From Academe to Action

My enthusiasm for arts in corrections began with stories my dad would tell me about his experiences in the criminal justice system, but it flourished when I chose to write my senior thesis on James Thompson and the use of theatre for community development. I burrowed into books about techniques like Forum Theatre and how they were being used around the world, I conducted interviews with drama practitioners, I sat in on workshops with refugees and juvenile offenders, drama students and non-profit teachers. But through all that extensive research and observation, I knew I was writing about a process that I had yet to tap.

Kat has granted me the opportunity to transition from academe to action and I can’t express enough gratitude towards her for embracing me into Conspire Theatre like she has. When I first spoke with her about volunteering, I was highly aware of my fresh-out-of-undergrad status and my limited theatre experience, so I advertised myself more as a grant-writing/ logistical aid. OF COURSE I was more interested in the romantic notion of facilitating classes in jail, but I understood that that was out of my league; that it was something to aim for. To my delight and surprise Kat invited me to join in on her classes almost immediately and by the second class she gave me the project of planning and teaching warm-up and improvisation exercises. To be held responsible for making good use of these women’s time was a privilege and an honor, and I’ve done my best to meet the task.

Last week’s workshop marked the first time Conspire utilized Forum Theatre, and for me it marked a full circle from scholarly pursuit to enactment of this technique. My prior experience has been comprised of reading about it and taking courses designed to teach people how to teach it. Never have I been involved in a workshop among participants for whom Forum is designed.

I gave the women a quick synopsis of how Forum emerged from Augusto Boal’s revolutionary ideals and the inspiring teachings of Paulo Freire. I talked about how Boal intended Forum Theatre to be a conduit for action in real-life situations by presenting scenarios of oppression that allow participants to improvise ways of overcoming the conflict.

From there, Kat asked the class to reflect on the narrative of Anastasia/ Diamond, which is the mother/stripper/student/”baby-daddy” juggling character the class had developed five weeks prior, and to devise potential scenes of conflict in this protagonist’s life. In the time we had, we were able to act out two scenes using the Forum framework.

In one scene, Anastasia is trying to get one of her “baby-daddies” to contribute more to the payment of the mortgage and other bills piling up on her shoulders. At first the baby-daddy character seems too weak to be seen as an oppressive force in Anastasia’s life. Anastasia argues that “baby-daddy” should get a better paying job than McDonald’s and she has a female friend present to back her up and chime in with criticisms. “Baby-daddy” ends up being on the defensive without a strong defense, and it dead-ends there. So then Kat directs the group to redo the scene and instead give all the power to the “baby-daddy”. This time Anastasia and her friend act intimidated by “baby-daddy”, but even with a defined villain character in place, the issue of paying the bills isn’t any easier to resolve. Anastasia and the “baby-daddy” end up attacking each other and not hearing the other.

I think it was a difficult scene for the women to cut their teeth on. The issue of being poor ended up being too dense of a problem for anyone to come up with a direct solution, so we ended up focusing more on fine-tuning the characters’ verbal spat, rather than what action Anastasia could take to overcome the problem of paying bills.

This literal rather than active approach carried over into the second Forum scene we performed. In this scene, Anastasia is at college, and she hears two of her fellow classmates cruelly gossiping about her being a stripper. Anastasia makes it known that she can hear them and that she resents their words, resulting in a back-and-forth slinging of insults. In this scene, I think it was difficult to navigate our way toward the goal of getting the insults to cease. How could she stop their bullying without becoming a bully herself?

We ran this scene many times with the dialogue getting exceedingly nasty. Then, minutes before class was over, Kat tried out the role of Anastasia. This time when Anastasia overheard that gossip about her being a low-life stripper and whore, she jumped up and gave them exactly what they were talking about. For lack of better words, she shook her booty all up in her classmates’ faces, yelling “You want some of this? You like this? Is this what you’re so into?” Not only did this stupefy the bullies into harmless giggles, but it showed Anastasia to be unashamed… and really funny! In terms of the workshop itself, I think it was the perfect way to close things. It showed the importance of active responses rather than just words, and the value in considering left-field approaches to complicated problems.

We’re going to try Forum Theatre again this week, hopefully this time with clearer instructions and some of the newbie kinks worked out. I cannot wait to see what we come up with!

-Jessie Hillman

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