William Head inmates bring raw, powerful performance to “The Emerald City Project”

Culture Theatre
Photo via SNAFU, taken by Sam Redmond

The Emerald City Project is a play co-created by SNAFU Dance Theatre and the inmates at William Head, produced inside the walls of the prison. The play reframes the Wizard of Oz from the perspective of two rival gangs: the flying monkeys and the lions. As they face eviction, they are brought together by Toto’s return from prison to fight for their home. The performance is the product of collaborative workshops that have been taking place since June. Truly, it is a one-of-a-kind production.

SNAFU has a longstanding partnership with William Head on Stage (WHoS), the prison’s theatre company. They’ve also co-produced Chalk, The Prison Puppet Project, Sleeping Giants, and The Crossroads. Members of SNAFU are also members of the Prison Arts Collective, a loose-knit group of professional artists who work in prison arts.

Kathleen Greenfield, the director of The Emerald City Project, officially joined SNAFU in 2013 after directing and touring with Little Orange Man. Since working with WHoS, she’s performed in three productions and directed two. In all five of the productions on which Greenfield has collaborated with WHoS, she has also been a workshop facilitator and has co-written  scripts.

“I do most of my work in collaborative creation,” said Greenfield. “The men asked me to propose an idea for a project and I suggested we analyze and adapt The Wizard of Oz. I explained to them that we were going to use The Wizard of Oz as a jumping point to create a whole new story.”

 Greenfield spoke highly of her experience working with the inmates in this production.

“Every day that I work with these men makes me wiser,” Greenfield said. “We went deep with this play and we tell stories that only these men know. I could not have created this play outside of the prison context, so I guess they added everything to the show.”

Greenfield said the script is written well enough that it could be performed with a different cast, but she believes it could only be performed authentically by this cast, as each performer wrote their own lines. 

“Many of the unique moments on stage are dependant on the personality and connections of the persons performing the characters today,” she said.

There are some brilliantly raw moments of hurt and healing in the performances that can only come from an authentic place. One such scene is when the characters discuss how they ended up in their respective gangs and their ideas of home while staring into a prop of a house.

The inmates devised the plot, characters and movement pieces from early workshops and brainstorms in late June and July. In August, Kate Rubin, an outside performer, and Greenfield presented a loose plot and characters to the group. They held a series of workshops with the performers, who were cast in their roles, to write the script and refine the songs in the show. 

“The process is very organic,” Greenfield said. “It is my job to pay close attention to the story to make sure all of the different characters and scenes that are being created in different parts of the gym all end up being part of the same story.”

The June drop-in workshops are exciting, Greenfield said, because anything is possible. 

“We use these workshops to build ensemble, set an example of the work ethic and expectations, and get to know each other,” she said. “At this time, the creative energy is contagious. This is where we find hidden talents that they might want to share on stage like stilt walking, writing, rapping, dance training, composition, or singing.” 

In the Q&A after the show, a few inmates expressed that they had discovered a new love for the theatre and the talents they discovered. One man told the audience that he discovered that he liked performing with puppets, and managed to work one into the show, although it was a stuffed toy and not a puppet.

“It is exciting to watch [the men] see a project to the bitter end and be successful with the product. It is exciting to see men who might not like each other work together towards a common goal. And it is mostly exciting to see them smiling with pride on opening night!” said Greenfield.

When asked if she would do another show with WHoS, Greenfield responded that she would. Personally, I would love to see what she, SNAFU, and the inmates of William Head can create next.

If you are interested in seeing The Emerald City Project, the show runs until Nov. 2. Tickets, dates, and instructions for prison conduct are available here.