So much for Forum Theatre! Every few months we have a golden couple of classes, in which the women are all committed, and the majority of them have been with us for at least a few weeks. They’re ready to work, ready to press on into more challenging theatrical techniques, ready to tackle bigger issues.
Those golden days have passed.
We got about six new women this past Friday and boy, did the mood change! I still gave my impassioned, rehearsed Forum Theatre speech in which I traced the lineage from catharsis to Brecht to Boal and even had them thinking of examples of movies with catharses v. Brechtian style movies. Once we actually got into the meat of the exercises, however, there were too many new women who were not too sure about this whole theatre thing to get really involved.
We tried a new improv game today, which I called “The Chair of Power”. I played this game in my MA and loved it: one person sits in a chair, the chair of power. They do not want to get out of that chair. A second person enters the scene and tries to persuade the first person to get out of the chair. If the second person sets up a scenario, addressing the first person as “Your Highness”, the second person has to go along with the scenario. When my MA class played this game, we created these elaborate set-ups about kings, political spies, bank robbers and reveled in finding absurd ways to get the first person to give up the chair.
As I’ve learned over and over again, the women in my class occupy a much more literal space than I do. Instead of creating imaginary worlds, they tried to bribe each other. Like, really bribe each other. With candy bars, and there was even a whispered conversation I cut off because lord only knows what they were trying to trade. With prompting, they thought of a few ideas (one was about a king) but the furthest they got was imagining things that might get each specific women off of the chair.
“Your kids are waiting outside the door!”
“There’s a hot girl out there!”
The game kind of petered out, with some of the new women complaining about being hungry, being tired, etc. Over the past few months, Meg’s absence has challenged me to step forward and take more command of the classroom. I’m not a tyrant, but I’m much less willing to take crap these days. I pointedly ignored the hungry and tired comments (they do volunteer for the program, after all) and instead asked the group, “All right – do y’all want to work on another scene or do y’all want to play ‘the sun shines on’?”
“The sun shines on!!!” It’s always a winner, folks.
We all circled up and started the game. Immediately, the laughter and jokes started. The new women loosened up a bit, started to have some fun. The complaints went away but a new problem arose – a problem for me, anyway.
Ms. L, who has been with us quite some time, gets in the middle and says, “Oh I got one! Wait, I don’t know if I can say that.”
“What is it?” I ask. “Come whisper in my ear.”
She runs over, cups her hand around my ear and says, “The sun shines on everyone who likes 69.”
Oh lord. I do not always have the best instincts. We have already had a “the sun shines on everyone who’s gay” and more than half the circle got up. But I laugh, ‘cause it’s funny! It’s funny, and I let her do it. The group cracks up and once again, a large number of women get up. A few look at Jessie and me, and I throw up my hands and say “I’m abstaining. Y’all don’t need to know that about me.” I immediately regret letting this happen and it only gets worse when Ms. L’s friend, Ms. D, gets up there and says, “Oh, I can top that!”
“No!” I say. “That’s enough. We’re not going down this road.” I’m getting flushed, a sure sign I’ve let this group go awry. We keep playing for another five minutes and wrap up the class.
Jennifer came in at the end of class to make some announcements, and we chatted after the class filed out. From her, I learned that one of concerns about having a large number of gay women in the group is that relationships quickly form and then fall apart, causing huge amounts of conflict and drama in the group. I used to be impressed that women in my class have been so open about their sexuality, now it can seem a little dangerous at times. These are grown women who should be treated as adults; at the same time, having all of that tension in a confined space can’t be comfortable. I’ve also seen the straight women become uncomfortable with the sexual overtones that can emerge in the class which is why I usually try to keep a lid on it. Yet another reason that modern incarceration is so strange.
Once again, I got comfortable! Those golden classes lull me into that sense of security I’m always talking about. It’s good to be started but it’s also sad to lose that buy-in. As Jessie said this week, “I’m surprised at how sad I was that the class changed.” It is sad when I’ve really enjoyed working with women and they disappear from week to week. We keep plugging away, though and hope that we can make a bit of a difference and get back to the golden days.