Phenomenal Women

Second sessions are always a little more challenging. The first day, no one knows what to expect and there’s a lot of giggling and “Are you really asking us to do this?” looks but everyone is riding on the energy of the new. The second session is a little lower energy, a little “Whatcha got now?” That being said, we had a great day. The challenge is a good reminder to bring in my best and to believe in what I’m doing.

We have already established the opening routine of freewriting, check in and stretching. Meg stepped up the stretches a bit, adding some more movement and making it feel a little more dance like. I commented that no one would feel so self-conscious about grooving their hips if we were all in a club! We played another name game, as there were several new women in the group today. In this setting, the group changes frequently. Women are set free, they are sent to prison or a different facility. I expect new faces almost every session. Travis County Correctional Complex is for 0-2 year sentencing so the odds are we’ll lose about half of our group before we even get to the final performance. This can be frustrating, but it also reminds us to make each session count.

One game, The Sun Shines On, involves a kind ‘aggressive musical chairs’, as one woman renamed it. We set up a circle of chairs, one less than the number of people playing and all sit with one person in the middle. The person in the middle states one thing that is true for her, prefacing it with, “The sun shines on everyone who…” has a dog or a sister or is wearing stripes. Those who also have a dog/sister/stripes, have to stand up and move to a new chair. The one left standing must go the center and state a new truth.

paper dollsThis game is great because it involves movement, strategy, laughter and learning about each other. I was struck by a certain moment in the game today: one woman stood in the center and said, “The sun shines on everyone who is gay.” A number of other women stood up, switched seats and the game continued. In a jail setting, in the state of Texas, I was surprised and glad that they could and were willing to be open about it. I also realized that with our theme of “love,” it could be very easy to slip into a heterosexual view of love and leave out their experiences entirely. Our society’s pop songs, poetry, movie and stories mainly focus on this heterosexual view of love. Boy meets girl, they fall in love and live happily ever after. That whole scenario is false in so many ways and in this particular case negates that girl could meet girl and fall in love. I’m so glad that her actions brought this to my attention. Meg and I have discussed how to bring this up in the next session in a way that validates homosexual love without sparking off a giant, gridlocked debate over the political and religious arguments around homosexuality.

For today’s session, I brought copies of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”. Many women in the class were already familiar withMaya Angelou "Phenomenal Woman" it; it has become a widely read and used poem. First, we read it through around the circle, then divided up into four groups. Each group created three still images around their verse. They picked individual words or lines to create the images. The energy in the room picked up as the women experimented and discussed how to bring their verse to life. Each group showed its images and we commented on what we liked about each of them. Then, we told the groups to keep three images and build on them to present the whole verse.

The results were fantastic. We didn’t give too much instruction because I like to see how each group interprets the task. I am always amazed at how easily “non” theatre people employ the tools that took me years to re-find. After having all of the joy and spontaneity drilled out of me by various acting techniques, I was afraid of my own shadow for a long time. I would never have buzzed around making bumble bee noises, as one group did to demonstrate the men swarming like “a hive of honey bees” or even been able to act out “the rise of my breasts” without total embarrassment. Although some of the women also have stage fright or a level of discomfort at performing, their ideas and inspirations are great. We are all theatre makers; we all possess the tools of storytelling and performance.

(I have permission from the women involved to write about my experiences in these workshops in a general way, being careful not to use names or identifying characteristics.  While incarcerated at TCCC, the women will not be able to post their own writings on this website.  Once they are out of TCCC, they will be welcome to send me their writings for this site.)

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