Over the Wall

Quiz for people considering volunteering in a jail:

1) Are you a pushover?

2) Can you say “NO”?

3) Are you easily manipulated?

According to my volunteer orientation at the Travis County jail tonight, if your answers are “yes,” “no,” and “yes,” you should NOT volunteer in a jail.

Some other do/don’ts I learned tonight about working in a jail:

Do treat people the way you want to be treated. Do always be aware of what’s going on around you. Do focus on the service you’re providing, and not on what the person is in jail for. Don’t let them see you sweat. Don’t hug an inmate—he/she could attack you. Don’t share personal info. Don’t do special favors. And above all, DO NOT bring a cell phone inside!

Eep. Though I’m familiar with these guidelines from teaching theatre in jails before in Chicago and with Conspire Theatre, I came home feeling overwhelmed. How does our theatre work fit into all this? Should we be more cautious? Sometimes when we have a really fun, engaging class like the “Humpty Dumpty” workshop last week, it’s easy to forget that where we’re teaching is an actual jail, where we do have to keep a lot of things in mind that we wouldn’t in other settings. But because I see our participants first as women and not inmates, the concerns I have about going into the jail usually have more to do with their engagement in the workshop than my own safety.

Humpty Dumpty Jumped Over a Wall…

For example, this past week I was a bit nervous to facilitate my first full lesson there. Would the women think using a nursery rhyme was silly? Should we adapt it to relate more to their lives? As Kat mentioned, usually groups doing this sequence tend to focus on poor Humpty Dumpty’s suicidal tendencies on that wall. But as I facilitated the Role on the Wall activity, it became clear that this group had a lot to say about this story. They immediately saw the wall as a barrier to Humpty Dumpty’s freedom.

“What are Humpty’s homeboys saying to him?”


I was amazed at how quickly the women turned this nursery rhyme into an elaborate story about a criminal running from the law. We covered the whiteboard with characters and lines from Humpty’s life—his wife, girlfriend, mother, kids, cook, gardener, and even his dog had something to say to him. This was the first time I’d seen a Humpty Dumpty with a probation officer!

The Paired Improv exercise asked pairs to have an improvised conversation between one person, who was Humpty, and her partner, who chose one of the people in his life to become. All the pairs spoke simultaneously, until I asked everyone to freeze while I “spotlighted” each pair. This allowed us all to hear a bit of those conversations while keeping the exercise low risk for everyone. During the Jerry Springer-style Talk Show activity, Kat and I interviewed each of the characters—first Humpty’s wife, girlfriend, mom, and homeboy, and then all the Humpty’s about “What REALLY happened?” Like Kat, I was a bit concerned by the women’s repeated use of the word “bitches” and was glad when she shifted the post-activity conversation to discuss power within Humpty Dumpty’s relationships.

“Hey, want to try some Image Work to show this?” I asked Kat right at the end. “Sure!” she said. (This is one of the brilliant things about co-facilitating with a fellow applied theatre artist. We speak the same language!) I invited women to come up and show us the different power dynamics in Humpty’s relationships by creating frozen images with their bodies to represent the characters. Other women came up and shifted the image based on their take on the story, which led to most interesting discussion about power in relationships.

In our final go-around, the sentiment seemed to be that everyone had had a great time. Even the shyest women had fully participated in all the activities and there had been much laughter. Overall, I’d say this lesson was a success! I’m excited to build on the momentum of this sequence this Friday with a similar lesson that will ask the women to create a character that is similar to themselves and who has committed a crime. Here’s hoping our momentum continues!

-Michelle Dahlenburg


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