by D. Elizabeth Cohen
Carla Grant is co-director along with her husband, Don Kern of Theatre at Coffee Creek at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility located in Wilsonville, OR. Coffee Creek is the only state prison that houses female inmates. Carla became Board President of Open Hearts Open Minds in January 2017.
Q: What has been your history with theater and why are you committed to it?
Carla: When I was little and I saw people performing in plays, I thought, “I can do that”. Growing up I was involved in church plays and putting on shows for family and friends and did some shows in high school, so when I got to college I said “I’m going to declare this as my major.” Earlier in my life it was more like an addiction than a commitment. I started and stopped a lot. But lately my involvement with theater has been much more steady. After returning to Portland from New York City, I fell in with Scott Kelman and worked with him for around 10 years. Then my husband, Don Kern, and I started a little show called Scratch PDX with a fabulous group of friends, and we let that go for about 8 years. The past 5 years I’ve been involved with an experimental theater group Liminal as a performer; that experience has been really awesome. The Theater at Coffee Creek has been going for a couple of years. So maybe with this resurgence of work I am finally committed. It feeds my soul – it’s part of me.
Q: What’s been your involvement with Coffee Creek?C: My husband, Don Kern, and I started the program there in October 2014. Johnny Stallings offered us the opportunity, and we were glad to accept. We run a class that we limit to 18 to 20 women at a time. We sit in a circle and talk with our class, and we do ensemble building exercises and put on a couple of shows each year that we rehearse for. We do some devised pieces that we create with the women, and we did one scripted piece, Twelve Angry Women last year. As we move into the future, we hope to alternate between a devised theater production and a scripted piece so the women in our group can get a taste of the different approaches.
Q. What have been the magical parts for you of your work in the theater?
C: I think my favorite parts are that you get to work intimately with people and collaborate on a project together, then you access that creative space with a group of people and you dig deep and make discoveries, and then you get to bring that all together and share with an audience. There’s that feedback loop, and if it’s a good piece and the time is right and everything’s clicking, you get to have a collaboration with the audience. You walk away with the feeling that you’ve been through something together – sometimes even involving personal transformation. The most magical parts for me are accessing the creative space, getting in the flow, and then having those sharing moments with the audience.
Q: How important was your work with Scott Kelman?
C: I studied with him for about 10 years and we traveled together and I taught with him. It was a really good mentor/student relationship. He’s been a great influence on my approach. He was brilliant as well as cantankerous – one of those big personalities. He’s passed on now. His approach – much like most theater work – you use exercises to cultivate empathy, awareness, trust, vulnerability, spontaneity, when to take the lead, when to support, how to negotiate all of that. I could also take whatever we were working on to extrapolate into my life. For instance, one of the things he would often say is “move to the space that needs you the most”. When the opportunity arose to work in the prison I thought, “Oh, here’s a space that needs me.”
Q: Where is Coffee Creek and what’s special to you about your work there?C: Coffee Creek Correctional Facility is in Wilsonville. Our Spring show in April will be a devised piece consisting of a collection of stories, songs, and skits. I’m a believer in the transformative power of theater on an individual as well as a group basis, and when you put that inside of prison walls, everything is so much more immediate and urgent and real. We go deep fast. We’re not in there as counselors, we’re just there to do theater, but the negotiation involved in the process of building ensemble and the self reflection involved in character work contributes to a process that is effective and important and all goes towards building a better community. And talk about extrapolating! We watch the women take the exercises and apply it to their lives in a way that is truly moving. Hopefully in the sharing, the ripple effects are greater than just the class.
Personally, this opportunity has changed my life. It’s been incredibly humbling as a human being. I’m grateful that I get to know these women and work with these women and we get to go to that sacred creative space together and support each other in our journeys.