An Interview With Playwright Leonard Manzella

Leonard Manzella is the author of “CAGES” a play about group therapy for prisoners in solitary confinement. “CAGES” is currently at The Matrix Theater which is located at 7657 Melrose Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90046. Here is a link to the website:
http://cagestheplay.com/

1. What is “CAGES” about?

CAGES is a play about five mentally ill inmates in a state prison and a psychologist who has been put in charge to treat them for their psychiatric illnesses. Every Friday at approximately 2:15pm Dr. Thomas Morri reports to the administrative segregation unit where he facilitates a psychotherapy group for five inmates locked in maximum security cages, each the size of a phone booth. The play explores what it means to be human while examining the thin divide between good and evil and the inmates and those in charge of them. Cages is a true story based on my experiences while working in the prison system.

2. What inspired you to write “CAGES”?

On the very first day I walked into that stark and barren room and saw the cages bolted to a cold cement floor, each one holding a human being, I knew I had to relay my experience to others. I will never forget the awe I felt seeing their faces glare out at me from behind a thick steel mesh so tightly woven is was difficult to distinguish their features unless I walked closer to the cages. It is an image I wanted to create on stage for the public to see through my eyes.

3. What is the most common misconception about the American prison system?

One of the most common misconceptions of the American prison system is that everyone incarcerated must belong there. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that an astounding percentage of the men and women serving time in our prisons are there for non violent crimes who would be better treated elsewhere.

4. If you could change the prison system how would you change it?

If I had a magic wand and could change the prison system I would make sure that it was in the business of going out of business. I would urge the prison policy makers to rethink their mission and enlist all the great minds in this country who have studied the problem and join with the practitioners to find new models of detention that would benefit society instead of making the problem worse.

5. Are any of the characters in the play based on prisoners you worked with?

All of the characters in the play are based on people I worked with in the prison system.

6.How did you get your play produced?

How did I get the play produced? The best answer I can come up with is one I gave to a colleague, and that is, I didn’t give up. Sometimes you have to believe even when you don’t.

7, What is psychodrama?

Psychodrama is a form of group therapy that uses dramatic form to achieve its goal of healing. It is one of the oldest forms of modern day therapy and it came out of Vienna in the 1920’s. Dr. J.L. Moreno started what he called the “Theatre of Spontaneity” in which he tried to eliminate the line between audience and players. Not accepted by the conservative Viennese public, Moreno knew he had to save the form so he incorporated it into the medical model and it became a form of group therapy known as psychodrama in which group members play roles in each others dramas to help the protagonist (the person being focused on in a session) to gain self-understanding and healing.

8. What is the greatest rehabilitation success story that you have seen in your career?

I do not have any specific case reports of successful rehabilitation because my career in the prison system has been as a contractor working in different prisons around my state for relatively short periods of time, the longest being a year and a half. But the most hopeful story I can report is about a group of inmates who facilitated a prison program called, “Men Helping Men,” through the catholic chapel at their prison. I met them when I had volunteered to do a demonstration of psychodrama for the men in their program. After facilitating an incredibly moving session they contacted me a week later asking if I would come back and that they would be willing to pay me for my services. I remember smiling at their liaison and saying, “how on earth could they ever pay me?” He then handed me a check for three hundred dollars that the men had raised through their activities at the chapel. I remember being so moved that I returned and spent a couple of years facilitating a weekly psychodrama group. I remember sitting in on some of their board meetings wishing that some of the board meetings I attended in my own community could be as cordial and respectful. I still have their check, which I never cashed.

9. With all the causes there are in the world why should people care about the plight of prisoners?

You ask me why people should care about the plight of prisoners? Someone once said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I find this to be true. What most people don’t contemplate is that when you treat someone sub-humanly it forces you to become sub-human. This does not mean that some men and women don’t have to be separated from the rest of us because of their actions. But we must keep in mind that their punishment is to be separated from us, not to be treated sub-humanly. When we fail to realize this everyone is a victim, including the officers. To grasp what I mean one doesn’t need to look further than the high rates of suicide, child abuse, and divorces among correctional staff. People need to understand that when you change the prisons, you change the streets.

10. Why did you decide to write a play and not a screenplay?

From the first moment I saw the cages I imagined seeing them on a stage for everyone to witness. I wanted to somehow express my experience, the knot in my stomach and my desire to run, which many of the people sitting in the front row of the theatre have described as their experience. I also wanted to see the fluidity of the group process in real time, and I wanted the public to feel what it might be like if they were in prison. However, I am writing the screenplay because I know CAGES will be a very powerful film

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