Monday, December 20, 2010

Tunics at the TCCC

Freedom is a major theme in Duncan dance. Whether interpreted as social freedom, personal liberty, or spiritual emancipation, I believe that freedom at all levels of human experience and organizational development was a goal for Isadora and is metaphorically embodied in her dance technique. Tunics, with their free-flowing simplicity, are unrestrictive garments that enable the body to move unencumbered. The coarse black and white striped uniforms worn by inmates at the Travis County Correctional Complex are not.  (And neither are the clunky, knock-off, black rubber crocs that they give the women to wear, for that matter—an impediment that becomes obvious every time we balance on one leg to independently rotate our ankles…).

A la Duncan's "Ballspiel" at TCCC!
I became curious about performing arts work in prisons while still living and dancing in New York, but I didn’t pursue it until I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. In the fall of 2007, during my second year in graduate school, I received a listserve email asking for performers to participate in a holiday event at the Lockhart Work Facility, a private prison in Lockhart, Texas. (I didn’t realize then that privatization of prisons was actually big business). The holiday program, sponsored by Truth Be Told, was entitled God in Human Form. We were to share some personal introduction that relayed an instance of divine expression in our lives (not necessarily religious).  I asked if I could bring in a tunic. The warden said yes.

Fast-forward a year or so to the spring of 2009, as I was wrapping up my MFA at UT (and after having facilitated some incredible and transformational work with incarcerated women in Lockhart through Truth Be Told), and another email makes its way through the listserves at UT. This one is asking for a co-facilitator to teach a series of theatre classes with women in the PRIDE program at the TCCC. Kat Craft, a recent MA graduate of Goldsmith’s College in London, is looking to found a theatre company to bring performance workshops to women in jails and prisons. I volunteer.

After two rounds of seasonal workshops (Summer and Fall 2009) that met twice weekly, Conspire Theatre initiated an ongoing, weekly residence at the TCCC. Last Friday, we taught our last class before a two-month hiatus with plans to return to the jail in March. Volunteer work is hard. Not just because of the expenses of time, gas, and energy—but because the desire to transform the volunteer work into a professional career path takes persistence. It also means that paying jobs might have to supersede volunteer work. At least, that was my situation for much of the fall of this year.

As my post-graduate employment opportunities have waxed, my availability to teach for Conspire has waned. Thankfully, Kat has brought in a slew of guest artists and fabulous new facilitators, looking to sharpen their teaching tools, and the women have benefited from exposure to a diverse range of facilitators and teaching styles. Still, it has been hard not to be there every week.

Blue scarf in the wind at TCCC
“Intangible Gifts” was the 5-minute writing prompt for last Friday’s class. What do we have to give others that is not necessarily an object or a material “thing?” The idea was for the women to explore the seasonal focus on giving without feeling as if their incarcerated circumstance limited their ability to give gifts. For many participants, it started as a tough prompt but, as they began writing, they came up with more ideas. A smile, a hug, a listening ear—these are all gifts we have to give.

As I think about the idea of intangible gifts, I realize that all of the time Conspire Theatre has shared at the TCCC so far is an intangible gift. In wrapping up, one of the women said that the class “lifts our spirits.” Another woman said, “You pretty much waked us up and surprised us every Friday.” And it is true—there has been a shift for many of the women who have been there for several months or more. Conspire Theatre brings laughter and play into a space characterized by hostility and fear. And the result is a softening of boundaries and a growth of support and respect among a group of women who now express gratitude for getting to know one another, even under their current circumstances.

Austinintes, if you are interested in prison theatre work, subscribe to Conspire Theatre’s blog about the classes at the TCCC. And stay posted for news about upcoming events, including a possible spring fundraiser.