The Shared Experience Symphony

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It is hard for me to say whether the time we have spent with the ladies at Hope Rises has felt short or long. It feels short because the weeks go by so fast between research and rehearsal where we write, listen, plan, and more. It feels long because the stories I’ve heard in those weeks have been so changing. These stories have made me laugh, fall back in my seat in shock, and hold back tears. The women dazzle me with their resilience and emotional intelligence every time I am in their presence. 

Our first meeting with them, we were in the cozy living room at Hope Rises. There, we took our very first recording of their conversations. As they spoke, often times over the top of each other, I was struck by what I later described in my journal as a, “a loud, painful symphony of shared experience.” So many of these women, despite their vast age difference, contrast in background, and varying crimes have experienced so many of the same things while in prison. In them, one can see a physical representation of how the incarceration system separates these women from the basics that contribute to their humanity.

I could certainly explain how what I have heard from these women about their experience makes me feels some kind of ideal Brechtian desire to fix the system in any way I can. I sometimes struggle with the knowledge that the women that sit in front of me are literally walking evidence of how many people slip through the cracks of the social institutions that seem completely normal to many of us. But, it is the storytelling that reminds me not to allow myself to get too puffed up or angry in their stead. These women don’t need me to do that. I’m there to give them the tools to share their story; What they need me to do is listen, consider, and learn. Really, we all need to learn from them.

As the date of our performance approaches, I am finding myself wishing that I could spend forever learning from them. Clearly though, thats impossible. These ladies need to graduate and re-enter the world and I certainly have plenty of work to do. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the process while I can.

The Human and the Being

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The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save-the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour-your capital. The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life-the greater is the store of your estranged being.

Karl Marx

Life certainly isn’t all about material possession. Many find happiness while living a minimalistic lifestyle, but they get to have experiences–travel the world, have dinner with a friend, go to the theatre. Of course, you need money to do these things.

What if you don’t have money, or the time? It’s convenient to substitute experiences with material possessions to feel some satisfaction. When you come into some money, it’s easy to spend it on something you want rather than save it. Is this a lack of self-control? A lack of responsibility? No. Not at all. It’s a way to find joy in a world that hasn’t necessarily been joyful.

In prison, there are only a few items inmates are given for free; anything considered more luxurious can be bought in the commissary–like feminine hygiene products that are of decent quality.

If an incarcerated person has no one to put money on their books, they get $12 a month to spend in commissary, and have a separate items list to choose from. For reference, below is the indigent commissary list. The master list is four pages long and can be found here.

Feeling human is difficult while in an environment that is inherently dehumanizing. In reference to commissary, one of the women we are working with said “It makes you feel human…It’s a little thing but it’s a big thing in there.” Being indigent means you cannot afford to be human. Yes, you can buy basic hygiene products and some stationary, but that’s it. By restricting people who shop indigent–no snacks, no games, no makeup–it makes a statement that they do not deserve to enjoy.

Why is the prison system so adamant about disconnecting the human from the being? Shouldn’t rehabilitation, success, and happiness be encouraged? Of course not; that would give them hope.

The point of this post isn’t just to rant about the injustice of the prison system and economic inequality . I think about the women we are working with and how different their fond memories from life outside of prison are compared to ones made in prison. From making “spongebobs” to saving enough money to buy a radio, some of their best memories in prison center around the ability to own items and make them their own. A memory that has stuck with me since one of the women, Meagan, told me about it is when she received a birthday present from her family while at Hope Rises. Her nieces bought a stuffed bunny and sprayed it with her mom’s perfume. She says, to this day, the bunny smells like her mom. While it is a memory involving a material item, the satisfaction comes from the sentimental value.

It is quite amazing to see the resilience of these women–how they are able to have hope after being in an institution that tried everything possible to suppress it. I am so excited for the ladies to tell their stories and for the world to hear them.

The plan, the plan, the wall!

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Best laid plans, right? I hoped to “catch up” by writing something about the events of  each day. But seriously, better that I respond in moment.

We have a second draft of the script. It is so powerful. Listening to The Ladies reading it last week was a gift that I will not forget. A moment of grace.  They are so generous. It is what I love most about creating theatre.

Konstantin Stanislavski writes about the “Art of Experiencing.” In The Actor’s Work he writes: Experiencing helps the actor to fulfill his basic goal, which is the creation of the life of the human spirit in a role and the communication of that life onstage in the artistic form.” (Stanislavski’s italics)  This cannot be taught.  It can be recognized. It can be acknowledged. It can be nurtured. Given space and time. It is what it means to be human. The moment cannot always happen in performance–it is the work that lays the foundation for the “representation” on the stage.  However, these moments happen in rehearsal. A gift. It is why I love rehearsal so much.  Everyone is learning and discovering the script, their colleagues, themselves.

Our work this summer, for me, has been what Stanislavski calls the creation of the life of the human spirit. It is The Ladies demonstration of honesty, courage, vulnerability and their generous spirits that allow these moments to be made manifest.

Tonight we will complete some interviews,  and meet with individuals about their narratives in the script. It is intense but it is glorious!

Meet The Students: Peter

Meet The Students

My name is Peter Grant, I am a 20 year-old native of Conway, Arkansas, and I graduated from Conway High in 2017. At Hendrix, I’m double-majoring in Theatre Arts and Spanish. I’m the co-host of a weekly radio show on campus which will enter its third year this fall, and I play Minesweeper for fun.

My interest in our project through the Hope Rises program stems from a lifelong love of theatre, and I believe firmly that there are few better ways for a person to acknowledge and analyze their own characteristics, patterns, habits, and emotions than by working to produce new ones through acting. Theatrical work, to my mind, is a work that cannot exist without a certain element of vulnerability, and I believe that vulnerability requires a person to be willing to trust themselves and the people around them. With this in mind, it is my understanding that theatre is an exercise in community-building. I believe, too, that anyone that’s ever told a knock-knock joke has what it takes to act.

Getting Started

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The morning of June 17, 2019 I met with my creative interns, Dani Carney, Ragan Price, and Peter Grant, and Wayne Chapman collaborator from 2018 at Hope Rises.  We discussed our “why,” i.e., what has caused us to join the project, and our “how,” i.e., the basic logistics of the schedule and a general idea of the process.

In the afternoon the students and I planned the second part of our project–Research. We needed to identify national Theatre Arts programs in prisons.  The students took on the task of researching programs for the next day and we adjourned.

The following morning, June 18, was like a party. The students found terrific organizations with programs in theatre.  We crafted an email to send to each program director requesting an interview via Skype.  It seems the generous folks responded immediately agreeing to  interviews.  We began managing the schedule of interviews and developing questions for the interviews.

We drove to Little Rock from Conway that evening.  Kim R met us along with Natasha, a former student who works at Hope Rises (so proud), and Abby who is the social worker. Everyone was so excited and of course a little nervous. The Ladies were finishing supper and getting home from work, and they were so welcoming and generous with their time. We introduced ourselves and told them a little about our “why.”

The Ladies were open and eager to share. I am always overwhelmed by their willingness to tell their stories. They are excellent communicators–clear and confident and frank. Kim encouraged them to discuss anything. She, as always, opened the door with extraordinary empathy and honesty.

There were lots of questions about the performance, where, when, what would it be, etc. Some of these questions are simple. Where: The Vault at Arkansas Rep (6th and Main). When: August 11, 2019 at 6:00 and 8:00. What: now it gets hard. The what depends on the Ladies. They will guide us. They will help us make the performance piece about them. It sounds so scary, so abstract. I know they felt vulnerable.  And then their courage turned on and they began to talk. It was wonderful

The following four weeks have been pretty incredible. Meeting Sunday afternoons, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, we have been able to interview them about their experiences in prison. We have talked about the First Day, Intake, Commissary, Family and Friends, and they have taught us about the Hoe Squad. I continue to be touched by their resilience and downright grit. Forward! Just like Superman. Amazing.

 

 

Meet the Students: Ragan

Meet The Students

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

-Maya Angelou

My name is Ragan and I’m an English: Film Studies major at Hendrix College. Although I am not focusing on Theatre or Social Justice in my academic pursuits, they are two subjects I am very passionate about and devote any amount of time to that I can. However, I also have a more personal reason for my involvement in the Hope Rises Theatre Project.

My mom struggled with addiction my entire childhood. When I was 12, she got arrested and charged with a felony. After she got out, she joined Narcotics Anonymous. Today, my mom is eight years clean and just got her Masters Degree in Social Work. She works in a Domestic Violence shelter, helping women who have had similar battles. It’s hard to put into words how proud I am of my mom and she inspires me to help disenfranchised groups, especially women.

I was talking with one of the women the other day, and she said to me, “To be in prison is to be dehumanized.” When you are treated as only a number, it’s hard to remember your value. It takes a lot of work to undo those feelings of helplessness and bring back a sense of identity, but it is possible through storytelling. The women at Hope Rises all have stories that need to not just be told, but heard. I am so grateful to be a part of something that will make that happen.

 

 

 

Meet the Students: Dani

Meet The Students

My name is Danielle Carney, but I go by Dani. I am a junior Theatre Arts major/Social Justice minor at Hendrix. My interest in the Hope Rises theatre project comes from a very personal and passionate place.

When I was in high school, there was a student that participated in our theatre program who, like many other students in our school, came from a very poor background and had a home life that was less than optimal. It was clear that the circumstances that he was born into and his environment put him at an immediate disadvantage. When he started doing theatre, he was a bit shy and unsure of the people and the practice, but enthusiastic nonetheless. Over the course of a single show, we watched him gain enough confidence to express himself both onstage and off. He was surrounded by people who cared about him and wanted him to succeed, and he was telling a story that he believed in, and that created something really special. He gained a sense of community that fostered social skills, creativity, and clarity. Seeing what participating in theatre did for this student made me think a lot. Theatre has impacted my life in so many ways. In the theatre, I have gained my own sense of confidence, met the most important people in my life, and found my true home. If it can do that for me, someone who has been raised with enough privilege to experience the arts in many ways that others have not, then what can theatre do for the people who would benefit the most from participating or seeing it?

When I think about the societal impact of theatre, I am reminded of a quote by the playwright Lynn Nottage about the role of the theatre artist in our culture right now. She says, “We are cultural watchdogs. We stand at attention observing and reacting. We excavate, we uncover, we interpret and unravel. We lyrically explore our relationship to our past and present. We look inward and then we look outward to find ways to better understand ourselves. We are protectors of tradition and shapers of new ones.” Nottage’s manifesto on theatre is something that resonates with me deeply. It is our role as theatre artists to pay attention to the stories that emerge from places like Hope Rises and other re-entry programs and prisons across the country so that we may start to answer questions and address issues about incarceration.

The Hope Rises Theatre Project encompasses and exercises exactly what I believe theatre is and should be: a method of storytelling that, at the end of the day, is changing the way people see and interact with the world around them. With this project, I hope to learn more about the powerful intersection of theatre arts and social justice. Each of the ladies that we are working with at Hope Rises has their own unique and important story. I am so excited to develop a performance peice that capitalizes on collaboration and champions honest storytelling to give these women the skills to empower themelves and to teach our community about the realities of incarceration.

Link to the full speech by Lynn Nottage here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zr0ih663SxQ&t=206s&fbclid=IwAR0voh-l1M_M0FX2lrZjxImpFPC_laDzrOg9oiV6DCInkzm_5BSoj6F-MJo

The What and Some of the Why

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The Hope Rises Theatre Project is a partnership between Hendrix Odyssey at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and Hope Rises, a reentry program in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Three students, a professor from Hendrix College, and a theatre director from Little Rock will join the residents of Hope Rises to develop a performance piece over the summer. The group meets three times a week, during which time material from interviews and group discussion are collected for the purposes of the piece. The group develops movement during this time as well.

The motto of the project is: In order to change the story, we must change the storytellers.

The mission of the project is to give the women of Hope Rises the opportunity to share their experience through performance in order to gain a sense of purpose, to develop self-esteem and courage, and to raise the consciousness of the audience in the hope that the community will understand the experience of incarceration with empathy and with the understanding that incarcerated people deserve a chance to re-enter the world as whole people.

We will provide blogs that share the process and the moments of discovery experienced through working.

The project is funded through the Cynthia Cook Sandefur Odyssey Professorship held by Ann Muse. The students will receive Odyssey credit in the area of Service to the World.  Wayne Chapman is an artistic collaborator and has worked with Muse on a similar project with Hope Rises. Students are Danielle Carney, Peter Grant, and Ragan Price, all juniors at Hendrix College.