Change of act at ‘Don Quixote’

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The actors at the theater project Estrellas en Silencio (Stars in Silence) break stereotypes. They are patients of the Psychiatric Hospital at Sevilla-1 prison and go beyond its walls to represent the universal story of Cervantes as a way of rehabilitation. We accompany them to one of their performances and listen to the stories that led them to the stage.

Behind the burgundy curtains of the Gilena House of Culture auditorium stage, Julián Vicente stands, script in hand, feeding forgotten lines to his six onstage actors in their rendition of Don Quixote. They arrived earlier in the day from the Psychiatric Hospital located in the Sevilla-1 prison. Julián, who is not only the director but also the writer of this adaptation of Cervantes’ universal novel, drove the group in a mini-bus to deliver their performance to a group of middle school students in Gilena, in the Spanish province of Seville. As they walk off the mini-bus with their heads held high and cigarettes in hand waiting to be smoked, they look more like rock stars coming off their private jet than psychiatric patients arriving to perform a play.

You ask them if they are nervous for their performance and Ramón Rebanal, the eldest in the group, replies with confidence, “We have already performed it four times and could not be more ready. We don’t really start to get excited until we are on stage.”

They carry in a small array of simple props and begin to set up the stage. Among the most complicated equipment are an overhead projector and a CD player, which will play music at the beginning of each of the four acts. Two desk-size tables are set up on stage covered by white and gold table clothes and full of old books. The actors quickly run through lines and change into their costumes before the audience arrives. When everyone is off stage the back doors open and a flood of overly excited adolescent students, happy to skip class in order to see the play, invade the room.

When everyone has taken their seat, and the roar of noise has settled, it is brought to Julian’s attention that the students are unaware of the actor’s history. They have been told that the six men about to appear on stage are part of a normal adult theatre group.

Estrellas en Silencio (Stars in Silence) is one of several artistic therapeutic projects offered at the Psychiatric Hospital of Sevilla-1 prison, one of only two centers of this kind in Spain. Patients here suffer some type of psychiatric illness and have been sentenced for crimes they committed, many of them under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Here they are treated and supported by psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians and teachers. Family visits are common. Patients are viewed first and foremost as people, not criminals.

Estrellas en Silencio was created in 1994 and produces about one play every year and a half. The works vary from classics such as Don Quixote to one-person monologues.

“Some of the benefits of therapeutic discount viagra drug theater include the improvement of cognitive skills such as attention, concentration, and memory as well as emotions and feelings,” says Julián. “These plays expose the actors to situations that bring about anxiety and cause them to develop adaptive coping strategies, power relationships and discover empathetic and social skills.”

Although everyone is encouraged to participate in theater, Julián does try to seek out patients who identify personally with the characters and are capable of performing onstage.

Carlos López plays the main character, Don Quixote. He is dressed in all white, a stark contrast against his long dark black beard. He secretly hides his lines under a book on the table in front of him, located center stage. Carlos has been at the mental hospital of the prison for six years and is an active member of both its theater group and its radio station. He sits center stage reciting his lines loudly and clearly in front of the audience of eightyfive students. He occasionally needs Julián to read the beginning of a line as a reminder but nonetheless moves around the stage with ease and confidence. He demands the room’s attention and cannot help but smile when the audience erupts in laughter at the play’s jokes.

As he takes his final bow, he removes the white cap that hides his completely bald scalp, and steps up to the front of the stage with the other cast members. They gaze excitedly at the audience as a brief question-and-answer session commences. As the applause settles down, the audience is finally introduced to the group.

“Okay, well now they will tell you what center they came from,” explains Julián.

The man who played Sancho Panza takes the microphone.

“We come from the Psychiatric Hospital of Sevilla-1 prison,” he says.

Julián asks the students if they know what that means. He tells them that the six men are psychiatric patients who use theater as a form of therapy. By acting and becoming a different character, the patients face their own selves at the same time as they develop empathy for other persons and ideas.

Each of the six actors shares a personal anecdote describing their experiences with drugs and the crimes they have committed. Although the students are timid and apprehensive to ask questions, they nod their heads in understanding of the stories. The group takes a moment to emphasize the dangers of alcohol, and how easy it is to become victim to these substances.

The role of Don Quixote came to Carlos naturally because, like the gentleman from La Mancha, Carlos has experienced a distortion of perception (while on drugs) and has battled to gain normalcy.

“I spent fifteen years hooked on speed, and I committed arson,” he says, “but I’m so lucky to have parents who are such a blessing. I’ve even stolen money from them — once 300,000 pesetas — and I’ve hit my dad, but they’ve forgiven me for everything and now I can’t wait to go home and help them because they’re old. I receive a pension of 280 euros — and that’s what I spend in speed in a month,” he jokes. “No, I’ve quit drugs and I will try to do an examination in order to get a simple job, like sweeping the streets, because I didn’t go to college.”

Ramón Rebanal, who plays the notary and the innkeeper, is not only the eldest but also the one who has experienced confinement for longer. “I’ve been in prison for 18 years and five of them in the psychiatric hospital,” he says. “As mental patients we couldn’t be in a normal prison. We’re quite lucky to have so many good people helping us, to be doing so many therapeutic activities, and for those who receive support from their family, it is wonderful to receive visits and have occasional permits to go out with them. That makes everything so much more manageable. We’re helped to cure our illness and to have a chance to go back into society.”

Before Ramón played his two parts, Antonio Écija was the notary and the innkeeper, only during the first three performances. Back in the hospital he offers an account of his past, which seems to be in sharp contradiction with his gentle demeanor. “I came here because I robbed three gas stations, one after the other, and then I ran two policemen over in Málaga. The attorney wanted 19 years and three months of confinement but they left it inthree at the hospital. Now I’m okay. I haven’t had any drugs in two years.”

Unlike many patients, he’s lucky to have the support of his family. “I have a wife and a son and I’ll be out in three to five months. My goal is to take care of the housework because my wife works and I’m not fit to do a regular job. So I’ll have to sweep the floor, do the dishes, the laundry, iron the clothes, saw, take my kid to school and pick him up. Then, in the afternoons, I’ll go to the gym because I’m a little chubby now!”

Back in the auditorium, the young students of Gilena’s high school don’t ask questions during the discussion but the air feels thick with a sense of understanding and seriousness. The students sit still and quiet, taking in the words of the men onstage. When the presentation comes to an end the room erupts with a final round of applause. The kids begin to exit as the six actors walk off stage to change into their normal clothes.

When the crowd has gone and the stage is clear, the six men head back to the mini-bus to start their journey back to the Psychiatric Hospital they call home. They have broken several stereotypes for a group of young students and have performed their own rendition of Don
Quixote. All in a day’s work.