I saw a community based performance recently that really got me thinking: How can we theatrically support people who we persuade to step on stage?  If you go to theatre at all, you’ve probably seen some cringe worthy productions where the acting is terrible, the writing is bad, the costumes are boring and the set is obviously just someone’s couch they brought to the space.  None of those things in and of themselves make a production awful but there can be some pretty insurmountable challenges in community (or community based) theatre.  I’m a process person – the product doesn’t always matter so much to me.  I love the devising, the workshopping, the playing and the “hot damn!” moments that happen when a group of people create together.  That creation might be a hot mess but I’m always less concerned with that than with making sure everyone is getting what they need out of the process.

I’m a terrible audience member though, for most things.  I’m critical, I’m judgmental, I’m a sigher.  I don’t go see much theatre anymore because I’m the worst.  Seriously.

So how can I, in good conscience, encourage people who don’t have experience as theatre makers to get up in front of their peers and give a part of themselves to a (sometimes, maybe hostile) audience?  Fortunately our audiences at the jail are very supportive and would probably continue to be so in the free world.  I know that I’ve been genuinely excited and moved by community based performances – I recently saw a group of young women from Garza High School perform and thought it was fantastic – so I’ve been thinking what makes a production stand out for me, versus what makes me a little disappointed I bothered leaving the house.

Theatricality.  You don’t need lights or music or much of anything to make a performance theatrical.  You don’t even need professional performers.  Well, gosh then, what do you need?  Michelle and I discussed this some because I’d like to make our next performance at the jail more of a performance, less a stand-and-read-your-work kinda thing.  The games and improv exercises are theatrical and fun, but how can we make the poems and written pieces more interesting to watch?

Michelle suggested we try and work in a site-specific way this last week and it was a wonderful change.  She invited to class to view the classroom (usually a pretty boring space) as a performance space.  We all walked around the room, exploring it and really looking at all the nooks and crannies.  Then she told everyone to do something that they normally do in the room – sit at a desk, stand at the whiteboard, etc.  We had to do this three times.  I had a hard time finding a third “normal” think to do – I seem to stand up a lot!  Then she asked us to do something that we wouldn’t normally do in the space.  Some of the women sat on the floor, one took the chair I normally sit in, one woman hid in the corner.  We did that three times as well – the last time I did a headstand against a wall which felt VERY weird.  The women had a great time and were pretty amused with themselves and each other.  They ended up in some pretty funny places in the room that I hadn’t even noticed before.

I told everyone that since we were looking at the room as a performance space, I had a line for everyone to say from their spots.  It came from a Sandra Cisneros poem I had brought in called, “Las Girlfriends.”  The line was “Been to hell and back again.”  I thought it would work well because it could go in so many different ways.  One woman was having a rough day, however, and when I asked everyone to say it aloud together, she burst into tears.  We spent a couple of minutes talking about what was wrong, and I asked her if she needed to be excused to get some water.  She left the room with a social work intern from ACC (who is fantastic in our class) and we continued.  We each said the line from our spots in the room and as it went around, women started to add to it

“Been to hell and back again, and I ain’t going back.”
“Been to hell and back again and I survived.”

We all took a few deep breaths when it was over and I passed out the poems.  Along with “Las Girlfriends”, I brought in “The Clasp” by Sharon Olds.  Both are powerful poems in their own way that deal with love, loss, violence and pain in very different manners.  I liked the contrast between the two; Cisnero’s is devil-may-care and humorous while Olds really goes for spare, dark language that makes you feel like you’ve been gut punched.  We read both of the poems out loud and discussed them – then I told the women that we were going to write our own poems based on our own memories.

I gave the class three minutes to write down 50 memories as fast as they could.  Just words or phrases so they would know what they meant.  It’s almost impossible to get to fifty but you want everyone to really try.  I got to about 26 – some women had over 30 while others had fewer than 10.  I then asked them to star three that really interested them.

“What?  Only three?”

I let them do that and then told them they had to narrow it down to one.  After they had, we free wrote about that one memory for about 10 minutes.

“Don’t worry about a poem or even a story.  Just write about it.”  I participated as well – I had a memory that had worked itself to the front of my brain that needed to be sorted out on paper.  The time flew by.  The women who had gotten so upset came back in the room but I told her she could sit this out if she needed to take care of herself.  She said that she would – it seemed her memories were too much for her that day.

Once the freewriting was up, I told the class to look over their work and pick the best lines and phrases from it, to take what was really good.  Then, on the back or a new sheet of paper, write those lines down in whatever order they wanted and to add or subtract from them as they saw fit.  We took another five or ten minutes to do this and once again, it wasn’t really enough time but I got a poem scratched out and most everyone something finished.

“Pick another spot in the room,” I said.  “A good spot for your poem.”  We all found places in the room and read out poems out loud to ourselves.  Then we picked a line and each woman said a line from her poem into the room.  We didn’t go in any order – I just asked everyone to say a line when they felt like it.  To my surprise, this went really smoothly and no one stepped on anyone else.  After that, I asked if anyone wanted to share her entire poem and several women volunteered.  As a group, we traveled to the woman’s spot in the room and she read her poem from there.  When then moved around the room as different women presented their poems.  I read mine and we ended with Michelle’s.  It was lovely, and the moment of fear I felt before sharing my own poem reminded me of how vulnerable some of these women must feel.

The poems I heard were beautiful and I wish I could share them here.  I’d share mine but well – it’s a little too personal to put out on the big, bad internet.  Maybe I can get Michelle to post hers!

Working in a site specific way really did open up the idea of theatricality in the jail.  Even though we can’t bring in much and often only have an hour or so of rehearsal time before a performance, placing these poems in different parts of the room on different levels changes the entire feeling of the performance.  I think all theatre should have a little magic in it, a little something that takes you out of your ordinary world.  If we can transform a jail classroom into a creative space, why not take it one step further and make it a performative space?

-Katherine Craft


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