Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Ex-cons, homeless seek enlightenment through art

ST. LOUIS (RNS) The Buddha said, "I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering."

The end of suffering is something that Keith Freeman -- a former drug dealer, convict, alcoholic and crack addict -- has been after for decades.

And after taking part in an intense, five-month program at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts that connected former prisoners and homeless veterans with ancient Buddhist artwork, Freeman thinks he may have taken a step closer to enlightenment.

The group is hosting 15 performances in the Pulitzer's galleries featuring rookie actors speaking scripts culled from their own group sessions as they wrestled with Buddhist truths and their own demons.

Growing up, Freeman's father was absent and his mother was often sick, so he raised his four younger brothers and sisters. But by the time he was 15, he had quit school, fallen in with the wrong crowd and was stealing from freight trains. By 17, he was locked up in the state penitentiary for a year. Before he was 30, he returned to prison, this time for selling drugs.

Freeman spent the next two decades in what he now can identify as a state of trishna, or craving for sense pleasures. Trishna is one of Buddhism's Noble Truths, and the source of all suffering, the source of self-annihilation.

"It was a battle between living and wanting," Freeman said. "I fought that battle for a long time."

Last year, he entered an outpatient drug program at the St. Patrick Center, a homeless service center in St. Louis. Last fall, caseworkers chose Freeman and 16 others who had auditioned for the Pulitzer's "Staging Reflections of the Buddha" program.

The original pool of actors was chosen for their willingness to open themselves up to something new, and to experience the vulnerability that comes with acting, said Emily Piro, who coordinated the "Staging" project for St. Patrick.

Emily Pulitzer, founder and director of the Pulitzer Foundation, said the project was conceived to "build bridges between audiences and art, and between parts of the community."

The goal, she said, was to teach the participants "how to articulate ideas, and how to trust."

Most of the participants are clients of the St. Patrick Center, but a few are veterans of St. Louis-based Prison Performing Arts. Another nonprofit group helps the actors with resumes and other job skills.

The Pulitzer Foundation's current exhibit, "Reflections of the Buddha" includes 22 Buddhist pieces from Afghanistan, China, India, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet.

In the Pulitzer's galleries and classrooms, the actors meditated and wrote haiku. A series of game-playing and improv exercises fostered teamwork and communication skills.

The improv sessions led to the scripts the actors are performing for the public, as staffers sat nearby, furiously typing the actors' thoughts on laptops.

For many of the Christian and Muslim actors, the experience was their first exposure to 2,500-year-old Buddhist philosophies. Along the way, social workers tracked the sessions and met with the group separately to connect the dots between the art and the actors' lives.

The notes created during the improv games were then woven into scripts, which were reviewed for accuracy and given to the actors to memorize.

During the performances, the actors and audience move from one piece of artwork to the next -- a dynamic that Emily Pulitzer likens to a Passion play. As they lead an audience around the galleries, the actors will recite lines originally spoken by their colleagues in the improv sessions as they contemplated the pieces.

The performance "forces those who come ... to see the art from someone else's perspective," said Kristina Van Dyke, director of the Pulitzer Foundation. It's a "perspective they might not have heard before, and it forces them to see" former prisoners and homeless veterans in a different light.

Allen Wilson, 48, who lives in St. Louis and is a client at St. Patrick Center, said he wasn't sure what to think of the program at first.

"But as I came to understand what it was about, I've learned a lot about myself, the character in myself," Wilson said. "It gives you peace of mind when you can go to a different level and get a better awareness of yourself."

Christopher Fan, an intern with the "Staging" program from Washington University and a practicing Buddhist, said the actors had soaked up difficult Buddhist ideas. "In 12 weeks, they've gained more insight than I have in my 21 years as a Zen Buddhist," Fan said.

For Freeman, being exposed to Buddhism challenged him to worry less about the future. "It's about knowing not to give power to your burdens," he said. "When you do, it takes away from your soul."

Instead, he said, he's going to concentrate on his writing. He's got three screenplays already planned out in his head, and the combination of Buddhist philosophy and acting had taught him something about how he'd like to conduct the rest of his life.

"Put on my game face, stay in character and look forward," he said. "Backwards is not an option."

(Tim Townsend writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis.)

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