When Kat asked me to guest teach with her at the jail last Friday, I was really excited about it. Ever since I met Kat after a screening of “What I Want My Words to do to You” (about playwright Eve Ensler’s work in prisons), I had been wanting to experience Conspire Theatre’s version of prison theatre. Last summer I worked with Still Point Theatre Collective in Chicago, co-teaching a twice weekly theatre/creative writing workshop for women at the Cook County jail that culminated in the performance of their original play. I looked forward to trading notes with Kat about the joys and challenges of doing theatre in these institutions.
As we drove up to the Travis County Jail parking lot, my memories from Cook County came rushing back to me. I suddenly had nerves I hadn’t felt since my first time teaching in the jail last summer. Would I be delayed at security and miss part of the class? Would the women accept me into their group? Would they enjoy the game I had brought? Would the guards end our class in the middle of an important moment?
Throughout the morning, I was repeatedly surprised at how easy everything seemed compared to some of my experiences in Chicago. At the Cook County jail my co-teacher and I arrived up to an hour early to ensure that we’d be able to move through security in time. Even with the extra time, we often had to wait behind a roomful of visitors, and were sometimes inexplicably delayed well into our class time. Though we usually had a nice open classroom in the library, some days we drowned in the vast gymnasium or were crammed into a tiny exercise room. Security cameras and escorts followed us wherever we went, and we always hoped we wouldn’t be interrupted and would be able to use our full class time.
For the most part, the teaching itself went really well in Chicago. Though like Conspire, our group was fluid due to movement within the prison system, we usually had enough “old-timers” to carry the work from week to week. We played theatre games (Circle Dash was a favorite), did writing exercises about our lives, and improvised hilarious scenes. Some of my favorite moments were quieter and more poignant: a woman sculpted herself and two others into a frozen image of friendship, and thanked the other two for being such good friends to her in the jail. Another woman gave us her favorite recipes using ingredients from the commissary (corn chips are key) but told us how much she missed working in her garden and eating fresh salads. Many times our class evolved into a group discussion about our experiences as women—our relationships, our families, our dreams, and our work. I’ve never felt a stronger sense of sisterhood and friendship from a group as I did in those workshops.
“Doing that work must be so difficult,” friends have often said to me. “No,” I tell them. “Being in a prison is difficult. The actual theatre work is wonderful.” When I started working in the jail, my co-teacher encouraged me to take good care of myself before and after. “Being in this place will drain you,” she said. “That’s what it’s designed for.”
I didn’t feel drained at the Travis County Jail. We sped through security, and once inside and badged, we were able to move freely throughout the institution. Every staff member we encountered was friendly and helpful, and the area in which we taught seemed more like a high school campus than a jail. Even some of the walls in the hallway displayed positive, colorful posters, and our classroom had new desks, whiteboards, and markers. Though most of the program staff was out that day, from what Kat had told me and from what I observed, it seemed that everyone at the jail felt Conspire Theatre was an important addition to the PRIDE program. When we started the class I was surprised at how willing all the women were to participate. While some seemed sleepy or a little down, as soon as Kat started the stretching exercises, they seemed to perk up. By the time we finished the games, they were ready to work. Until we split up the class, they had been so committed I hadn’t realized that the majority of them were new. As I worked with the students from the previous class I was very impressed at the level of their writing, how excited they were to be doing it, and how readily they accepted my nudges and challenges to do more. To me, this speaks volumes about the quality of Conspire’s workshops.
In our go-around at the end, several women mentioned, “It feels so good to tap into my creativity again.” Yes, I thought. This is exactly why this work is so important. As Applied Theatre practitioners in jails, our job is not to “reform,” or give therapy, it is to provide a container for creativity and joy in an otherwise grey, concrete place. If theatre and creative writing can remind these women that they are good, creative people, and help them begin to examine and imagine new possibilities for their lives, then we’ve done our job. My hope is that more institutions and funding organizations can begin see the value of supporting this important work.
I had a wonderful time as a guest artist with Conspire Theatre. I hope I’ll be able to come back soon to see the progress of the class. I wish all of these women well, and I can’t wait to hear updates from Kat and Meg!