Billy Hayes of 'Midnight Express' turns to stage

AP News
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Posted: Sep 29, 2014 8:39 AM
Billy Hayes of 'Midnight Express' turns to stage

NEW YORK (AP) — The other day, Billy Hayes was rehearsing a scene from his one-man show when he was interrupted by the director.

It was too static, worried Jeffrey Altshuler. There's not enough activity.

"You mean locked in one place and you can't move?" cracked Hayes. "Yes, I know that feeling."

Hays certainly does: His long ordeal in a Turkish prison was turned into the film "Midnight Express," forever scaring people crossing international borders. Hayes is 67 now, but hasn't lost his sense of humor.

"What's not to be happy about? I'm healthy, I'm free. My wife loves me. Nobody's beating my feet. I'm doing theater," he said. "This is the top. Everything else is gravy."

Next month marks the 44th anniversary since Hayes was arrested while trying to smuggle 2 kilos of hashish onto a plane in Istanbul. He spent five brutal years behind bars before he took the "midnight express," slang for busting out.

But Hayes hasn't completely escaped, returning again and again to that time. He wrote a memoir and his story was turned into a screenplay by Oliver Stone that often veered from the facts. Hays also published his prison letters and a book about his post-prison life. His tale has even been turned into a ballet.

Now he's turned it into a 70-minute stage show, which comes to the Barrow Street Theatre following a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In the show, Hayes recounts his story alone, with just a few projections, a stool and a bottle of water.

"I had misgivings at first. I was like, 'No, I'm still talking about this and people are sick of hearing it,'" said Hayes, whose business card is decorated with a little train track. "What I discovered was there's a story that resonates still with people.

"It's my little, particular story but it affects everyone. Everyone's gone through their own stuff. Mine was just a little bit more compact and dramatic. But people relate to their own crises and being as down as you can be and still finding a way out to come out, finding the light."

Hayes, who built a career as an actor and director, is fit and trim — a result of years of yoga — and quick to laugh (He jokes that his education includes "five years of extracurricular work at Istanbul U.") But he can also instantly go back to the terror of Sagmalcilar prison.

"There's a line I have to be careful of because this stuff is so personal and so powerful that I don't want to fall down and break down on the stage," he said. One thing still too raw is reciting his first letter home.

During rehearsals, Altshuler gently guides Hayes into taking advantage of the whole stage and incorporating movement. He's purposely avoided overwhelming the show with the bells and whistles of modern stagecraft. "This is his story and it's powerful stuff. He just needs to tell it," said Altshuler.

Hayes' story has been referenced in everything from "Family Guy" to "Entourage." It even inspired the long-running series "Locked Up Abroad" on the National Geographic Channel. Today, people still come up to him and whisper about sweaty moments at customs. "Who else can they confess to who's been made a bigger fool than me?" he asked.

The one-man show serves in some ways as a corrective to the 1978 film, which had a completely invented and bloody escape, and a made-up, incendiary speech that Hayes' character gives to the Turkish court.

In the years since prison, Hayes has advocated for yoga — "In jail, yoga can help free you," he said — and against the criminalization of marijuana, which he argues has created an underground of violence and corrupted the legal system.

"I'm not advocating smoking pot. Do it or don't do it. But don't put people in jail for plants that come out of the ground," he said. "While we wait for sentencing changes, men and women's lives are slowly being sucked out. Their teeth are rotting out of their heads and their families are disintegrating."

Hayes has since returned to Turkey — he attended a security conference there in 2007 with round-the-clock security — and holds no ill will to its people and calls Istanbul "a magical city."

"There are still people who say, 'Billy, we'll never go to Turkey. We saw your movie,'" he said. "It's like, 'No! Go there. You'll love it. Just don't get arrested. You won't like the prison, I guarantee you that.'"

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Online:

http://www.barrowstreettheatre.com

http://ridingthemidnightexpress.com

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits