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.
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.
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!