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Lifers: Stories from the Inside/Out, Project Director Interview

Project Description: 
Lifers: Stories from the Inside/Out enabled residents of The Francisco Homes in Los Angeles, a diverse group of Latino, African-American, and Caucasian men who have been paroled after serving life in prison, to share their stories through a documentary theatre project. A series of workshops provided the participants with skill building activities including improvisation, writing, movement, vocal expression and performance techniques. The project culminated in a series of short performances and discussions for high school and college students, residents and staff of The Francisco Homes, and the public. We recently interviewed the project director, Susan Franklin Tanner about her project, a collaboration with artist Jim MacDonald and professional playwrights Doris Baizly and Bonnie Banfield. 

Please tell us a little bit about the project?

“Found Suitable” at the Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA L-R: Jim E., Anthony M, Michael W. and Guest Actor Alex Alpharaoh Photo credit Nicole Keating

TheatreWorkers Project had been doing work with the reentry community in Watts through a collaboration with Friends Outside in Los Angeles County at Dads Back! Academy.  That program was and continues to be funded by grants from the California Arts Council. My friend, playwright Doris Baizley, had been doing a life stories project with The Francisco Homes (TFH), teaching students from LMU how to do oral history interviews and transform them into theatrical scripts. She told me about TFH and I contacted Sister Teresa, the Executive Director, who was very open to my idea of applying to California Humanities for funding to do a theatre project.

Our greatest challenge was the fact that, because the men’s lives are undergoing a major transition, their ability and willingness to remain committed to the project varied widely.

How did you go about implementing the project?  Did you experience any challenges or surprises?  

TheatreWorkers Project (TWP) began a partnership with The Francisco Homes (TFH) in June, 2017 when we were funded by a grant from California Humanities. The grant enabled TWP Director Susie Tanner and a collaborating artist to provide theatre and writing workshops to a group of Francisco Homes residents from June – Aug, 2017. The workshops culminated in “Found Suitable”, a play based on the stories and writing of the men, edited by 2 professional playwrights. The play was performed 4 times during Aug – Oct 2017 as a staged reading by 3 of the original men and 1 professional actor who we hired when one of the original participants got a job and had to leave the project. Throughout the outreach, development, rehearsal and performance phases of the project, Francisco Homes staff provided logistical and organizational support as needed. Our greatest challenge was the fact that, because the men’s lives are undergoing a major transition, their ability and willingness to remain committed to the project varied widely. One participant began the process but then dropped out early due to heath issues and his friend and caregiver followed. One of the participants dropped out the day of the first performance because he felt he needed to be at a job that began later that evening. We learned that we need to have an understudy actor in place from the first rehearsal!  

What sorts of impacts are you hoping to see or have seen already from this project? 

“Found Suitable” at the Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA
Front row, L-R: cast members Anthony M, Michael W.: Francisco Homes Exec Director Sr. Teresa Groth, Project Director/Producer Susie Tanner, Guest Luis J. Rodriguez
Top row, L-R: Francisco Homes Business Manager David Schwed, cast member Jim E, Director Jim Macdonald. Photo credit Nicole Keating

Since doing the first project and sharing the work with the public, students and The Francisco Homes residents we have been able to establish an ongoing partnership with TFH. This has led to plans for a second theatre project and has made outreach easier because TFH residents are aware of the impact that the first project made on the participants and the audiences.

What are your future plans for this project? 

The Francisco Homes, in collaboration with TheatreWorkers Project as the arts partner, has just received a $44,576 California Arts Council Reentry Through the Arts grant which will enable us to expand the LIFER program and include more residents in an upcoming project. 

How does this project demonstrate the value and importance of the humanities? 

TheatreWorkers Project artists Jm Macdonald and Susie Tanner leading a workshop at The Francisco Homes. Photo credit: Nicole Keating

This project demonstrated the power of storytelling as both a healing and theatrical mechanism. By transforming the men’s stories, poetry and prose into a piece of theatre that was performed by them for diverse audiences, TWP was able to (as we have done with unemployed steelworkers, shipbuilders and meatpackers), give meaningful opportunities to those who seldom have a voice to he heard and for their humanity to be seen. This project illuminated the “person” who has been defined by the crime he committed instead of by who he actually is.

Lifers was supported by California Humanities through the Humanities for All Quick Grants program.

Found Suitable Highlight Reel


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