Ten years ago, actor Sabra Williams had an experimental idea: she wanted to bring The Actors’ Gang Theatre Company into prisons to work with non-actors, and offer them emotional training to recover from the trauma of incarceration, and the events of their lives that landed them there in the first place. With an incredibly low recidivism rate of just 10% among her students, Williams’ experimental idea has proven its worth and now operates in ten prisons across California, which is where Sabra Williams met former inmate and Actors’ Gang student Wendy Stag. Wendy recently shared her personal story of learning to cope with trauma and negative emotion at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. The Actors’ Gang conducts weekly and seven-day intensive programs inside the California prison system, a weekly re-entry program in the community, as well as a program in juvenile facilities, and soon to be a program designed for correctional officers. Head here for more information on The Actors’ Gang Prison Project.
Wendy Stag: Where I came from was being sexually molested as a child by my church janitor in a place where you're supposed to be safe and that took me to prison 20 years ago. And I got out and then I became a drug and alcohol counselor. And ten years ago I worked in the prison, CRC, as a drug and alcohol counselor and I used to teach people how to stay out of domestic violence relationships. And after 16 years of being clean I woke up in one, and I was like how did I get here? And the shame and the degradation, everything that we go through in those type of relationships—I gained 85 pounds, I was told that I wasn't worth anything, and all those things that happened to us, they took me back out and I ended up getting high again after that time. Well, this prison term saved my life. So 20 years ago I was in prison, ten years ago I worked in one, and ten years later I was in one. But it saved my life and I truly believe that there's a time and a place for everything. I was not ready before now, if that makes any sense.
I met The Actors' Gang on October 18, 2015. I found my bunkie hanging in my cell and I saved her life and the next day I had some lifers telling me, 'I would've left her hanging.' And I didn't want to be that person. I didn't ever want to feel so hopeless and so devastated, so broken and so angry and so hurt and so disappointed that I would feel that way. I wanted to love everybody. And I started The Actors' Gang program. From the very first minute I was there, I remember the very first writing that I did, I was crying. And I thought to myself, something is different about this. There's something different about this. The politics that go on at men's prison isn't as common in women's prison. I've been told that I'm the first woman to come out from The Actors' Gang and actually come speak, but that's not because there aren't other women, it's because most of those women are lifers and it's because one of them specifically, who I will not name because that's not for me to do, but she's been there 46 years and I love her. She's one of the best teachers there, but it's not because they don't want to be here, it's because they haven't been given the opportunity to show that their life has changed.
I was given seven years, four months; I got the 16 months for my crime, I got the six years in enhancements for the prison term that I did 20 years ago. So I only did 25 months and now I'm in a transitional home and in a treatment program and my director brought me today and I just—there was something, when I sat with myself last night and I said, 'What is it?' when I was meditating—because today I know how to meditate, today I know how to sit down and I know how to actually close my mind and I know how to actually take a checklist: what's going on with my body? Today I know how to do that because of The Actors' Gang. Today I know how to experience things through feelings but I allow them to exit when it's time. Before we stay angry, we stay hurt, we overcompensate with certain feelings and it makes us sick and we don't know how to act.
When I was doing this check-in last night and I was telling myself, you know, Lord, what am I going to do? What am I going to speak about? Can you please give me some direction? I opened up this book and there was something that was very profound, and to me they were speaking to me directly about The Actors' Gang and I would like to share it with you. "There is no such thing as solitary stardom. Behind every successful person is a team of people who helped make that success possible. If you've achieved success, no doubt there are others who have made sacrifices for you, worked alongside you, encouraged you, inspired you, given you opportunities and helped you to mature. You have the choice to celebrate yourself or to luxuriate in your pride, or you can acknowledge, regularly and sincerely, the contributions of others. For the sake of love, choose wisely." This is what Actors' Gang does. They come in, they sit down with a whole bunch of people that have a whole multitude of crimes and they tell you that you're worthy. They tell you, we don't care why you're here we just want you to get better. They look at us like we're people and because of that we become people. Because to ourselves, especially when we fail, we feel unworthy. But today we don't have to feel that way. As soon as I got out and as soon as I was allowed, I contacted The Actors' Gang and I said listen, I really want to speak with you, I want to advocate with you because now it's about paying it forward. It's about giving to somebody else what was so freely given to me. And—I so wanted to go to my daughter's graduation next week. She's graduating. She's 18. And she doesn't want me there because she doesn't want to explain to her friends where I've been for two years. And today I will honor her feelings and I will totally be okay with that, but the first thing that popped in my head, I called Sabra and I said, 'Listen, this is what happened...' and the first thing I wanted to do was do the work. I wanted to do the work because it taught me how to experience what I'm feeling and not to let it own me or define me.
One last thing I want to talk about is, when we do these theatre exercises, we talk about giving the audience the food. I want to let you know that as we're standing up there and we're doing these different states, and we're giving the audience the food, please, please know that I'm the one being fed. Thank you.