This may seem off topic, but I’ll get there. Stay with me.
Right now, I’m part of a clinical drug study at PPD in south Austin. For those who don’t know, clinical trials vary in length and type, but the gist is that you check into their facility for a set number of days, eat their food, wear assigned clothes (a certain colored T shirt to demarcate which study you’re in), follow a rigid schedule of procedures (dosing, blood draws, EKGs, etc.), sleep in a bunk bed in a small room with seven other people of your same sex, and generally live in a strange, clinical environment. You are a lab rat testing a drug (most likely for cholesterol, migraines or somesuch) and you are paid for your time and your blood.
This is not jail. I am paid for my time and allowed to bring in a laptop and books. I can call my husband and my friends. Like jail, however, a number of strangers are confined together in an unpleasant space, watched over by unsympathetic people, made to do things they don’t really want to do for reasons they don’t always understand. And even though they’re all being paid, many people’s nerves and tempers start to fray soon after confinement begins.
And the women! Oh, there is a special way that women torment each other, isn’t there? I’m not going to get into specifics here but in my two weekends inside the clinic, I have witnessed the gossiping, the passive aggressive sniping, the putdown-disguised-as-a-harmless-comment, the “I don’t know why you’re upset, you must have issues”, the hostility and outright aggression that women, especially women forced to share the same space, can show towards each other. And we are only in there for three and a half days at a time.
I advocate working with groups of women, in a women’s only space because of the incredible empathy and support that women can give each other. Women have greater freedom to speak about their fears, their past traumas, their histories and their hopes with an empathetic community of other women. The flip side of these groups, however, are the cliques that can tear each other apart, that know the most tender nerve to pluck and the weakest spot to press.
How I wish we had theatre workshops in PPD! One of the ground rules of Conspire Theatre’s last workshop, put forward by the participants, was “no cattiness.” The final performance was such a wonderful example of the community we built from this commitment. When one of the women started to cry reading her poem, another got up to stand beside her and help her finish it. The class really felt like a safe, supportive place to be. This is a far cry from the cruelty of cliques and even from the daily rudeness I encounter in this drug study.
Whether or not you sympathize with those in jail, a hostile environment can’t be conducive to any kind of rehabilitation or self-reflection. Many incarcerated women have histories of abuse and trauma that lead directly into their crimes. They need a supportive environment to face and ultimately overcome these stumbling blocks. Conspire Theatre provides a space for joy and play that allows a group of strangers to become the community that offers that support. When I return for my final in-patient, don my T shirt and eat my hospital food, I’ll have a vivid reminder for why I do this work and why the women at the Travis County jail need it.