Last Friday, the reading happened! Our newest facilitator, Michelle Dahlenburg, was on hand to witness the fun and madness that comes with presenting in the jail. There was another lockdown, but this one let up in time for us to get the women and the audience with a whole hour to spare. The PRIDE women came bustling in a few minutes before the audience, and there one, two, three… oh crap, six new women? As in, I have never met them before in my life and they had no idea what it was we were doing? Yes, as in that. I greeted them with a smile, explained our mission in about thirty seconds and asked who would like to read, emphasizing that those who were new were not under any obligation. Most seemed agreeable, and I reassured those who weren’t.
Ms. S took over then – she has been a force in the class since day 1. Her moods and attitudes affect everyone else, for good or bad. She’s a powerful writer and when she decides to have a good day, the whole class is a dance. She looked edgy, so I asked her if she would arrange the chairs and get everyone in order.
“Line up shortest to tallest!” she told the women. “That’s our order!” Despite some grumbling, everyone arranged themselves after several minutes of wrangling and standing back to back to determine everyone’s tallness. I assured them all that I would be leading the way through the reading and most of the women seemed fairly relaxed. Ms. S and a couple of others seemed anxious that everything go well, and I told everyone that we would need to stay a bit flexible in order for this to work.
Because of the lockdown, we didn’t have time to teach the new women the games so I asked those who already knew them to participate, and for those who didn’t to just remain seated. As we were figuring this all out, the audience began to come into the room. About twenty other incarcerated women and ten staff members took their seats. The staff looked open; some of the incarcerated women, but a few had “so what is this about?” looks on their faces. I think it took some bravery for the women in the PRIDE program to get up in front of this group and read some very personal pieces, and play some very silly games in front of their peers.
Once everyone was settled, we began.
“Thank you so much for coming,” I said. “This isn’t so much a performance as a sharing of the work we’ve been doing in this class. The book we’ll be reading from is a compilation of writings from women in the PRIDE program over the last two years. We’ll also be showing y’all some pretty funny games, so get ready!”
Since all of the pieces in the book are fairly short, the readings themselves went very quickly. I’m going to highlight a few moments from the event that stood out to me.
1: Ms. S wrote a powerful piece called “The Real Me,” in which she talks about her self-hatred and longing to be able to express herself beyond her anger and scars. She didn’t read it but another, younger woman who was new to me did. I’ll call her Ms. N. Ms. N had a hard time reading out loud, so Ms. S went up to the lectern with her and stood slightly off to the side, a little out of the audience’s view. Whenever Ms. N stumbled, Ms. S quietly prompted her. I have seen many women support each other in the jail, but these moments in performance always strike me most forcefully.
2. Freeze! It’s a game I dreaded as a high school theatre student and a game that you’re never supposed to play (which I just learned from Michelle!) because it’s kind of useless, doesn’t build any skills and is intimidating. You start with two people; the audience gives them characters and a setting; and they’re off! When anyone else sees a good moment, she yells, “Freeze!” The actors stop in whatever position they’re in, the new woman taps one of them out, takes her place, assumes the position and starts a new scene. Well, this group of women totally explodes this game, even in front of an audience! The scene went from a mother and child, to a woman having a baby on the bus, to releasing sea turtles into the wild, to being covered in fleas and on and on. Remarkable. The audience was laughing so loudly they couldn’t hear the actors.
3. During Panel of Experts, I asked for suggestions on topics from the audience. Beverly Gentle (volunteer coordinator) called out, “Recipe for freedom.” I didn’t use it (I went with chinchillas) because Panel of Experts works best when there’s no pressure to say anything profound but the idea of using a thoughtful topic is an interesting one and I may revisit it.
4. I feel like more and more people at the jail are becoming actively involved with Conspire. Marie, an intern from ACC who participated in a class and came to the reading, is super into what we’re doing. She’s excited about the warm-ups, the writing, the scenes, the games – everything. I’ve invited her to come to as many classes as she wants. Officer Rucks (sp?), the officer in charge of the wing, has also become vocally supportive. When we got to the education wing on Friday, he told me, “I got the ESL guys to set up the chairs for you! I wanted to save you some time!” He has also mentioned several times how much he likes the book (I gave him a copy) and how it shows him the women in a new light. When Michelle came in with me, I introduced her and he said, “Oh, so you’re the new Shirene?” I’ve heard so many horror stories about other facilities, that even though everyone at TCCC has always been pleasant and helpful, I stay surprised to hear words of support. Maybe I should just be thankful that we’re surrounded by people who seem to get what we’re doing. We are still in a jail, not a summer camp, and I can’t forget that but having people tell me that they see the value of the work puts a smile on my face.
5. One woman, Ms. K, was new and emphatically against reading. We had two different conversations about it in the space of five minutes. She was not going to read. She was not going to read. And then she did – she was the last to go, wanted a little encouragement but she did! I believe that every single woman, even the new ones, participated in some way. Congratulations to all of them – there’s no way I’d play Freeze in front of all of my friends. It makes me sweat just thinking about it.
I feel like we have such buy-in from the women right now that Michelle and I are going to come up with some pretty amazing pieces over the next nine weeks. She’s already come up with a great lesson plan for this Friday, and I can’t to wait to figure out how to combine our powers. Super facilitators! With everything else going on, it’s great to be really jazzed about Conspire right now.