Today, Michelle and I went into the jail with the intent to finish the Blagg. We had our lesson plan all typed up and we spent a good twenty minutes before class going over the fine points again. Since neither one of us is extremely familiar with the Blagg, we wanted to make sure that we could lead it confidently.
The women were about thirty minutes late today and when they came, several were obviously frustrated. As I handed out paper for freewriting, Ms. S told me, “We need to have a discussion after this.”
“Oh?” I said.
“About this class.”
“Oh,” I said again, “is it bad?” She smiled and didn’t really answer. “You’re making me nervous!” I said.
We finished freewriting; I pulled up the rolling chair and said, “I hear that there’s a discussion y’all want to have.” The women looked at each other quickly.
“Yes,” Ms. S said. “We’ve been talking and the class thinks, we all agree, that we don’t want to do the thing that we did last time.”
“Okay,” I replied. “I hear what you’re saying – you don’t want to do that. I’d like to hear why. I have my own theories about it – in fact Michelle and I both had reservations about doing this – but I’d like to hear your thoughts about it.
Several women spoke about why they didn’t want to continue the Blagg. I heard:
“We know what our lives are like – we don’t want to act it out.”
“This is too close to our real lives.”
“This is just a repetition of the one we did with Humpty Dumpty. We liked that one – that was fun, but this one is just the same thing.”
“This class is the only time we don’t have to think about those things. This class is for having fun and getting away from all that.”
“In this class, we reach beyond all of that.”
It was the “reach beyond” that really struck a chord with me. It reminded me of something that the PRIDE program coordinator said: “Your class helps open up possibilities for the women. When they come in, they’re in survival mode and you help them move towards possibility.” I think the PRIDE program itself does this as well, and our class has a unique way of bringing new ideas and experiences to these women.
“I’m really glad y’all felt comfortable bringing this to us,” I told the class. “This shows me that you have ownership of this class and that’s what I want, so thank you.” At some point in this, I switched from using “I” to “we” and pointed at Michelle. Everyone laughed and said I was trying to put the blame on her. Michelle got up and pretended to walk out in a huff. I felt like the discussion went well and I understand why the class was reluctant to pursue the exercise further. Michelle and I agreed that the structure and aesthetic of the class up to this point has been very different than what the Blagg represents. If we set up our class as place to explore their lives head on, then this might work and the class might be willing to go with us. As it is, we have set up the space as a kind of escape from the realities of the jail so I imagine that to be dragged back there was unsettling.
Lois Weaver of Split Britches ran a workshop with incarcerated women in England that didn’t touch on their own lives at all. She’s a performance artist who created the character of Tammy Whynot for her own performances – she took this character into the prison and facilitated the women creating their own fantasy characters. My professor at Goldsmiths, Caoimhe McAvinchey, wrote about this and she noted that while much of the work with incarcerated people focuses on their past and how to correct that, this dealt not just with their futures but with all of the wildness of what could be. With Lois Weaver, that “what could be” wasn’t rooted in day-to-day reality but in fantasy. Fantasy has always played an important role in my life – indeed, being able to imagine numerous possibilities for myself and for everything in general feeds me as a person as an artist. I can see what a powerful tool it can be in an oppressive place with women who might feel trapped by their lives and their circumstances.
The discussion today is helping me clarify what Conspire is about and what we’re trying to do. I’m not completely there yet, but Michelle and I had that “what is the point of this?” conversation in the car today. It’s about that reaching beyond, that possibility. Despite the failure of the Blagg, I’m so happy we tried it. Even when things go wrong, they can lead to something so right.