read by professional actors but each time we did it, it turned into something else, something more. Eventually the readings became performances and In The Voice of Our Mothers was launched.

Right now we have three full performances to prepare for. The rooms in which we’ll play couldn’t be more different. Stage Left is a forty-seat boutique theater in the very West 30’s in Manhattan, The JCC of Manhattan is a huge room with risers which has a seating capacity of 200 to 250 people and the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue is a beautiful new sanctuary in a beautiful and famous old neighborhood. Every day I rack my brain to understand what the rooms will ask of us. How will In The Voice of Our Mothers work in each of these very different spaces? How will we stage it? How do we keep the audience involved and part of the action, the way we do with the original staging when actors and audience create an intimate circle together.

It reminds me of my first paid job as an actor in 1963 when I played the cow and the giants wife in a touring a production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Every weekend Jack, his mother, the giant, the old man who sold the beans and I would pile in a car and be driven off to some part of the city, New Jersey or Long Island where we would find ourselves in unimagined circumstances with lots and lots of unleashed kids for our audience. Sometimes we were in magnificent old vaudeville houses, sometimes modern movie theaters where the length of the stage was as wide as the building but the width was no more than therr feet. And everything in between. I learned a lot in those days, a lot about staying present, working with my immediate surroundings and never expecting anything to be the same as it was before.

So here I am again, with the memory of the cow and the giants wife alive and well within me ready to walk into each space open and curious, to discover our performance in it.

And that is what we are doing as we continue to grow the entity called In The Voice of Our Mothers. Each new challenge; venue, actors contracts, record keeping, social media and maintaining the show in tip top form presents surprises, challenges and wonders.

Who thought I would be doing this in my seventy first year of life, but here I am!

— Carol

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Our performance at SUNY:New Paltz

We created a new version of In The Voice of Our Mothers when we were invited to perform at the McKenna Theater at The State University of New York: New Paltz. Up until then the piece had been staged in an intimate circle or concentric circles of audience members. The actors sit among the theater goers as they are included in the shifting realities of time and space inherent in the piece. We have been quite flexible, as we would have had to be with any show that plays many venues, but this was a total restaging. And we only had a four hour rehearsal on stage in which to do it.

I must say, it was great fun to arrive at the theater with a techie and a lighting designer waiting to go to work with us. And a real dressing room! Something that certainly doesn’t exist in the synagogues and churches we’ve been playing. The theater itself is beautiful, a fully-equipped state-of-the-art proscenium arch house seating 366 people. We were invited to do our show for The Introduction To Theater Course (for non majors), a large survey lecture course taught by Professor Stephen Kitsakos, Asst. Chair of the Department of Theatre Arts. Sprinkled among them were a hand full of theater students and the few friends who wondered in.

We decided to bring ten audience members up on stage to sit with the actors during the show so that we might maintain the intimacy between actor and audience that has been so important to our production. Then, there was the matter of restaging and lighting the show, all in those four hours. This was possible because our cast is so open and ready for everything. They are all trained in a way that allows them to live fully in each moment so that everything that happens gets included in the mix. They embraced the new situation like……..  actors on a stage. I so enjoyed watching them discover their light as together, we experimented with the brand new staging that would open up the show to the largest audience we’ve had as yet.

One of the things that keeps us going at the top of our creativity, even when weeks and weeks go by without a show, is the opportunity to adapt to different audiences, different physical plants, even different times of day. We seem to be able to touch hearts and challenge brains wherever we go. And we are grateful.

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“BONGANI”

Two of our cast members are offering a new play in the New York Fringe Festival 2011 called Bongani. Gabrielle Maisels (our Rebecca) is the author and plays all the roles. Kate Holland ( our Rachel ) is the director.

Gabrielle has been a student of mine since at least 2003 and Kate since the summer of 2007. Each has had her own journey in her work and each has generously allowed me to be her designated acting teacher.

The relationship between an acting teacher and her actors is an intense one. It demands trust, the ability to challenge one another into greatness, the knack of working as intimately as a set of spouses or a psychotherapist and her patient but in my experience it is rarely a personal relationship. Conversations are about the work. We may know very little about one another’s life stories but we know more than the most intimate people in one another’s lives about who we are and how we react to a wide variety of situations, real and imaginary.

The women in In The Voice Of Our Mothers are all good friends now. They look forward to getting together each time we rehearse and perform our show.

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OUR REBECCA,  GABRIELLE MAISELS ,  IS THE AUTHOR AND THE ACTOR, OUR RACHEL , KATE HOLLAND, IS THE DIRECTOR. THIS FROM KATE.
I am really kind of over the moon that BONGANI has been chosen as part of the Fringe Encore Series. Performances will be at The Huron Club at the Soho Playhouse, Sat Sept 17th at 4:30 pm, Sun Sept 18th at 5:00 pm, Mon Sept 19th at 8:00 pm, and Wed Sept 21 at 8:00 pm. Further updates as events warrant. Go Gabrielle go! And thanks from the bottom of my heart to Daisy, Hannah, and Justin for their excellent and dedicated work.

Gabrielle Maisels Here’s the info, and link for tix http://www.fringenyc.org/index.php/component/content/article/9-shows/180-encoreseries

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I keep learning.

In these last few weeks I have gotten to sit back and enjoy a number of performances of “In The Voice of Our Mothers” as if I were simply a member of the audience. Well, not exactly! But I have been so pleased and proud of the performances and the deep level of truth and commitment from our cast that there wasn’t much for me to do except enjoy myself.

Each time we have the pleasure of performing in front of an audience the piece itself becomes clearer to me. I am as thrilled to be watching it come to life as I was the first time we all sat together to begin our journey within a circle of women at Miriam’s Well, www.miriamswell.org

If the event itself is the truest communication, then the love and commitment that our company of actors, our producing committee and our volunteering friends, (creating what ever it is that seems to be needed at the moment) bring to each other in and out of their roles is truly inspiring.

When I wrote these stories years ago, I wrote them one at a time and I wasn’t thinking much about how they related to one another except in that they were about the families in Genesis and Exodus. I wanted to know how they related to me. I wanted to know if I fit into these families and their descendents though all the generations that brought us up to my time and my travels through my own spiritual deserts, if not the physical ones, I had encountered.

Now, I am beginning to see more of a real trajectory of discovery in the characters and in the story itself.

Sarah who discovers that her God is not only the God who speaks to her husband’s but a God who is alive in her,  speaking to her through her body rather than from on high.

Rebecca who personifies the challenges of acting on what she knows to be true (the voice of God?) somehow maintaining the long view of history, making the difficult decisions for what she perceives as a greater good over what may be good for her family.

Beautiful, innocent Rachel who loves her man with all her heart, all her soul and all her might,  who carries the traditions and gods of her mother into that love, and who, after the disappointments and despair that life inevitably brings, comes to find the strength to see beyond herself into the grief revealed in her sister’s eyes.

Leah who ultimately takes responsibility for the ways she has justified her own behavior born of powerlessness and pain when she witnesses the ways in which she has taught her children the soul deadening experiences of hatred and jealousy.

And Miriam, of course, who brings the story into focus for us by putting it into the context of the transition and growth from generation to generation and from slavery to freedom, allowing us to look through the lives of our Mothers to see our own encounters with God, fate, life, spirit, breath and reminds us that now that our eyes are open, that the work of freedom must truly begin over and over and over.

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Duchess County Jail #2

“I put my baby in the river the day I decided to drink instead of taking care of my son.”

This startling statement was made by a young man who is a prisoner in the Duchess County Jail where I  had the honor and privilege of reading scenes from, “In The Voice of Our Mothers,” a production of Miriam’s Well of Saugerties, NY.  The play tells the personal stories of five women in the bible, each from her own personal point of view.

That day I read the part of Miriam, sister to Moses, who sets each aspect of the biblical story in motion as the people move from slavery towards freedom.

Just walking into the building was jarring. All possessions must be left outside in the car or in lockers. I surrendered my drivers licensee and keys to the front desk, signed in, received a badge to attach to my clothing and was escorted through many locked doors, up in the elevator and out into the hall where I was delivered into the hands of surprisingly friendly guards (that’s one stereotype down) who greeted me warmly and showed me into the room where I was to meet the inmates.

It’s quite an experience,  getting myself ready to read about the value of freedom to a group of young incarcerated men who are in jail for I don’t know what, but who are, at least, in a special volunteer run program to help them get themselves together for the day they will be released back into the larger community. These are not theater going men, most are not high school graduates (although in this program they are able to study to get their GED). Only a few had heard of Miriam, though they all had a sense of who Moses was.

Yet when they walked into the room, it was clear that they were happy to be there. They’re in a writing group that was started by a wonderful woman named Pam Wright, who found her way into the system, struggling to convince the powers that be that the men would respond positively to such a course. Now, they not only respond positively but there is a waiting list to get in.

These are not men who came into the classroom used to expressing their feelings on paper. Most of them probably hadn’t even read much of other people’s feelings on paper before they went to jail.  Or, at first glance, looked to me like they had feelings close enough to the surface to express (second stereotype down). But in they walked, beautiful young men (what could they have done? my imagination fails me, are they dangerous, crazy, are they guilty, have they been framed?), ready to read their assignments from last weeks class. Pam had prepared them for my reading.

I talked a bit about who Miriam is and how she fits into the overall story. Then I began to read.

Now when I read I get very involved. The story comes alive for me through my voice, my body, my emotions. I love the story, I love reading it and I am not shy. I am a trained actress and I go for it.  I admit I was a bit nervous because there we were, sitting together, in a circle on metal folding chairs, in a fairly small room with  glaring florescent lights overhead, the door open so the guards could see in. There was no distance between actor and audience, no protection of a darkened theater, no glass wall between prisoner and visitor,
just a bunch of people in a room listening to a story. And this is a woman’s story! How would these particular young men relate to a women’s story was the question (now the stereotypes began tumbling down and quietly disappearing).

From the moment I began, I knew they were listening. I knew that we were journeying together into the ancient kingdom where the ruler issues an edict to kill all male babies. Where one family takes the chance of bringing a child into the world. Where the child is laid in a basket and set afloat in the river. Where a princess saves the threatened baby. And where a people is saved by that baby grown into a man.

Their faces didn’t change much but their attention was rapt. The room was electric for me. I floated on the magical carpet that our combined energies created.

Then the story was over. Now it was their turn.

Timidly, hesitating, they began to speak. These young men who knew not freedom.

First they said nice, polite things about being grateful that I  had come and how much they enjoyed the reading. Then slowly their deeper responses began coming out. My friend who admitted to putting his baby in the river started it off as we all gasped at his imagery, his honesty, his generosity.

Another man (who was about to be released in a week’s time) said that he knew that Moses had been born into freedom because his birth had not been detected by the Egyptian soldiers and how when he gained his freedom as a man it wasn’t enough to just be free, he had to bring freedom to others.

One man said he saw the story in images and colors and wanted to paint what he saw.

A younger men spoke of feeling sad because he missed his mother and the stories she used to tell.

With each comment I learn more about the men, my piece, the power of the biblical story itself and I feel my heart braking open, over and over again as I fall in love with each soul, praying for a world where each one might step out of jail through a red sea of his own making
into a life of love, safety and freedom.

I ask to be invited again.

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February Reading at The Duchess County Jail

I read a portion of “In The Voice of Our Mothers,” at The Duchess County Jail for twelve young women in orange jump suits and flimsy shoes that I couldn’t help but think didn’t support their feet. I was shocked to see how young they are. At least one was pregnant. I read the portion on Miriam, prophet, sister to Moses, a leader among the women who leads her people in a joyous dance celebrating their journey from slavery to freedom.  The emotion in the room as they sat rapt with the story was palpable. All the lights were on, they could see one another as well as they could see me and often the faces remained stone still but it was clear that they were with me in so very many ways. To be given the gift of a performance just for them, to be transported into foreign worlds, to be moved by a story that was familiar and yet not was reflected in their eyes. I fell in love with all of them as I am wont to do with each new group of acting students who enter my classrooms. But these innocent looking, young, young women were in jail. Some, on their way to prison for who knows what offenses? Still they responded with love, expressing love in the discussion that followed the reading. For those moments, they trusted each other and they trusted me.

—Carol

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