I just went to prison for 5 months. Again. | 02

in education •  last year

Last night I led the first workshop of a 5-month-long theatre project with University Beyond Bars. I’m asking 27 men in a medium security prison in Washington state to devise an original 60-minute piece of live theatre about the origin of unprovoked American violence.


Read about the full scope of the project in Part 1!


Image by Keem Ibarra

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Last week I received my class roster, with 25 students on it (I had asked for a max of 12).


That’s a lot of students, and a lot of new faces! My goal had been to have a smaller class loaded with returners who would easily be able to mentor a few newbies while we created the piece. But, well, things change. It’s a good thing I teach improv. ;)

So I went in last night ready to lead a high-energy workshop that would grab attention, but also enforce a tone of respect and listening in the room. It is so important to listen when 25 people need to reach consensus on a single narrative about the origin of violence in America!

I bopped out the door of my apartment at 3:30pm (2 hours before my 5:30pm entry time), ready for action! That’s when something happened that would only happen to me--I realized my keys were missing. After 10 minutes of frantic searching, I realized I had locked them in my car the night before, and also that I needed to leave right then to make it there on time with traffic.

Cue my boyfriend and I attempting to break into my car with a butter knife so that I could go to prison.


Alas, we were unsuccessful, so I hopped into his car (which I never drive and has a few quirks) about 30 minutes late and off I went. From that point on, everything went great, for some reason there was no traffic and I made it to the prison lickety split--I even had some time to relax in the car and review my lesson plan.

I went through security (at this prison this involves checking in at the main desk where you leave all personal items except for your teaching supplies, going through a 2-door locked gate system into the primary facility, passing through an ID inspection with guards, passing through another security gate, passing through a full-body scan security system, then being escorted to the yard--you then repeat this process in reverse to leave). To be honest, security is the most nerve-wracking bit of the whole process.

Once I’m in the yard, I walk to the school building where I check-in, pick up some dry erase markers and a class roster, and meet my students. Last night I had a full room, 26 students in attendance of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. I had 5 returning students, but primarily the room was new faces, most of who have never acted before.

We spent about 10 minutes talking about the project, and then I launched into large-group physical exercises and low-stakes improvisation and acting games that let everyone have a moment to shine without being too high-pressure for shy new-comers. In any setting, but especially a prison, it’s really important to build an ensemble and community as you approach the discussion of heavy, complicated issues.

We stopped about 45 minutes before the end of class and did a free-write, graffiti wall on the word prompts “America” and “Violence”.


There’s a huge whiteboard in the room, so the group was able to write and respond to each other collectively for 5 minutes on a large space--taking turns reading and then writing.

From this we engaged in a group conversation about what was written on the board. Highlight ideas included:

(1) That most people don’t understand how serious the epidemic of violence is because they don’t see it in their everyday lives. The men talked about how they see violence every day, it’s has been their life for a long time, and most people don’t have that up-close-and-personal constant reminder.

(2) That people don’t engage with these topics productively and with urgency because of the mindset “It won’t happen to me.” When actually, they should be asking, “Is today my day?”

(3) In response to #2, a different shade of the same idea is that people don’t engage with these topics regularly because they know that it is happening and that it could happen to them, so instead they think “There’s nothing I can do about it.”

(4) We cannot forget how the American drug epidemic plays a role in perpetuating American violence.

Out of this conversation we played out several improvisation scenes--for example, we hosted a “talk show” featuring Meth, Heroine, and Crack Cocaine personified onstage debating which of them was the true “drug of America”. This was, of course, highly comedic while still exploring the issues at hand.

One thing that is really important to me is that we find the levity and humor within our exploration of dark, heavy topics. I’ve been watching a lot of stand-up comedy recently in preparation for a show I’m directing and have been really inspired by Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, and Gabriel Iglesias. In particular, Richard and Chris bare their souls, talk to White America directly, and clearly lay out civil rights injustice in their work--but it’s still funny. It’s all in the delivery.

Overall, I would say it was a great first night. And, I’ll leave you with this lovely story:


After class an older man with a cane approached me (he has been coming to performances from the program for awhile now and we finally convinced him to join!). He told me that the high-energy, physical work was going to inhibit him a bit as he has a chronic illness. However, he shared with me that this gave him an excuse to smile and that he didn’t get that every day so he was going to keep attending class.

Every day I take for granted the laughter and joy I feel for so many aspects of my life. I never have a day without it. Being in this space is humbling, it makes you realize how much you have, how rich a life is lived in freedom. It is humbling that something as simple as theatre can give someone that little bit of joy that helps them out in their week. At the end of the day, that’s all the payment I could ever need.
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This is a weekly series! I’ll be on site every Wednesday evening for the next 5 months. Hope you can follow along as I document this project! Read about the full scope of the project in Part 1!



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First of all: welcome to #thealliance @lilyraabe

Now, this is a terrific project what you're leading. Obviously I can't wait for watching the final result - the video - of such amazing workshop. It's definitely a totally different way to afford reality about violence.

I'll be following all of your posts about this project!! =D

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Thank you so much! Unfortunately, there will be no video of this project because I would not be allowed to film prisoners and share that content on a public forum--they’re really particular about that kind of thing at the Department of Corrections. As I mentioned, I’m only allowed to bring a pen/paper inside! But I really appreciate your support and hope you’ll enjoy reading about the project as it develops over the semester(s). :)

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I love how you've dived straight in with the small subjects! Violence in America!! At university I did a three month Prison theatre programme. One of the prisons we taught in we devised a show called 'Home.' That was not a small subject either for them. Life in prison is pretty much a big subject, why would they want to tackle anything small? Would love to hear more about it.

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Well--haha--they selected the topic last semester. I think we had class the evening after a big shooting, and so when asked what they would devise a piece of theatre about that was relevant to them and on their minds---they came up with unprovoked American violence. But it seems to be sticking for them and still of interest, so off we go! I’ll be writing a blog about it every week through final production!

Ya know, I once spent 11 days in jail over an argument I had with my brother. I know how hard it would be to stay in that situation for years. Those prisoners will probably remember it their entire lives. Very nice story! And for the record, the charges against me were dropped because it was just a silly argument. :)

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Haha, that must have been some argument. XD

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Kinda. He stole my girl lol. I was mad. I've realized she isn't worth it, and being single is easier lol.

This is fucking amazing.

I want to watch it as a tv show.

You are a very cool person.

Why are you doing this?

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Re-steeming <3

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Thank you so much for stopping by! For me, theatre revolves around telling stories, and particularly stories we don’t get to hear very often. I think if we want to talk about incarceration, or tell stories about it, we should go straight to the source to get those stories...so that’s why I’m there as an artist/person. I have a set of tools to offer, they have stories, together we can make theatre. :)

Thank you @lilyraabe. Such a interesting and fascinating project you are doing. I imagine a little bit out of your comfort zone at first.

But so commendable to take these prisoners and do something creative like acting and theater .

Very cool

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Definitely out of my comfort zone when I started! It helped that I initially began as a teaching assistant with a professor and 2 other graduate students so I definitely had an easy launch into the work. :)

Amazing work you are doing @lilyraabe. Keep steeming friend.

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Thank you so much for stopping by! :) I appreciate it.

I am so glad you are continuing to tell this incredibly story, and so utterly impressed.

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Thanks so much for stopping back by!

this is awesome, I have a huge amount of admiration for you for doing this, so many times people get forgotten about and their voice is lost, when they are placed in institutions. I'm really looking forward to following this series, well done you.

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Thank you so much for your support, interest, and time spent reading. :) My pleasure to share this story, it’s a wonderful way to decompress after the workshops and hopefully build a little more understanding out in the world.

WOW. It's a great story. I loved it very much

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Thank you for stopping by! They’ll be keeping’ on comin’!

I'm so enjoying following this @lilyraabe. It's fascinating to get an insight into the sort of exercises you use to broach big issues like this, and also to try to create a sense of community and consensus in a big group. I was also really touched by the old man's comment - to think that any person might not have a single cause to smile in a day always breaks my heart. Well done for doing the work you do, looking forward to next week :)

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Thank you so much for stopping by and reading--glad it’s an interesting window into the experience. :) I’m really happy to be able to share it here and have folks be interested in what we’re making!

What an absolutely fascinating read, I loved the little tale at the start with the car keys - something you didn't have to put in but at the end when you read about your comedy inspiration it all makes sense. What an incredible project to be doing, in what some would say is a very hostile environment - but maybe you could quell this with your first hand information - because it is maybe that they are more just victims of their own life circumstances. Throughly enjoyed this post, this is so much to me what Steemit is about reading incredible stories and learning so much about things you never even realised happened in the world. Superb post.
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#thealliance

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Thank you SO very much for stopping by to read this and check it all out! I appreciate #thealliance family support. I’m really honored by the response to this so far--I wanted to get on steemit because I hoped I could share the things I’m doing successfully on the platform and it’s kind of mind-blowing that it’s actually working and that there’s an audience out here for it! THANK YOU for being a part of that!

Great work @lilyraabe .
Proud member of @steemsugars too.

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Thank you! :)

Awesome work you're doing there. This country treats prisoners pretty terribly, I'm glad you're going there and enriching their lives a bit. It's important they get some time to learn and think so they don't come out of there with years of their life wasted and no improvements made to themselves.

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Thanks for stopping by! Ya, I think that the arts can be a powerful form of rehabilitation. :)

Amazing. I've never taught in a prison, but performed in them several times, with teen casts. It was always an amazing, eye opening experience. Keep it up. You are taking art into places where it deeply, deeply, needed.

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That’s so awesome, I’d love to know how the teens felt about performing in the prison. Must have been eye-opening indeed. Thanks for stopping by!

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Well, it was a church group. We used to stage a tour of Godspell every year. So, we got invited to one minimum security men's prison, a women's prison and two youth detention centers. For the most part, it was a lot like any other production. We didn't get to interact a whole lot. But, I would say it made them more aware of the kind of people that end up behind bars and the reasons. It's easy to believe that everyone in there is a dangerous thug of some sort. But many just get caught in the system and can't get out.

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Totally. It’s an invisible community to most people, and it’s incredibly eye-opening when we get to experience life behind bars! What a great experience for you--and the people who got to experience your performance.

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Yes, it was an amazing time. I think most who grew up in a minority community, or marginalized group, including poor people of all ethnic backgrounds, are not surprised by how easy it is to get stuck in the system. It is mostly those who've managed to find success that can overlook it, or claim that it truly is just and those there are always deserving.

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100%! Privilege leads to blind spots!

You got a 22.03% upvote from @luckyvotes courtesy of @lilyraabe!

This post has received a 43.48% upvote from @lovejuice thanks to @lilyraabe. They love you, so does Aggroed. Please be sure to vote for Witnesses at https://steemit.com/~witnesses.

You got a 17.54% upvote from @bid4joy courtesy of @lilyraabe!

Wow, that is simply amazing !!! Do you know about the steemiteducation tag?? I think you should talk with @giantbear - also on @steemsugars! 'Cause you definitely fit that category - you even say it yourself, 'education'! :) applause

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Thank you so much! And, I’ve never used that tag so I really appreciate the recommendation!

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you're welcome! You totally should - you're into the topic 100% anyway and there's a lot to gain! :) Good luck and glad to have you :)

You got a 23.99% upvote from @brupvoter courtesy of @lilyraabe!

I thought I was late to the party, and I am. It's good to see, though, that I'm not that late. I really enjoy reading about this project. (I work in a violence intervention program, primarily DV, though my work happens outside incarceration.) I know from my work how experiences like this can make great changes for people, helping them become non-violent, more empathetic, etc. Thank you for doing this and for writing about it.

P.S.
This post was worth reading for this line alone, "Cue my boyfriend and I attempting to break into my car with a butter knife so that I could go to prison." Fantastic.

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Hey! Thank you so much for stopping by, glad it was an interesting read for you and interesting to know you’re working in an arena that is similar! I just started this project, really, so I’ll be writing about it quite a bit over the next few months. Looking forward to chatting more! :) Also..yes..the butter knife line. When tragedy is comedy, haha.

This is absolutely a beautiful thing you are doing. You are such a sweet gentle person. I can't imagine what it must be like to work with prisoners. Something scary yet so rewarding. I once spent two days in jail, I couldn't imagine being in prison. You spending time with them and giving them something to look forward to, something to laugh about, a moment to feel like normal humans for just a short amount of time, is something they will remember forever.

Thank you for sharing this journey, this is so amazing.

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Thank you so much. Your support for this project is really encouraging (I’m super humbled/blown away by the response to this!). Really looking forward to having this place to share the journey over the next few months. Appreciate you! <3

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To show my support I will be making it a point to come to your page as much as possible so that I can see the progress of this journey. Im so thrilled by this wonderful project you are doing.

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Aw, thank you! My goal is to post the write-up for each workshop on Thursdays for the next few months. :)

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Do me a favor (if you want,of course), go to this contest that @terminallyill is having. Enter this post into the contest, I promise you it will win. It is such an amazing post. He is giving away memberships to @steembasicincome. If you are a member of @steembasicincome, you recieve free upvotes for life. All you have to do is engage in their post as well.

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This is SO awesome. I went and jumped into the contest. <3 Thank you so much for recommending it--you are RAD.

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You're welcome! You deserve it. If you don't win, I will sponser you in. It has a few more days left though so you can enter a different link everyday.

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OMG, thank you. <3 I also saw that the contest keeps going, what an awesome opportunity/great idea from @terminallyill

Amazing. I wouldn't have the guts to go to prison and teach people. You are very courageous and generous for doing this. :)

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Thanks so much for stopping by to check it out. :) See you around!