A Short Chat with Carter Rodriquez about Engaged Theatre Residencies

A Short Chat with Carter Rodriquez about Engaged Theatre Residencies

Freehold faculty Carter Rodriquez’s origin story is a good one. He’s been teaching at Freehold since the aughts, though he actually began as a student at Freehold shortly after 9/11–a period he describes as “an interesting time” to become involved in theatre. For years prior to the pandemic, Carter helped run Engaged Theatre Residencies at Monroe Correctional Complex, in which Freehold teaching artists facilitated workshops that enabled participants to write, direct, rehearse, and perform their own show. This spring, Carter and Freehold Artistic Partner Robin Lynn Smith returned to Monroe to facilitate Engaged Theatre Residency workshops for the first time since lockdown. I spoke with Carter about how the residencies came about, what sets them apart from other theatre, and what it was like to be back doing residencies again after several years.


Hi Carter. The Engaged Theatre tours–where Freehold takes theatre to extraordinary audiences in places like men’s and women’s prisons, hospitals, and juvenile detention centers–started in 2003. The Residencies came after that. Can you talk about the process of how the Engaged Theatre tours evolved and lead to the Residencies?

I don’t know exactly how it started. After we would perform a show, people who were interested would stick around. We would do a workshop with them, talk about themes of the play, do some games and writing exercises, and have a discussion. It was very popular and sparked a lot of interest. I’m not sure if that’s exactly what prompted Robin to jump off into the residencies–I think that she had had some experience doing that kind of work before she came to Seattle, so she had a notion of it already. 

I think George [Lewis, Freehold co-founder] had a very clear idea that he wanted to work on Shakespeare [in the Residencies]. I distinctly remember working on the Tent Scene from Julius Caesar once. The scene is all about friends betraying each other. And there was this moment where, we’d read the scene, and George asks the participants if they could figure out a way to justify killing their best friend. He asked them “Can you imagine what that’s like?” Mind you, he said this in front of incarcerated gentlemen, and one of them said, “I don’t know if it’s exactly the same, but one time me and my friend were playing with a gun and we were drunk. A gun went off, and I didn’t know who was shot. Turns out, I shot him.” On the trip home, George says, “I don’t understand Shakespeare. That guy understands Shakespeare.”

There was another guy in that program who asked “Why are we working on Shakespeare? We all have stories.” I think he was prompted by the story about the gun going off, right? So we changed course completely. And we decided, this isn’t going to be about Shakespeare. This is going to be about them writing. And we started a series of writing prompts and guided meditations to get their stories out and onto the page.

The residency in Monroe is nine weeks of once-a-week sessions. There’s a lot of writing, generating material, working on improvs and playing and just getting people to be comfortable in themselves. In the course of about nine weeks, we can usually generate around 300 pages of original written material. Then we [the teaching artists] would go away for a couple of weeks and put a script together.

It used to be Daemond [former Artistic Partner Daemond Arrindell] and I [who facilitated the Residencies at Monroe]. We would look at themes that appeared [during the generative writing], or somebody would use a metaphor that was particularly compelling. So usually, maybe a third of the way into the writing process and generating process, a theme will emerge, or a metaphor that we really like. And we’ll start sprinkling crumbs on the path, so to speak, so we can get a lot of generated material that’s sort of in the same thematic container. [During the past Residency] I just spent hours sifting through notebooks with the highlighter and finding stuff that works together. Sometimes it will be a writing prompt, it could be the recipe book. And those will become sections within the different acts, if you will, or in the chapters of the story. And I’ll start finding ones that piece together in some way, that could have a bit of a language rhythm or something. Or maybe two people are speaking on their personal versions of a similar situation. And I’ll cut those together so that they can make it performative. 

Some people like to sing. Sometimes they’re like, “I want to choreograph a dance number.” It’s like, “Great, let’s do it.” Sometimes somebody writes a piece that feels like a sermon. So even though it’s not any particularly denominational preaching, we’ll set it up so it feels like you’re at church. And that will lead us into something like, “What if everybody sang this one person’s line as if it was a hymn, and then this person calls us together and gives us the truth?” 

It’s not a linear narrative story, as you would imagine. It’s more of an abstract performance piece with a lot of poetry, some two person scenes, it could have singing, it could have choreography. It’s gone numerous places. We had one year where everybody writes a recipe for forgiveness. And one of the guys, he got up and was imitating some famous television chef, and he whipped up the forgiveness of this much love, with this much compassion, with this much anger. And then after a couple of weeks of writing the script, we’ll come back and rehearse for probably almost another month. And then they usually perform at least two shows–one for visitors that come in from the outside, and another for other incarcerated people.  I think of the stage often as a mobile, with a few heavy things on one side, and then a whole bunch of lighter [things] on the other side to balance it. Imagistically we’re trying to create something interesting. It’s not always literal, but it often is. Sometimes somebody just has a simple story to tell about their life. Everybody has their individual strengths, so my part is just to keep playing to everybody’s individual strengths so that they have a lot of confidence. 

I’ve talked to friends and a lot of people in the theatre community. You know, if you’re doing this work for very long, chances are you’re going to be a teaching artist at some point. And so I talk to a lot of teaching artist friends and others, and I keep saying that this is the best theater I’ve ever been part of or seen. And not in any way to, like, falsely boost a non profit organization or something, but really it is! People are laughing and crying–they are very moving shows, and they contain all the magic that we really want from the theatre that we’re paying for a seat to go see at the big houses. 

The reason for that, as far as I can tell, is that all of the stuff that you have to teach acting students–all of the stuff that actors have to do, as far as work goes–we’re already past all those barriers. These are their stories, so they are already profoundly connected to what they’re doing. They don’t have to work for that part. And all the other elements of acting…it’s built in. They’re already in a high stakes situation. They’re already in a place where there’s a very clear hierarchy of status in the room every time. They’re already in a place where they have to have acute listening skills and be completely aware. The heightened language–there’s always some kind of codespeak going on, so they’re very used to all of those kinds of idiomatic things that are unique to their situation. So all the heavy lifting was built into it. Mainly what we do is give people permission and empower them.

A lot of times we serve as guardrails to make sure that we stay within what’s going to be allowable to bring to the stage. As you can imagine, if you’re working in a correctional complex, there’s a lot of talk of sex, drugs, all of that. And number one, we’ve already heard it all, so it’s kind of boring, but also, we can’t use it in the show. And the last thing is that there’s something underneath. What is sex really about? It could be about any of a hundred different things. It could be about intimacy, or it could be about power, or it could be about who knows what. Drugs could be about escape or about money. So we’re always encouraging people to look underneath the obvious things. And also, if we piss off the wrong person in the prison, they’re going to shut us down. So there’s that too. 


How many participants do you typically have involved. Are there fewer post covid or kind of the same?

There’s more post [covid]. They’re so hungry for it. I think most of the times we start off with 20 people and then there’s usually a dozen who decide it’s really what they want to do and are committed to it. And then sometimes there are scheduling conflicts–people have jobs in the prison, some of them are required. 

This year I think we have 14. And I think that because of covid they were just starving for it. They were really on fire to get with it right from the beginning. It was kind of amazing!


When you first started, was it hard to get men to sign up to be vulnerable in a way that men are not all the time? 

No, I don’t think so, because I think that they probably have some fatigue from the amount of armor they have to carry around all the time just to be in there. Everybody’s wearing armor all the time. Nobody can blink. You can’t show your vulnerable side, and if you do, it has to be in a very calculated way. So I think they’re hungry to put the shields down, they just need permission to do it. So we have to really create a super safe space for them to do that. But I think, truth be known, it’s what they really want. And then when you have one or two people do it, everybody else starts to feel a little more safe. It’s oftentimes people that you would consider to be a high status person, who everybody is maybe intimidated by…oftentimes they are your best friend in the program because they’re already leaders, they’re smart, they’re organized, and they’re not afraid to show a vulnerable side. So for the [lower status] people, it gives them license to follow suit. So a couple of people take the risk, a couple of people shed a tear, a couple of people talk about their fears, or what they’ve really lost, and other people will be like, “Oh, God, I guess it’s okay. I can do it too.” 


Any last thoughts?

I think another really lovely element [of the residencies] is that we started having people [that work in the prisons] come to us and say [about residency participants]: “Once they do your program, they start excelling. It really [impacts] all of the other work they do.” 

Robin’s vision really is making a difference here, with really real results in the real world. Not just a lofty idea about doing good. We’ve had people tell us “[the residencies] gave me the confidence to go out and audition, or interview for a job. We had one guy who said: “Well, you said you were coming and you came. You showed up every week. You know how many people in here have people promising to show up and never do?” Sometimes, that’s enough. Just showing up. So there’s a whole spectrum. There are as many different effects from the program as there are people that are in the program.