Performance scholar Jill Dolan defines utopian performatives as “small but profound moments in which performance calls the attention of the audience in a way that lifts everyone slightly above the present, into a hopeful feeling of what the world might be like if every moment of our lives were as emotionally voluminous, generous, aesthetically striking, and intersubjectively intense” (Utopia in Performance, 5). Dolan is careful to characterize utopian performative moments as inherently impossible to predict, meaning that one cannot create a formula or a repeatable circumstance guaranteed to produce utopian performative effects. But from my perspective, so far the female inmate performers of Conspire Theatre are now two for two.
At the end of facilitating this second session of theatre and movement work with the women in the PRIDE program at the TCCC, I am once again both heartened and awed to see the way positive, supportive community can develop in even the most dehumanizing circumstances. I am even more inspired to bear witness to the audience’s generous reception of the women’s creative offerings.
One of the women remarked to me that she appreciated the audience of staff members, volunteers, and officers, because they were looking at her as if she was on the outside. The performance opportunity gave the women a chance to interact with the audience and with one another as actors, as dancers, as poets, writers, and musicians. For that hour, the women’s primary identity as inmates was overshadowed by their presence as creative and expressive artists.
Many of the women have told us that they feel free in our class and that it is the only time they feel free. Inarguably, the nature of incarceration is restricted freedom, yet these remarks have made me think about the metaphorical implications of freedom, of feeling emotionally and psychologically light, joyful, and free. Our classes have provided these women a few hours per week to forget about their impending court dates, to be silly and laugh together, to actually leave the class feeling better, happier, more energized, than when the class started.
It may be a small change. It may be temporary. But our class is giving women the opportunity to experience how warming up and waking up the body, connecting to the breath, letting go of self-consciousness long enough to laugh at themselves and with others, are all tools for letting go of negativity.
The final sharing was full of deep, sincere moments as well as lighthearted fun. The women read monologues and performed scenes. We had the audience generate a rain soundscape as accompaniment to our linking shapes movement piece (which I danced with 6 other women), we had interpretive dance and guitar accompaniment for original poetry and solo vocals. Aside from our rockin’ rendition of “Killing Me Softly”, two moments stand out to me as surprising and moving. While reading a poem she wrote to acknowledge changes she wants to make in her life, one woman became so choked up she couldn’t keep going. Another woman immediately stepped up to finish reading it for her—an act of generosity and support.
The second moment occurred after the sharing when a lieutenant asked one woman if she could hold the guitar. Never would I have imagined a sing-along led by an officer in uniform playing guitar surrounded by a bunch of women in black and white stripes, all singing together. Utopian performative, yes indeed.
(As we are unable to photograph the women, Kat and are able to only give you a glimpse of our work in these pictures. Imagine a much larger group!)