Greetings, razor wire women of the world!
This week the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) held its annual conference in downtown Chicago at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel, and the buzz about Razor Wire Women rippled through the conference. I am overwhelmed by the amount of enthusiasm and support for this book and blog which were expressed to me over the course of the four days I spent at the conference. Though our publisher, SUNY Press, does not attend this conference, I heard reports that ATHE attendees were asking publishers at the book exhibit where they could buy our book. SUNY provided us with a stack of flyers providing a discounted purchase price on our book for ATHE participants, and demand for the flyers was so high that I ran out of them days before the conference ended. The Women and Theater Program (WTP), which is a focus group within ATHE, helped to promote the book by sponsoring both a roundtable discussion of Razor Wire Women and a panel on documentary theatre, which discussed several plays, including Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass. (One monologue from the play appears in Razor Wire Women.)
Theatre scholar Sara Warner of Cornell University joined me on the roundtable discussion about Razor Wire Women and spoke about her research on the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women. Sara’s chapter of RWW is one of several articles she has written about the extraordinary performance work done by director Rhodessa Jones and a mixed company of professional theatre makers and women detained at the San Francisco County Jail. Sara has published several articles about the Medea Project’s work, and her most recent one appears in the final section of Razor Wire Women. As it turns out, at least one woman in the audience of our panel that day, Lisa Biggs, has worked with the Medea Project in years past. A heartfelt discussion ensued as the women who had gathered to engaged with the roundtable asked questions and shared their experiences of witnessing or participating in theatre in carceral settings.
Domnica Radulescu, a professor at Washington and Lee University, had heard about my theatre work in prisons at the 2007 WTP conference and since that time had tried unsuccessfully to gain access to a Virginia prison so that she could start a theatre workshop with prisoners. She asked for advice about how to convince prison administrators to let her into a prison to do theatre. Those of us in the room who had done this type of work before came up with a few tips that I thought might be useful to those of you reading this blog who have similar goals:
- Locate volunteers who are already working in the prison and get them to introduce you to the prison staff and administrators. These volunteers might be doing faith-based ministry work, tutoring, or some other kind of work within the prison. Their purpose in the prison does not necessarily need to align with yours, but these folks can help you get your foot in the door and earn the trust of those who run the prison.
- Pitch your idea for a project or workshop in the prison as something that would benefit all people who live and work within the prison. Theatre and other art forms help people build life skills, such as public speaking, literacy, and teamwork. Your primary objective in wanting to do arts work in prison may not be about giving this skill set, but helping prison administrators understand the benefits of theatre will enable them to see your ideas as positive contributions to a very difficult workplace.
- Keep in mind that prisons are complex environments with many security and scheduling concerns. Be adaptable and work with those who run the prison to make sure that what you are doing does not inconvenience them any more than is necessary.
- Follow all prison rules, even if you personally object to them. Sometimes rules exist for legitimate reasons you do not understand. Even if the rules are truly arbitrary and unfair, you must remember that your ability to work with prisoners is completely dependent on your ability to gain access to them. As a volunteer, you have no control over how the prison is run, and when you enter a prison as a volunteer, you do so only because those who are in control have given you permission to be there. If you do not respect their rules, you will not be allowed to return, and the prisoners who meet with you could suffer consequences for your behavior. Any breech of the rules could also cause administrators to shut down other programs for prisoners besides the one with which you are involved.
- Remember that prison guards and administrators are people, too. This may seem like ridiculous advice, but it needs to be said. Activists and prisoners’ family members may have very negative feelings about prison guards and administrators because of their personal experiences with them, but as in any profession, some people who work in the prison behave badly, while others display profound empathy and kindness. If you walk into a prison assuming that all guards and administrators are the enemy, you will likely not last long at that prison, nor will whatever program you have come there to start. People who work in prisons have incredibly difficult jobs, and some of those people genuinely want to help maintain prisoners’ personal safety during their incarceration and encourage them to live better lives upon their release from prison. Prison workers who have this mindset can be an incredible asset to your program and can do a great deal to provide you and the prisoners with access to space, time inside the prison, and resources.
Immediately following the panel on Razor Wire Women, I had the good fortune to be on a panel about documentary theatre, which was organized by Jules Odendahl-James, who does really amazing scholarship on forensic media. Jules, Magda Romanska and Joan Lipkin each gave really remarkable presentations about various documentary plays, and I performed a couple of monologues from my one-woman show , Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass. After which, Nina Billone Prieur presented a paper about how her students at Duke University responded to my play after seeing me perform it on their campus. Nina was particularly fascinated by the fact that my play, which depicts a variety of characters who have loved ones in prison, unsettled quite a few of their students. Though the play makes no ostensible arguments about the guilt or innocence of people in prison, some of the Duke students felt that to have sympathy with prisoners’ families meant that they had to somehow relinquish their beliefs that people in prison deserve their incarceration. Nina provided a very cogent analysis of the ways in which the students’ overall affinity for me as a performer or a narrator of these experiences and as a prisoner’s child myself seemed to some to disrupt their abilities to perceive prisoners as purely “bad,” despite the fact that I at no time play the role of a prisoner during the show. This was the first time that I’ve ever heard a scholar speak about my work as a playwright and a performer, and I am humbled to have created the site for Nina’s very perceptive analysis.
Many thanks to the scholars and theatre makers at ATHE and the good women of the WTP! Jodie and I are very grateful of your support for Razor Wire Women and for your own efforts to engage with incarcerated people. This week the two of us are headed to Las Vegas for two conferences: the Society for the Study of Social Problems and the American Sociological Association. We hope to see some of you there!