What a gray day. Some mornings, I enter the jail in a black mood and come out full of sunshine, confident that I’ve created a space of joy and healing, a space where we are moving forward. More rarely, I go in cranky and come out cranky, wondering what the hell I’m doing and why I’m there in the first place. These doubts are normal. They keep me pushing towards more and better, towards questioning and reflection – but they also suck. When the clouds loom and a group of women won’t focus for more than twenty seconds at a time, things can seem a bit grim. For me, for them, for everyone caught up in the criminal justice system somehow.
Acknowledging these feelings is important not only for myself, but for other facilitators. When I was a graduate student, all of these fantastic educators came to train us and every time I thought, “Wow, I could never do what that person does. I could never be as funny/smart/awesome/talented as that person.” Our class finally started asking these facilitators about their failures, because we were all terrified of that – of charging in on the white horse of Theatre Education only to be greeted by jeers or hostile silence… the kind that can’t be cajoled into a fun game of pass the clap. So they told us, and while I still reckoned them to be exponentially better than me, at least I learned that they also had moments when they wanted to throw up their hands and pack it in. We all want to at some point, I guess – it’s the getting through it that determines who you are.
So today the sky hung low and the class was down and Meg did most of the leading. We played the Great Game of Power and created images of surviving and thriving. Group tableaux always work well and I always forget about them. I’m surprised every time by how well they’re received and what the women come up with. One image of thriving was “getting out of jail”. Two women were the bars of a cell, a third woman stood behind them and the fourth in front, facing them. I didn’t get it but another women instantly did. “They’re the bars,” she said. “And she’s trapped behind them, but then she’s free, see? The other woman’s out – she’s free now.”
Meg did a wonderful job balancing both the class’ lower energy and my reticence while leading discussions on surviving and thriving, and what responsibilities can come with doing well in your life. After class, Meg and I were able to have a long chat with Jennifer Scott. I always enjoy chatting with her because I don’t know very many people who do this work, so just having a chance to talk about it with someone else who gets it right off the bat is great.
One thing that came up today is boundaries. As a person, I want to reach out to the women I work with, but as a facilitator I have to decide on and establish my boundaries. The women in my class have never tried cross a line with me but they will push a little bit, here and there. What shampoo do you use? Where do you work? But the tricky part is – it’s not all manipulation! A woman might be curious about my shampoo – they don’t get beauty products in there so Meg and I actually smell different than they do. Our fragrances carry. But another woman might be trying to find an angle to send us to a drug hookup. I am a naturally private person and have a strict sense of what is and isn’t appropriate to tell people (and I have a really hard time with over-sharers) so my boundaries are firmly in place the moment I step out my front door. I drop them from time to time; when we did roadmaps last week, I shared a little bit of information about my vision problems but on the whole I feel like the teacher who might just disappear the minute she leaves the room. Most of the facilitators I work with are the same way – they show up, do the work, have the fun, lead the games and then leave. I hardly knew a thing about them, personally. You can tell all sorts of things by the way a person leads a class, but not always the personal stuff. And some people might argue that this is a cold way of handling it, and I might be swayed. But I also know that in order to go back week after week and effectively lead a class, I have to hold large parts of myself in reserve.
Another part of that boundary is that question. You know the question – I get it all the time. What did they do? Why are they there? What’s the crime? What’s the sin? I went in with a strict I-don’t-wanna-know policy. They are there; that is all I need to know. If the information comes into the room, fine, but I’m not going to seek it out. That has shifted for me a bit over the past few months and while part of me wants to stay in the dark, another part of me grows more and more curious. We want to define things, to put them in nice, neat boxes. It is easier to teach a theatre class at a jail if you think the women are all victims – of their circumstance, of society, of men but that’s not the whole truth. It also takes away the women’s agency in their own lives and their ability to make changes for themselves when they’re released. And while I have never wholly believed that and certainly have tried not to treat the women like that, not thinking about their crimes is easier than thinking about them. It is easy to define a person by that one action, that one charge, but it is also easy to define a person by how you see her play a game, by her creative intelligence, by that spark you see week after week. Which is the truth? How do you hold both? That is the challenge I am putting forth for myself these days: to try and hold these contradictions, to live in the gray area.