Rochester Rep to debut play based on life behind bars at Federal Medical Center
Two decades after being created and performed in the Federal Medical Center prison, Three Hots and A Cot is making its way into the free world.
Co-written by Debbie Fuehrer, Theo St. Mane, and a handful of prisoners, the play debuts at Rochester Repertory Theatre this weekend and runs until Jan. 27. It follows a group of new arrivals through various slices of their prison experience, with an emphasis on authenticity. The play also offers a glimpse into a system and lifestyle that is often ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind.’
“We have a burdensome prison system in this country,” said St. Mane. “We’re incarcerating way too many people, it’s not sustainable, it’s never been sustainable, and it’s based on some really old thinking about crime and punishment. I think part of the reason it doesn't change is that most of us don’t think about it. By the nature of it, we lock people away. We lock them away out of sight, out of mind, and we do not discuss these issues. We don’t examine them and that puts us in this perpetual cycle of not learning and improving.”
By opening up the play to non-prisoners, “We’re hoping to bring this issue forward and say, do you what people are going through when they are imprisoned? It’s not like Orange is the New Black,” said Fuehrer, referring to the popular Netflix series.
Fuehrer, a licensed professional clinical counselor and local theater staple, was exposed to the realities of prison during the 1990s when she interned at the FMC in Rochester. She remembers watching inmates suffer when they were barred from attending funerals or comforting family members after tragedies. While interning, she developed a theater therapy class in the mental health building.
“I wanted to help the inmates have insight as to how their behavior impacted the path that they were on. And also to teach them consequences. And I thought, theater is going to be a perfect way for them to see — living vicariously through other protagonists — that they could understand, in this situation, this is what happens when this behavior occurs. And it’s in a safe environment that they can practice these different roles,” said Fuehrer.
St. Mane joined her later and, with the help of some inmate facilitators, they produced and performed radio dramas, readers theater and a yearly production of A Christmas Carol.
“We had to get special permission to bring in costumes, and they figured nobody was going to escape dressed as the ghost of Christmas future,” said Fuehrer.
Throughout their work at the FMC, Fuehrer and St. Mane kept hearing story after story from their inmate actors. They began thinking it would make sense to compile those anecdotes into a play. So, that’s what they did. They collected stories, merged real people into fictional characters, and crafted a story. Then they staged a production inside the prison.
In order for the play to be performed in prison, the inmates’ testimony had to be scrubbed of profanity and any non-approved nicknames for prison officials (“hack” was changed to “officer”). Once it was clean enough, the play was performed.
“That’s the only time we put it on — inside the prison,” said Fuehrer.
That was in 1998. Then, about a year ago, Fuehrer uncovered a copy of the script. She called Theo and said, “remember we were going to do this on the outside sometime?”
She and St. Mane re-wrote parts of the script, added in a couple new characters and some political commentary, and re-added the authentic language lost to prison censors two decades ago. They also added a transgender character. What they did not touch were the authentic glimpses into the mind and heart of different inmates.
There are four main characters who progress through the story, though no one evolves in the same way. BP-9, played by Sean Lundberg, is a character marked by a lack of growth, something not uncommon in prisons. He’s stuck in a cycle of re-offending and recidivism.
“On some level he's forgotten how to fit in on the outside world, and prison life is what he understands now. So, what he cares about, what he gets upset about, revolves around the world that he knows he's going to keep inhabiting,” said Lundberg.
Grim as that may sound, Lundberg’s character is not bereft of humor.
“One of the things that the guys said to us when we started this project was they wanted to make the play humorous because they felt you could teach more with humor rather than high drama,” said St. Mane. “So, while there are dramatic moments, it’s not a dark, dragging, dreary play. It’s a bright, reflective play of unquenchable human spirit, if you will.”
The nine new songs written by Greg Hintermeister and choreographed by Fuehrer help underscore that brightness. The original production featured a handful of songs performed with guitar, but this iteration is a full-blown musical.
“Part of it reminds me of Scrubs, like Scrubs in prison,” said Fuehrer. “They would all the sudden have a fantasy number, and a song and dance out of nowhere, but it fits. So, we have at least two big dance fantasy numbers.”
One of the initial participants is coming for opening night, but, according to St. Mane, “That’s the only person from that program we were able to connect with in order to even invite to the show.”
“There’s a thing with the whole prison system, where once you’re released you’re not supposed to contact the staff, and you’re not supposed to contact one another,” explained St. Mane. “Can you imagine housing with someone for 10 years and building relationships and then you get out and you’re not supposed to have contact with those people any more?”
Three Hots and a Cot debuts this Friday night. Tickets are available online and through the Rochester Repertory Theatre box office.
Bryan Lund covers politics and culture for the Med City Beat.