My name is Elena and this trip will be my last experience as a student at the University of Michigan. Although I graduated this past May, I am thankful to still be able to participate in this program. I have facilitated workshops through PCAP with incarcerated men, women, and teenagers since September of last year. I chose to come to Brazil in order to continue this work while immersed in a completely different culture.
Prior to coming to Brazil, my experience was limited to prisons and youth facilities, where there were strict rules and restrictions on the content that we can work with in our workshops. Here in Rio de Janeiro, I have expanded my experience to include theater workshops in hospitals and favelas as well. One such experience was particularly memorable for me.
It happened earlier this week, when we paid a visit to Teatro Renascer, which is a group of elders at a nearby hospital who participate in an action-packed workshop every week, led by Carmela, a professor at UniRio. The participants were lively and very welcoming, and I hardly even noticed the language barrier amidst all the hugs and smiles. The workshop started with a Portuguese song and dance, followed by a name game which involved participants inventing creative ways to say their names and teaching it to others. The highlight of my day was when, in the middle of my presentation of my name, everyone in the group started chanting it with me and dancing in a circle, concluding the activity. Most of the activities were very physical in nature, often involving collaboration among small groups of participants. We created depictions of bicycles, peeing dogs, various modes of transportation, many different kinds of animals, and one battleship that required everyone’s participation. I quickly found myself literally bouncing up and down with a level of energy I hadn’t felt in a very long time. The final activity was a very intense rendition of a song about the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire, in relation to our bodies. We stood in a circle, singing fiercely with furled eyebrows and stomping feet, while each one of us took turns performing a dance in the middle of the circle. You haven’t seen an elderly lady bust a move like I have.
I left the place with delicious snacks in my belly, a broad grin on my face, and a surplus of euphoric invigoration that lasted all day long. It was to this date the most uplifting and energizing workshop I have ever had the pleasure of participating in.
When I later reflected on the experience, I came to the realization that we could have done many of these activities in a Brazilian prison (which are relatively lenient when it comes to content), and some even in a US prison, especially if we modified them to avoid touching one another. And yet, I couldn’t imagine having this level of fun if I did the same workshop in a prison. Why? Because the unfortunate reality is that there is no amount of energy or vigor that could ever make me forget the fact that we are always being watched, that some people don’t want me there, or that some people don’t believe that prisoners even deserve to have fun in the first place. I’ve had workshops in prisons where we laughed a lot and had a fantastic time, but that has always been in spite of, not instead of, the constant awareness of the rules we have to follow, and the knowledge that the people I am working with are not given the same respect and autonomy that I enjoy. It wasn’t until my experience with Teatro Renascer that I truly understood how much of a difference it makes just knowing in the back of my mind that the participants and I are treated with the same level of respect by society and that no one in the facility looks down on what we do. It made me reflect on how much extra work it takes in prison to achieve just a fraction of the result I would achieve elsewhere. For this reason, this experience highlighted for me the importance of doing theater in prisons. Because there’s not enough of it, because it takes a lot of work, and because everyone deserves it equally.
Thanks for reading,