Getting the rhythm

“Electric Company, doo doo da doo!” (clap, clap. clap, clap.) “I… am… still… bored!” “I am still bored, doo, doo da doo!” (clap, clap. clap, clap.) “I… want… kids… never!” “I want kids never, doo doo da doo!”

We started with a game today brought in by Michelle Dahlenburg, who has taught with Stillpoint Theatre Collective at the Cook County jail in Chicago. Meg is out of town this week, so Michelle was gracious enough to step in and lend a hand. Electric Compay is a fun rhythm game – everyone gets a clapping rhythm going, then says one word in a four word sentence. The sentences don’t have to make sense, and at the end of the fourth word, everyone repeats the whole sentence in rhythm. It’s frustrating at first and then really satisfying when everyone figures it out and it goes smoothly for a bit.

The secrets kept pouring out today. Six new faces walked into the classroom today, so I got to play ‘cram two days worth of lessons into half an hour’ for the new women while Michelle helped the ‘old’ women continue with their monologues, which are based on the characters and their secrets that we decided upon a couple of weeks ago. New secrets? A princess with AIDS who wants to start a family, a young girl who’s pregnant and doesn’t want to tell her mother, a mother of two who never learned how to write but wants to be a doctor, an alcoholic beauty queen who was forced into pageants so young that she started drinking at 12 to numb the stress of it all and another snake handler who’s overcome her fear to win the “Who’s the Bravest?” contest (that snake picture is a winner!).

What always surprises me is how willing these women are to go along with me. They walk in, I give them about thirty seconds of explanation (I’m Kat, I’m with Conspire Theatre, we do theatre workshops with women in the jail here) and we’re off! Time to play games! Okay… they may give me funny looks, but they’ll do it. Time to make up characters! Okay… they’ll ask a ton of questions and get down to it. Time to write monologues! Okay… what’s a monologue? And when we end the class, I love to hear “I didn’t want to come today but…” Even the women who have been withdrawn all class and who are somewhat skeptical can be coaxed into a little bit of positivity when they have to say something they accomplished today. “I got out of bed. I came to class. I wrote a story. I helped her write a story.” And I always point those things out, make them big deals because some days, getting out of bed IS a huge accomplishment. Especially when you’re in those stripes and aren’t sure what day holds for you except baloney sandwiches.

As I did a speed through character/secret creation with one group, Michelle gave the other group notes on their monologues and helped them think about them in a new way. I heard snatches from my side of the room: “Being on stage gives you a lot of power. What if she’s calling her parents out from the microphone?” “What time of day is it? What happened right before now? It changes everything if it’s in the middle of the night.” And the “ooooohs!” that come when a new idea becomes clear or the writing takes a new direction. I wish that we had the time to give this kind of personalized attention every day. Although it felt strange to have the group divided, it also gave Michelle and myself the space to get a little more intimately acquainted with the women and their ideas.

This felt really important in a format where women come and go and I never feel like I have enough time – enough time to listen to everything they have to say, enough time to dig into some ideas, enough time to do much more than have fun (which is still crucial) and throw a few things up in the air in the hopes that some of them will help whoever they fall on. That hopes can be difficult to cling to, sometimes. As I settle in for the long term with this class, I’m becoming more aware of and more curious about these women because I’m seeing a longer portion of their journey. Instead of five weeks, we’re together for as long as they’re in the PRIDE program. One woman has been in it since at least last October, when we were at the jail before and I have no idea how much longer she’ll be on the inside. Every week I wonder if I’ll see her again and wonder how she’ll do once she’s back out.

I don’t discuss the women explicitly here, even though it might make for more interesting posts, for several reasons. I don’t have their permission to do so, the jail itself will not give permission and since I’m in a position of power over them because of my freedom and internet access, I don’t think it’s ethical. In future posts, I’m going to try and discuss some of the larger issues of incarcerated women without putting the women themselves in the spotlight. The nature of prisons keeps those inside invisible so I want to shed a little light in the corners that I can without exploiting the people involved. Walk the tightrope!

-Katherine Craft

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