Disabled children, troubled teens, hardened inmates -- all are welcome in the world of Living Stage, whose members believe that artistic creation can make anyone whole and sane.
The young man is small and bent in his wheelchair, his body foreshortened by some terrible slip of nature, but when he begins to sing his voice is deep and resonant and full. The song is about Jesus and hope, and the singer knows how to draw people into his skill, how to move strangers, how to perform. His voice pushes all other noise from the room and everyone is silent.
Then he is done, and the microphone passed on to the next wheelchair. This time it is rap. The boy grunts out the sounds, the words tight and incomprehensible, lost in the contorted limbs and muscles of a teenager with cerebral palsy. But behind the grunts there is a beat, syncopated and sharp, and he sings on and on until he is satisfied and finished.
This is Living Stage -- part playroom, part laboratory, part sanctuary. While politicians and sociologists bemoan the drug problem, the decay of American education and the collapse of poor black families, a small troupe of actors in an old building at 14th and T streets NW is waging a social and artistic war against these same social ills. They coax songs and poems from disabled kids. They dare tough teenagers to shed their well-cultivated cool. At D.C. Jail and Lorton Penitentiary, they challenge prostitutes and drug dealers and murderers, and soon in dank prison halls adults are putting on old hats and garish swatches of cloth, transforming themselves into children and devils, into heroes and trees.
Over the years children and adults who have found themselves in trouble have discovered within the walls of Living Stage a safe place where they are trusted and admired. Here, they are told, they cannot be wrong. Here, everyone is an artist. When they are hungry there is food, and when their lives careen into crisis there is someone to help, whether by finding a lawyer or giving presents to a new baby or running interference between teenager and parent. For those people, Living Stage is a refuge.
For the actors and staff who spend long days here, it is a passion, less a place than a cause. This is theater that they believe does more than entertain. This is theater that can transform lives. Living Stage dominates their existence, making the outside universe -- where silly hats are discouraged and people have jobs rather than crusades -- seem pallid and thin by comparison.
"When I came here, my life changed. It was like enlisting in a revolutionary work corps or boot camp," says Halima Williams, an actress who has worked with the company for the past two years.
This particular revolution has been in progress for 24 years. It is the community outreach branch of Arena Stage led by Robert Alexander, a charismatic and demanding actor who rebelled from the theater of Shakespeare and Shaw in favor of the theater of urban reality. His creation is unique in both the theatrical world and the social welfare bureaucracy. A child of '60s idealism and the political street- theater of that era, Living Stage has outlived its beginnings and most of its compatriots as well, leaving both theaters and streets behind to infiltrate the world of social workers, teachers and judges.
Though there are other troupes elsewhere that use drama as therapy or as a vehicle for social work, the breadth of its work and its longevity set Living Stage apart, making it a model for other groups nationally. Most Living Stage workshops are contracted for by city schools and jails and the juvenile justice system. So by now, Living Stage has been visiting inmates at Lorton and D.C. Jail for 20 years. Every child currently enrolled at the neighborhood Garrison Elemen- tary School, for example, has participated in a Living Stage event. In the course of a year the troupe works intensively with 150 to 200 people on a regular basis. It spreads its influence further by holding weeklong training sessions around the country for 40 teachers and social workers at a time who study the theater's techniques.
Every summer, Living Stage closes down its regular programs and invites the public in, running day and evening workshops for children and adults who can afford to pay. The classes are a way to make money and to reach the outside world, but given their slower pace and less rigorous demands, the troupe finds them something close to a vacation.
For those who believe in it -- and believing in Living Stage is akin to subscribing to the tenets of an orthodox religion -- the theater's methods and philosophy offer an answer to much that plagues Washington and other American cities: Give children attention, respect and a chance to create and they will save themselves.
"You see young people walk into a room and their bodies are like lead and their eyes are dull and they can't make up anything -- all they can give is a very narrow band of what they saw on TV," says Alexander. "And then a year later, you see the person is verbal and emotionally engaged in human action."
Quantifying what Living Stage does, proving that it "works," is close to impossible. How can creativity or hope be measured? But troupe members speak about kids who have turned themselves around, men from Lorton who stop them on the street with messages of gratitude. And teachers say they are repeatedly astonished by what their students do with Living Stage: Silent children begin to speak and even sing.
"There have been things that have come out that were amazing to me," says C. Melvin Sharpe Health School kindergarten teacher Brenda G. Jenkins, who has worked with Living Stage for more than a decade. About 30 students from Sharpe, a special education elementary and high school, attend Living Stage each year. Jenkins remembers the day the troupe led her students in an improvised visit to the circus. "One child said, 'I'm going to walk on this tightrope,' " she says. "The child at that particular time had crutches and braces, but at that moment he put the crutches down and started walking, one foot in front of the other, with his arms balanced out."
Although that boy's performance sounds like a faith healer's "miracle cure," it was in fact part of a slow and cumulative process in which there are no cures, merely movement. Jenkins believes her students gradually attempt more at Living Stage than they allow themselves in their regular school rooms. "I think in the classroom we set limits as to times and schedules and routines, and with Living Stage they are free to do what they think and feel and be as creative as they can be."
For Robert Alexander, visions like that one -- a boy with his braces walking on an imaginary tightrope -- prove the theory.
"In the moment of artistic creation, you are whole and sane," he says, and then he says it again more slowly to ensure he has pressed it into your brain. "In the moment of artistic creation, you are whole and sane." THE WOMEN'S DETENTION CENTER AT D.C. JAIL IS A BLEAK and clammy place. As they heft brightly painted furniture and racks full of costumes off the truck, through one layer of security, down the halls, through another layer of security, and finally into the barren square room where they work, the Living Stage actors and crew are methodical and grim. This is how they work, with no wasted chatter, every routine ritualized through years of repetition. Their faces range from blank to sullen to angry, as they do whenever they enter the jails. They break no rules, but neither do they talk to the guards. They are not here for the guards. They are partisans for the guarded.
As the inmates walk in, the actors are already deep inside their imaginary world, creating the lives of a burdened black Washington family. One teenage daughter is pregnant by a drug dealer, one son is hoping his basketball playing will make him rich. They move through their lives, making dinner, thrashing out the problems of the pregnancy, arguing over what to watch on television, planning a fishing expedition. The women from the jail watch, wary and giggling. Then, with a wild crash from the company's music synthesizer, the mother falls down dead, killed by a stray bullet through the window.
From then on, the story belongs to the inmates.
One by one, they volunteer for parts, replacing the Living Stage actors, covering their anonymous blue prison jumpsuits with hats and pocketbooks and cloth, wrapping themselves in the invented histories of their characters. At first they joke and mock themselves and each other, but soon the story takes over. The pregnant girl confronts the drug dealer. He rejects her. She turns to his mother, who lives off the money he makes from drugs.
They write themselves a story with shocking revelations, the stuff of "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest." They choreograph a tragic funeral service. They introduce new characters and play with the old ones. Then Living Stage member Jennifer Nelson stops the story and asks the women how it should end.
The drug dealer's mother will be robbed and beaten, one suggests: "It hits him there, so he realizes what he's doing and he straightens up." The couple will resolve their differences: "They'll live happily ever after." The drug dealer will die himself, and his mother will take in the baby: "I mean, I would look at him and he would be the spitting image of my son. I couldn't say no."
All the conclusions are somehow uplifting, endings that suggest there is always the possibility of a personal transformation no matter how bleak the tale. Lessons are learned and weaknesses rejected. Good people triumph.
At the detention center, with its hardened women and callous guards, the conclusions seem almost calculated to inspire, as if chosen specifically to please the good-hearted theatrical visitors. But Nelson does not think she is being told only what others believe she wants to hear. "I think," she says, "they want to believe it's possible." BOB ALEXANDER'S GRAYING CURLS ARE LONG, WEARY AND unkempt, and his warmly colored clothes are always worn at the knees and elbows. A tiny plush bear clings to his collar near a changing display of political buttons. By the end of the day, his eyes have grown bleary-red and his face has begun to sag. But when called upon to perform, to persuade, he is a fierce and challenging force. He grasps hands and stares deeply into the eyes of whomever he is addressing. Like the best of actors, he exudes a physical intensity that makes the air around him jangle with significance, as if every moment and every comment is of the utmost importance. But most actors choose to employ that intensity only when performing. For Alexander, it never ceases. "He's always consumed," says one of his employees.
His eyes are always on his theater. Living Stage is Arena's community outreach branch, but in truth it belongs to Bob Alexander. He created it and infused it with his personality and ideas, and the people who work for him succeed or fail depending on how well they match themselves to his vision.
His office is a scrapbook testifying to his obsessions. The red room is organized into a purposeful clutter, every surface covered with shells and small rocks and other found objects, the walls a collage of photographs and neatly typed out quotations from Einstein and Che Guevera and Chekhov.
"This culture is an apoetical culture," he says. "Material things are worshiped, and people think all that is important is what can be measured. The imagination and creativity are not valued. What we want to do is free the imagination. We want the kids to fall in love with, revere, their imagination."
This is Alexander's doctrine, what company members reverently call "the Living Stage philosophy." Over the years of recruiting actors and wooing donors, he has crafted a fluid monologue of exhortation. He returns again and again to the same phrases and quotations, phrases and quotations that can later be heard issuing from the mouths of his company members.
His is an art intended to change the world, and he expects an equally ambitious sense of purpose from all those around him. This, he admits, is probably the reason he is no longer invited to dinner parties, but he wears the snub as an honor. His roil- ing, passionate, angry life has no room in it for anything as insubstantial as the social graces or as pointless as mere entertainment.
"Someone explained it to me and said, 'You prick our consciences too much, Bob,' " Alexander says smiling. "I say, 'What do you want to talk about? What else is there to talk
His conversation is fueled by his anger. "You have to be outraged," says company member Oren Sandel, and Alexander works to hone and fuel his company's outrage at the culture they see oppressing the people they work with.
Alexander does not remember a time when he was not outraged. As a pugnacious New York kid, he fought and struggled from the first -- using drugs, stealing hubcaps -- but was always drawn to the creations of his imagination, whether in music, art or theater. As a young man he drove a cab to support himself and began to act. But by the early '50s he was losing faith in adult theater.
"It wasn't that I wasn't interested in the plays -- I loved the plays, Lorca and O'Casey," he says. "I just didn't like the audiences. It was impossible to reach them. They were intellectual, and the plays were about working-class people and the people who came to the theater were middle-class people, and so they didn't viscerally get the struggle. Doing a play for a large audience doesn't empower the audience with their own artistry. They sit and admire and revere and respect what you're doing, but it's not about them."
Seeking an audience that he could touch more directly, he began to work with children, first in New York and then Boston. Married at the time to actress Jane Alexander, he had a son, and watched him grow, becoming increasingly certain that the American educational system was dulling young minds rather than exciting them. In the mid-'60s he came to Washington and discovered in Arena's founder, Zelda Fichandler, then an understanding supporter, and now a close friend. With her financial help he created Living Stage, and the group continues as a branch of the theater. Its budget of just over half a million dollars is made up by Arena through donations and the contracts with schools and other institutions.
At first Alexander worked with scripted material, but he soon moved on to creating along with the children. Although improvisation is a basic acting technique, most actors improvise in the beginning of a project -- as an exercise and a way to develop characters -- but then move on to fix their improvised insights in the structure of a play. For Alexander, the improvisation is the play. Over the years he and his troupe have developed a number of scripts, but those are essentially introductions to stories their audiences then complete. In their repertoire they have hundreds of songs and poems, pieces they can draw on during improvisation and that give them structure within the freedom.
His two sons (from two marriages that ended in divorce) are both actors now, and he follows their work with pride, but he says he never misses "show business -- which is just that, a business." His is a system that in many ways defies the contemporary theatrical tradition. Actors who come to Living Stage will not become famous. They can not hope to receive reviews or awards or even the simplest of responses -- applause. In this company, egos must be satisfied through human contact with the kids and prisoners and from the approval of those within the troupe.
Alexander once described himself in an interview as the "monarch" of Living Stage, and although he now backs off from that word, he smiles and claims another: "I was called a wizard once." Being a wizard, he says, means "you know some secrets."
Like any inspirational leader, Alexander requires the utmost faith from those he agrees to initiate into his secrets. Jennifer Nelson, Oren Sandel, Ezra Knight -- all have lived within his magic for years. Knight found Living Stage when the troupe worked with his junior high school, and eight years ago, when he finished high school, he joined the company. Sandel auditioned over and over before he was admitted, and has devoted his life to Living Stage ever since. They, like most of Alexander's company, speak of him as a force of nature.
They are a compelling group, the actors of Living Stage, taut with energy. When they join, they are guaranteed steady work for nine months of the year -- a rarity in theater -- though the wages are hardly high ($425 to $690 a week) and the hours are long, often spreading into nights and weekends. But the actors and the members of the technical crew sign on not for the money but because they were dissatisfied by the work they did elsewhere. Meredith Berlin says she could find no other place where her love of theater and her political activism could be wedded. Denise Boston taught for years in the Baltimore school system, befriending inner-city children who needed help, but was lonely and found little support for her creativity until Living Stage performed at her school. "This," she thought, "is what I've been doing all my life."
But following a wizard is not for everyone. There are those company members who leave, usually within the first year, after they or Alexander decide some spirit or willingness is missing. David Matthew Proctor, who now creates the music for the company, began as an actor last year but soon moved from the center of the floor to behind the synthesizer, where he sits watching, both part of the company and a deliberately removed observer.
"He is awesome, but at the same time I've called him a fanatic," Proctor says of Alexander. "The rule here is to give up your philosophy because you don't know -- when you're in Living Stage you don't know anything because it's all going to be taught to you. To me that signaled a resignation of who you are, and that's where you fall into danger. When you resign your will to someone else, that's the perfect situation for mental rape."
And for those who resist, he says, "Your anxiety will weed you out. Mine did. I told him, 'I'm not going to give up my identity to fit in with the company energy.'
"For the people who've stayed, I have to wonder: Have you stayed because of your commitment to Living Stage, or have you stayed mostly because of your constant desire to please Bob?"
But even with his reservations, Proctor remains partly entranced. "No matter how much I hate him," he says of Alexander, "I love him." A graduate of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, he is leaving the company to return to more traditional acting, yet he says it was painful to pull himself away from the company. "I had to leave before this place grew on me." BODIES ARE FLYING, ARMS FLAILING, BACKS ARCHED. THE dozen teenagers strike pose after pose, their bodies contorted into the postures of exaggerated emotion -- Living Stage calls them "statues." The theme is frustration, and as they hold their frozen poses Halima Williams asks, "What makes you frustrated?"
"The Catholic Church."
The District's Alchohol and Drug Abuse Services Administration contracts with Living Stage to work with this group of kids caught in the mire of the juvenile justice system. They come here every week and eat lunch with the troupe. The conversation is a rapid-fire run from jokes to requests for more Doritos to conversations about court cases. Today, Williams warms them up with gibberish exercises -- improvised scenes in which no English is spoken, and body language must reveal what is happening -- and then leads them into a drama about a Central American village attacked by U.S. troops.
Lights flash. People die. Ghosts rise from the dead. Women mourn and care for the dying. There are death scenes and comic encounters as the story winds on and on.
The Central America scene, with its portrait of an American foreign policy exaggerated into cartoon-like broadness, is not unusual for Living Stage. The troupe sees the world through the left-wing philosophy of its founder, and at times its work and attitudes take on a doctrinaire rigidity.
Living Stage has both the advantages and drawbacks of any autocracy. Alexander gives his life to the theater, but with few public performances the troupe has little chance to hear constructive criticism from people who have not already endorsed the faith. At certain moments, it seems the troupe and its leader like it that way. Although the actors are highly self- critical, it is all within the context of their utter belief in the process.
But to watch Living Stage work is to be pulled -- however uneasily -- into the faith. At the Women's Detention Center, in the gym at Lorton, men and women make themselves new, yielding to the acting exercises that have them speaking gibberish and sliding across the floor as they mime some powerful emotion. This is serious play that reminds you of the games you created in a quiet corner as a child, the way a chair became a horse and a table a house, how everything around you was itself and something else as well.
"Living Stage is a form of escape without going over the fence, right?" says Lorton inmate Calvin Randolph.
But at Lorton and D.C. Jail, the dilemmas of Living Stage are also clear. The men at Lorton have been there for 7, 10, 20 years. Behind the acting there are terrible stories and frightening crimes. Yet within the world of Living Stage, those crimes have no relevance. The "system" is the enemy, the system is at fault. This is one of the tenets, and it is not questioned -- despite the isolation it produces.
In the Reagan years, Alexander and his troupe -- with their affection for '60s-inspired rhetoric of popular revolution and renunciation of materialism -- seemed a nostalgic anachronism. Alexander admits to feeling isolated. "I think all people feel that way who are working to make society a saner, more loving process," he says. But there are also strengths to be found in the isolation, where like-minded souls gather, a small band of loyal warriors, insulated from criticism and apathy by their own sense of mission.
Everyone affiliated with Living Stage says they cannot imagine the place without Alexander, and he himself has trouble with the thought. "I'm 61. I think of dying," says Alexander. "I say people die somewhere between the ages of 65 and 85 --
I've got that 20-year spread. I do need to start thinking in, say, in another 10 years, about what will happen to Living Stage."
Ezra Knight is leaving this year, and Jennifer Nelson has pulled back as well, both of them searching for an art they can practice on their own. This fall Alexander will open a full-time school to train actors in his methods and beliefs, in the hope that some of those actors will start programs of their own and others will fill the ranks of Living Stage.
He also dreams of something larger -- a project that would once and for all convince the world that if you open a child's imagination, he can save himself. What he would like to do is work with one neighborhood full time, from babies to grandparents, improvising with them, helping them with health care and education -- to make their world over.
"I believe in five years we would see that whole neighborhood transformed, with the people willing to take on their lives," he says. But he would need $10 million to $12 million for that, he believes, and at the moment, fund-raising for the school must come first. HEAVEN AND HELL HAVE COME TO Lorton.
Each man has chosen a character and a home after death. One is a hospital orderly in Hell for raping a woman, another a heavenly firefighter who died while saving a man in a burning building, another the first black secretary of state who went insane and with his suicide condemned himself to the flames. There is a God, of course, and a Satan too. Both choose to reside in Hell.
For more than 30 minutes the two worlds are rife with mayhem and bargaining, souls saved and souls lost. At the microphone, a man who plays a preacher launches into a sermon, but his fellow inmates decide this preacher is corrupt -- he has stolen money -- and they debate whether to punish him. God and Satan look on. Then another man seizes the microphone.
"We are going to declare a new order!" he cries. "God -- Satan -- there is no Heaven or Hell. There is just It. And we shall all live together on the planet Earth!"
The season's last visit to Lorton ends with songs and embraces. Knight says goodbye to the men, many of whom he has worked with for almost a decade, and as the group sings a final song, Eddie Harris, the leader of the prison drama troupe Lorton Voices, raises his fist in a salute. Then Living Stage packs up its props and passes through the gate into the outside world.
Halima Williams stands for a moment in the parking lot, looking into the newly green trees that surround the prison. Inside the company's bus, everything is silent. But as they drive off, someone in the troupe calls out, "Look!" On a distant balcony stands an inmate they know well, the crimson hat, his trademark, barely visible against the heavy buildings and rising razor wire. The man watches in- tensely as the bus pulls out of the parking lot. The actors stare out at the man, and quietly two of them begin to cry. The tiny figure on the balcony is waving.
Elizabeth Kastor, who writes for the Style section, last wrote for the Magazine on Rehoboth Beach.