'Cages' Playwright Leonard Manzella Talks Prison Reform, Humanity & Conversations With Inmates

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Jemal McNeil and Matt Kirkwood in 'Cages' (photo by Lorely Trinidad).

Leonard Manzella's prison drama, Cages is currently playing at Stella Adler Theatre. The action of the play is centered on group therapy sessions in an administrative segregation unit in an unnamed California correctional facility. Inmates are contained in therapeutic modules that look like little phone-booth sized cages during the sessions. The play, which is largely based on Manzella's real life experiences as a prison social worker, weaves a heartening but often disturbing narrative between the inmates, clinicians, administrators, and correctional officers.

While sitting in a bright and simple deli on Hollywood Boulevard watching various costumed characters from Grauman's Chinese Theatre wander by, LAist chatted with Manzella about his new play and his ideas about prison reform.

What lead you to prison social work?
I got into the correctional business by accident because one of my specialties as a psychotherapist is psychodrama. I got a call from the chief probation officer in San Luis Obispo County who wanted to give cadets the experience of what it is like to be an incarcerated. So I created a psychodramatic role reversal training where I put the cadets through what incarcerated kids go through on a daily basis in juvenile hall. Two weeks after the training, I interviewed the cadets and I just could not believe how much they had learned! I modeled the training after Zimbardo's Stanford Experiment, but I monitored everything very carefully to make sure that no one got hurt and had a film crew document the entire thing. The film became an hour-long docu-training called the AVERT Project - Avert Violence Empathic Response Training — that San Diego Country, Del Nor County, and many counties around the state used to train their officers. Later, I took a job doing group therapy with inmates in an administrative segregation unit, which is where the play is set. I remember going in there for the first time and seeing seven men in little cages.

Why did you write Cages?
I wrote Cages because from the very first day that I walked into that administrative segregation unit, I was in shock. I was scared. My jaw dropped. I though is this the United States? I wasn't naïve and I've seen a lot of things, but it was just so blatant and right in front of me. Men in little cages! I began to wonder, well, could corrections really be as bad as I thought and I discovered that it was worse than I thought. I'm not saying that as an indictment about prisons, but the system that we as a society have set up is really flawed. As I did groups and heard the inmate's stories there were days where I wanted to run away and never come back. And then there were days when those groups were everything I always wanted a church to be. It was an incredible experience, and I decided I didn't just want those stories to die on a cold cement floor. I wanted people to see through my eyes. I wanted them to see the way that we as a society are doing things. At first I hesitated — I was afraid I wouldn't be able to do the story justice because those men really touched me very deeply. Basically, I want people to see through my eyes.

What was your creative process while writing Cages?
On my very first day in the administrative segregation unit, one of the inmates looked at me and said, "I like to chew human flesh. I like to drink warm blood." That actually happened to me on my very first day! I looked at the guy and I didn't know what he meant. Was he telling the truth? Then I realized that the inmates were testing me and that if I lost it there, that I couldn't come back. So I took a chance and said, "I think that is one of the craziest fucking things I've ever heard." Then everyone in the group started to laugh and I realized they had been putting me on. That was an actual story that happened to me, word for word. So I wrote down incredible experiences like that one. When I was ready to write the play, I picked them up and changed them around to protect everyone so people would never know the who and what. It was a very difficult for me to write a play because I had all of these vignettes, but yet, I didn't have a story. I had to weave a credible story with a purpose. It took me a long time. And I wanted to be very careful not to be overly heavy handed against the prison system because that is not what Cages is about. It is really about the humanity of the people in there, regardless of whether they need to be in there or not.

How involved were you with production of your play?
Very involved. I met with director John Lawrence Rivera and immediately liked his ideas. He told me that writers often come to him and have such a fixed idea in their minds about what they want, which leaves nothing for the director to do. But John has a very good reputation for theatricality, and I wanted him to do that. I did have one concern about actors — there is a kind of acting that really bothers me. I wanted actors that really don't seem like actors. I was artistically involved and from the very beginning. I was at every rehearsal and every casting session because I really wanted to make sure that the stories of the men in the administrative segregation unit were going to be as faithful to the men as possible. John was very receptive to that. We had several moments of some tension, but I think overall it went very well.

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John Nielsen, William Stanford Davis, Steve Apostolina, Wiley B. Oscar, Jemal McNeil, and Daniel V. Graulau rehearsing 'Cages' (photo by Lorely Trinidad).

What messages do you want to convey to audiences through Cages?
I want the audience to see the humanity of the stories. I've been a clinician for many, many years, and these narratives are not unlike the stories that I have heard from women, men, and children who have been abused and tortured by parents and significant others. It's a mirror. We as a society have a very hard time looking at our own shadow and the prison system is our shadow. We don't want to look at that because it contains a lot of the stuff that our society just won't confront. I want people to see that these prisons are institutions that we have created. They are who we are. The way we treat prisoners, the way that we take care of those that have slipped through the cracks — that says something about us. So I want people to ask questions. There is a fundamental theme in the play and that is that we all live in metaphorical cages until we actively decide that we don't want to live in a cage anymore. I created a story of a man living in a mental cage that becomes liberated through his work with the inmates.

Why did you select the title Cages?
The cages themselves are officially called therapeutic modules, but for me they were cages. It was my gut reaction. It came to me because I thought of the cages that we all live in in our own lives. In that part of my life, I lived in a partial cage that I did not want to let myself out of, and I think a lot of us when we are unwilling to express ourselves in the world to interact to love to play to just be free with ourselves and with our spirit, I think of that as living in a cage. I was thinking of the actual cages, but it is also metaphoric about something bigger.

Do you personally identify with any of the characters in Cages?
I identify with all of them. Every single one of them. Like I identified with every character I have ever played. We are all more alike than we are different. Human beings. So I identify with their stories.

How has the fact that you are a social worker impacted your play?
The fact that I am a social worker really enabled me to go in to the prison system and observe. That is all it did. But being a social worker doesn't really make the play any different. What is does is give Cages an authenticity — I know terminology, how the system works, gave it realism. But I had these same feelings and curiosities before I even became a social worker. I think that anyone with a compassionate heart like a corrections officer or an inmate could write it the same way if they had those feelings.

Has working with inmates changed your view of the corrections systems?
Oh, absolutely. I realized while working with inmates that you should never give up on any human being. You never know who can change and who can't. There have been people that I thought would change but don't. Then someone I would have given up on, well, they make changes! You really don't know who can do that and I don't think that we can really give up on anybody. Also, I know that there are some people that just can't be let out. They are just too wounded and too hurt and too dangerous to walk with the rest of us. One of the points, too, of this play is that the way we treat prisoners really says something about us. It is really about us as a society. People that don't want to take responsibility for our correctional institutions are putting their heads in the sand because it is about them too. The public was so outraged when they saw what was happening in Abu Ghraib, but they have no idea what is going on in the correctional facilities in their own neighborhoods and I think they need to start looking at that. And again, this isn't a touchy-feely thing, oh the poor inmates, not at all. It is about asking what kind of a society do we want to be?

In your opinion, what should be done to make prisons better?
First of all, we as a society should define what we are really trying to do. A correctional institution should be in the business of going out of business. But we have created a prison industry. If you look at how many people live off of that industry, it is riddled with conflicts of interest. Until we come to terms with that, we are in trouble. We need inmates in prisons because we have created an industry that we need to feed. And now we have private prisons! People trying to spend less make more profit, what do they need to keep and industry going? They need inmates. It is a conflict of interest. So how do we get into the business of going out of corrections business? Well, we could be very creative. We have to be honest when we call it the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation — either cut the "R" off on the end or really rehabilitate. Let's not talk out of the sides of our mouth. In California, 50 to 60% of incarcerated men are in prison for non-violent crimes. In the United States, we have approximately two million people incarcerated. That is two million incarcerated. Take that, and multiply it by how many kids, wives, parents, and communities of those millions of people are affected. We need to try to get the inmates that can come back to society and start taking care of their families and contribute to society. How do you get that? You teach them. We should be disciplining them. Discipline comes from the word disciple which means to teach. I can tell a prisoner walking down the street because they still walk like they are a prisoner. I think a year before they get out they should start dressing in normal things, start preparing them to balance a check book, teach them to interview for jobs. Everybody says why should we do that for inmates? Why should we give them special treatment? The answer is that we shouldn't — we should do that for everybody. It is a moral question. We as a society need to take responsibility for our citizens because we as a society have created ghettos. Why do we let ghettos exist? Why do we let horrible neighborhoods exist? Why aren't we doing more? The play is about trying to expose that a bit, my view, just to bring the discussion forward a little bit. There are many things we need to chance and with all of the creative wonderful minds we have, we could come up with some incredible models if we wanted to.

What is next for Leonard Manzella the playwright?
I am writing a new piece about a young man. His mother abandoned him at a very early age, and when he is old enough and his father passes away, he goes searching for his mom. It is kind of a road story, and on his search he discovers himself and life and he... well I won't tell you the ending. It is really dear to my heart, this one. It is just an organic piece that is just coming out of me about this young man searching for himself, for his soul, for his mother and finally finding it and how it impacts him. So that is what I am working on now. And also I don't think Cages is going to end. We are looking at another production. So I think I'll be busy with this and writing the new piece.

Is there anything else you would like to say to LAist's readers?
Come see the play!

Cages is playing at Stella Adler Theatre through April 1. Tickets are $20 to $25 and available online or via phone at 800-838-3006.