Archive | June, 2016

“Not Clowning Around” by Anonymous Guest Blogger

17 Jun

Today I had left the hostel early to catch the metro out of General Osorio at 8 in the morning for Alfonso Pena where I was supposed to be meeting Giselle, one of the trained practitioners of UniRio’s Enfemeiro do Riso program. I arrived fifteen minutes before scheduled and paced the area, looking in the platform waiting areas, at the ticketing stations and even at the bus stops on either side of the street above ground to see if she was there waiting. After traversing the entire area and discovering that she hadn’t yet arrived I positioned myself at the exit turnstiles, the best spot for high visibility so she could find me easily. I’m a first year graduate student at the university, but I have been involved in PCAP for the past three years. This is my third trip to Rio, and each of the previous trips I had made my case to be a part of this program, and each of the previous years when the selections were made to participate in this program I was left out. But this year my lot was finally drawn.

clown 1

After my minder had arrived, I followed her to the Hospital where she and her partner went into the hospital to put on their masks. The clowns never work alone which is a credo of PCAP that we always work in pairs. August and White, they are called, one providing energy and context for the other to build on and the other disrupting the hierarchy of the system with their clowning. Watching the two get ready is something special. They clap into the space between them taking turns until they’ve built up a rhythm, then one touches the other’s shoulder, then the forehead, then the hip, then the floor, then me! Before I know it, they break apart, and Capricia (Giselle’s clown) is off and pacing around the room asking me what time is it? What time is it? Oh my god, we’re late, are we late? What should we do? What should we do? And she and her partner have fully embraced their alter egos.

clown 2

Some people might find this sort of ritual strange or funny, maybe unnecessary, but for me this was magnificent. I often have to go through a transformation of my own to do my workshops with the Prison Creative Arts Project. Most people who know me know that before I get in front of an audience I have to shake my arms, my elbows, by wrists and fingertips to get ready. It helps me overcome the anxiety and paranoia that I feel when people are looking at me. But the moment is important because to do this work we have to shed certain vulnerabilities and embrace a deeper part of ourselves that can interact with our participants in every way.

clown 3

The structure is meant to communicate rules in a hospital from the top down, from the administrators, to the doctors, to the nurses, to the patients, and their family. The clowns don’t care. The clowns go up to everyone in the hospital and treat them all with the same silly and idiotic personality.

In the main corridor the clowns shake hands with little children and then forgets to let go. After a minute of shaking hands she can’t let go and asks some of the patients to help pry them apart, and they aren’t able to separate the two. Capricia’s partner flags down a doctor who is walking down the hallway with orders on his clipboard and asks him to help. When he joins in and they all try to blow their breath as hard as they can to separate the two, it still doesn’t work. The clowns will call anyone who is around to help: the nurses, the janitors, the security personnel behind the entry desks. Some will join, and some will continue on their way with indifferent looks. But everyone who engages and blows their breath on the two clasped hands has performed some kind of magic when the clown goes flying down the hallway, tumbling over herself, saying, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” the people she bumps into in the hallway. And we are all better for it.

clown 4

I’m not sure that I believe creating art in these spaces changes the outcome of the patients, or has a grander effect on the way society will treat someone who is sick, or someone who is labeled a prisoner. But I do believe in life, and when Giselle and her partner put on their masks and became clowns and barrel through the hospital putting smiles on the faces of crying children, easing the stress of worrying mothers who only want their sick babies to get better, inspiring a doctor to make a balloon for his infant patient out of a surgical glove, it reinforces my will to do this work. To seek life among the living, regardless of what they have been labeled.

Guest blogger Layla on theatre in the Hospital da Lagoa

16 Jun


Before I came on this trip, the volunteer experience I had was at local soup kitchens, restoring schools, and organizing fundraisers and galas. I had little to no experience working directly with the communities I was helping, and at the end of all of my volunteer shifts, I gladly removed my apron, uniform, or name tag, and already began to dread the next shift or event. As a volunteer, I felt that my work went unnoticed, and did little to help the community I was serving. I worked behind the scenes and had no communication with those in need. I haven’t felt this way at any moment these last two weeks, whether I was at the men’s prison, elderly center, or hospital, I walked out with a smile that my face could barely contain. My favorite volunteering experience was definitely the day that I spent at the Federal Hospital with Professor Miguel’s theatre class.

            Our day started in an empty lobby in the hospital, where the UniRio students taught us some of the songs they were going to be performing that day, which included, “La Bamba,” “Twist & Shout,” and “Stand By Me.” We soon made our way into our first performance area, a waiting room near the main entrance. To this group we sang English songs, I doubt that anyone in the audience understood what we were saying, but they were still affected by our presence. Some people started to record us, and one woman even burst into tears. When I saw that woman crying, it took everything in me not to cry too. I didn’t want her to think that I pity her because that wasn’t the case. I wanted to cry because I couldn’t believe how strong of an impact I can have on people just by doing something that I do everyday, singing and dancing. This happened multiple times throughout that morning in the hospital.  As we made our way through various rooms and waiting rooms of the hospital, I encountered similar situations. I witnessed the most tears shed in the chemotherapy unit. At first, some of the patients didn’t seem too happy to see us. Then two of the women began sobbing, it broke my heart to continue singing. I wasn’t sure if our presence was helping them or hurting them until those sobs turned into cries of joy. One woman made a phone call while we were performing and I overheard her telling someone that students from the United States were singing to her. We were also giving the opportunity to see the students put on an exquisite play that involved props, costume changes, and singing and dancing, all while being confined to a space of about 8 square feet. The level of professionalism displayed by these students was extremely impressive. That day made me realize that there are so many ways to help other people aside from donating money or food. Sometimes the most valuable kinds of donations are just spending time with people who need it, people who may feel alone or unimportant in the world. I only wish I had the opportunity to do such work earlier in my collegiate career, and not in the final semester. However, I know that it’s never too late to help people, which is why when I get back to Michigan, I plan on searching for similar theatre groups to join, or even start one of my own if need be!


Guest blogger Katie Brown on theatre in the Rio prison for mothers and babies

15 Jun

mountains in Rio

Hola! My name is Katie Brown and I’m honored to be representing Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project here in Brazil! Over the past semester I helped facilitate an improv workshop with two wonderful co-facilitators at Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, with a group of incredible and dedicated men. I am so thankful for the opportunity to take this theater work overseas, and have experienced far more than I could have imagined!

On our first day here in Rio we woke up early to meet the other student facilitators and professors at Uni Rio. From there we all split into groups to visit two men’s prisons, a women’s prison, and a prison for mothers and their babies. I went to the prison for mothers and babies, UMI, with two other members of PCAP and two facilitators from UniRio who made a huge effort to include us in their work.

It was challenging to compare this experience to my experiences with prison work in the U.S.; I have never been to a women’s facility before, and facilities specializing with women and their babies do not exist in the U.S. There, babies are taken from their mothers immediately after birth, which, as one could imagine, would be an incredibly painful separation. So it was great to see this facility in action, with a really caring, happy, and smiling staff. This prison, which houses about eighteen mothers at a time, didn’t really seem like a prison at all. It had a nice garden, a view of the mountains, an outdoor area for the mothers to play with their babies, a colorful nursery, an infirmary, two large bedrooms for the mothers and babies, and a kitchen where the mothers could prepare food (the only prison in Brazil where they allow for prisoners to prepare their own food). The staff emphasized that this facility is meant to be a place not focused on the crimes of the prisoners but rather dedicated to nurturing their newborns.

UMI is such an asset to these mothers, but the hard parts come before and after the child is 0-6 months of age. The staff there work to improve access to nutritional meals for pregnant women housed in other correctional facilities before they are transferred to UMI. We heard that it isn’t uncommon if the incarcerated pregnant women don’t eat for a whole day, and the food that they do get is pretty awful and low in nutrition. They are not given any medical care while they are expecting and are simply separated into a different part of the prison. We were glad to see some effort to change these circumstances, although many changes need to be made to create an accommodating environment for incarcerated pregnant women. More heartbreak comes after leaving UMI. Brazilian law states that mothers are allowed to be in a facility like UMI for two years after giving birth. However, this is the only facility that accommodates pregnant inmates for five Brazilian states. Because demand is so high, UMI can only hold women until the baby is six months old. They then make room for another mother and newborn. After six months, the mother’s family is assessed to be fit for caring for the child. If they are, they can take the baby. If not, the baby is put up for adoption and ties are cut from the mother. The process is arduous when a baby’s mother continues to be incarcerated and separated from their families.

The Uni Rio student facilitators we worked with go to UMI every Tuesday morning and create wonderful workshops where the women can be silly, sing, dance, and play games. One of the games we played involved blindfolding one mother at a time while everyone else sat in a circle with a baby in hand. Everyone switched seats while the blind folded mother had to go around and guess which baby was hers just by touch. This one got lots of laughs! They showed us lots of songs that they sing and during one song we held the babies arms and made them dance in our laps. We danced around, sang, chatted, laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company. Some of the mothers were happy to just pass off their babies to us to have a little break. I was happy to hold the little ones! We had lots of fun together and were able to communicate thanks to our wonderful translator, Silvina. I’m so grateful for the experience of joining the workshops here with Uni Rio. These women brought us in with open arms and we did our best to create a space for laughter and expression with them!

Shakespeare wall

Michigan and UniRio students outside the theatre building on UniRio’s campus

Guest blogger Zoe Gerstle on the Teatro em Comunidades program at UniRio

14 Jun


Hello readers! My name is Zoe Gerstle, and I am a rising sophomore in the Residential College at UMich. I took Ashley’s Theatre and Incarceration class last winter and co-facilitated a theatre workshop at the Washtenaw Youth Detention Center, playing and talking and laughing with a group of teenage girls every Thursday evening. Like many of my classmates, I was immediately drawn in to this “crazy idea of doing theatre in prison,” as Ashley likes to say. I quickly realized that part of being in the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) is that everyone, from friends to concerned adults to my workshop participants, all want to know why I do it. As Ashley pointed out on the first day of class, this is actually a really important question to figure out for oneself and to keep in mind in the day- to-day  work. I’ve come up with many answers and as I continue to learn and experience more, my answer for myself evolves. It’s exciting to be involved in work that continually surprises you with new reasons to love it. Our exchange with the lovely theatre profs and students at the University of Rio has continued and deepened my commitment to community arts, especially in prison.

Theatre students at UniRio have the option to participate in one of four theatre extension programs, including one called Teatro em Comunidades (Theatre in Communities), which runs workshops with community members from several favelas in Rio. Before coming to Rio, I had assumed that “favela” simply meant a slum in Brazil, or other Latin American countries, but I have since found out that this is not at all an accurate definition. I am still in the process of understanding all the details, but here are some that I have picked up from our hosts at the university. The favelas in Rio are huge neighborhoods scattered throughout the city in the less desirable locations (on mountain slopes, away from the ocean). They were created when the government decided that certain residential areas of the city would better be used for tourism or other industries, so they forcibly moved those residents to quickly-built housing in new areas, promising that the move would be temporary. Decades later, the residents of the favelas are still occupying the same cramped houses and neighborhoods. On top of this, the city government does not recognize the favelas as part of the city, so many public services are unavailable, including road names and signage, public transportation, mapping, mail, and many other services. Before this trip, I had never considered my ability to see a map of my neighborhood a privilege, but my eyes have been opened.

The students at UniRio go in pairs to several favelas once a week to facilitate theatre workshops. The workshops are very similar to those PCAP runs in the prisons in the US. During the first week in Rio, the Michigan students split up to observe workshops and the next week we got to return to that same workshop and help facilitate. It was really exciting to return to the workshop in Ramos with my friend, Kate, and as we smiled at familiar faces from the previous week, I was reminded of the sense of community that we had witnessed in the workshop the week before. The participants ranged in age from mid-20s to 80s and each person contributed something entirely unique to the room. Also, this week a woman brought her two little daughters and another brought her granddaughter. As Kate and I struggled to bridge the language barrier and explain our theatre games to the group, everyone was extremely patient with us and each other and it was clearly a group value that everyone understands and feels included. If someone made a mistake during a game, they were met with a smile and another patient explanation. We played game called Whoosh that I had played at home and despite its simplicity, we played for more than half an hour because we were having so much fun laughing at each other’s silliness. The amount of warmth and care everyone had for each other was almost palpable. I felt so grateful to not only witness, but to be invited to participate in this space.

At the end of our workshop, we had a little extra time so the two little girls started playing a hand clapping game. Kate and I watched and it turned out we knew the clapping rhythm but had different accompanying words. We asked the girls to teach us their words so we could play with them and before we knew it, almost everyone in the workshop was comparing hand clapping games from their childhood. We quickly discovered that we knew almost all the same clapping patterns and there was a shared sense of awe that our childhood games did not depend on the country, or even continent in which we grew up. I was reminded that one of the most powerful aspects of travel is to prove the commonness of the human experience. That despite traveling thousands of miles to see exotic landscapes and differing cultures, when human connections are made, it is the similarities and unity that shine through.

Guest blogger Anna Garcia on clowning, sightseeing, and theatre classes in Rio

13 Jun

folks at the steps

Hello sweet blog readers! I’m Anna Garcia, a rising senior at the University of Michigan! I’m majoring in Screen Arts and Cultures and feel very lucky for the opportunities U of M presents, especially access to dozens of fabulous organizations housed in Ann Arbor. One of those fabulous organizations has taken me across the hemisphere to Brazil, that org being PCAP (The Prison Creative Arts Project)! I began working with PCAP this winter where I facilitated theatre workshops at an adult men’s prison, Cooper Street Correctional Facility, and had an unforgettable time. I learned so much about the US incarceration system, made amazing friendships, and basically, had my whole world turned upside down. Being able to go inside a prison challenges all expectations that the media and society portray. 

So upon hearing about Brazil, I jumped at the opportunity to go. Not only was I eager to do more work in prisons, but loved the idea of taking classes, meeting new people, and experiencing theatre abroad. Plus, YOU GET TO GO BRAZIL. Does it get any better?

It really doesn’t. In order to give you a better picture of what this trip has been like, I’ll walk you through one our days here in Rio de Janeiro! Our most recent Friday, aka MAY 20th, 2016, we had another jam packed day. Our schedules are interesting here- plans change on a dime and we usually end up exhausted and fulfilled regardless of what we do. We started our May 20th as a big group in a CLOWN CLASS. I hope you’re as excited as I was. We learned about UniRio’s hospital clown program, where actors trained in clowning do work at the local hospital by facilitating workshops and visiting patients. I was in heaven. Clowning has always been a desire of mine to study, and this trip has presented me with several opportunities to play and study the worlds tiniest mask (aka what they call the red nose). We played many games and talked about the work in the program. I loved hearing about how it’s just as much work for the clowns as it is beneficial for the doctors and nurses they interact with.  Clowns need to be able to address problems, make something out of nothing and to be fully committed. Clowning ain’t no joke! 


Our class ended and we had a bit of free time until our next activity. Because we are crazy people and instead of resting or getting a sit-down meal, a large group of students, myself included, decided to take a quick walk down the street to Sugarloaf mountain! If you think it’s a mound of sweet bread, you have a lovely imagination but are sorely mistaken. It’s a large mountain overlooking the water that we cable car’d up to. The views were AMAZING. At one point we were inside a cloud. Pictures attached below!

Anna & Violet on Sugar Loaf

After sugarloafing it, we returned to UniRio to take another course for the day! I took a chance on a “mystery class”, meaning Ashley wasn’t sure what the subject was so people could blindly choose out of a few options what they wanted to go to. I, and several other students, ended up in a class with Paulo Merisio who teaches Pedagogy and Theatre Instruction. In this class, we were simply observers. We are incredibly fortunate to have lot of this trip catered to us as a group- we get to see shows, join classes, and visit places most people might never get access to. So the opportunity to be a fly on the wall was refreshing and relaxing. And, my feet needed a break. 

The class is for students who are studying to become theatre teachers, but it is still an activity/movement based class. We saw performances of students that created short, original, solo performances based on any artist they liked. We saw inspiration from Van Morrison, Shakespeare, Amy Winehouse, and many other Brazilian musicians and artists. The opportunity to sit and observe was humbling- as a group we don’t always have to be the center of attention to learn from our experiences. 

After the class, many students hung around the UniRio campus for their semi-annual semester party! Our timing couldn’t have been any better. We walked outside to see live music and tents being set up, dream catchers being woven, and students dancing on silks! We bounced around for a while, making new friends and talking with familiar faces we met that week. I was able to try the silk dancing which is basically a large piece of cloth hung from a tree. After several trial and error sessions, I successfully got on up there. Someone took a picture, but I cannot imagine that my heaving was graceful nor photogenic. In the end, we danced the night away until our feet hurt and were covered in dirt from samba’ing in the courtyard. It was a magical day. 

All in all, the day was filled with many fun activities. However, I can’t help but reflect on how the classes and theatre work has affected me. Even in the our UniRio classes, it’s easy to escape into what feels like playing, but in reality we are learning so much about communication, being flexible and understanding, and developing tools to help us prepare for a life filled with a social justice fire to change the world. The visits to prisons, favelas, and hospitals are humbling and grounding- theatre is no more than a way to equivocate people. We are able to eliminate any judgements and just play the damn games. I feel very lucky to have these experiences and look forward to the remaining week. Tchau!


Anna G. 

Guest blogger Tsukumo on music, theatre, and the arts in Brazil

12 Jun

Tsukumo & musician

Olá, gente! My name is Tsukumo, and I am a rising senior pursuing degrees in Music (Oboe) Performance and International Studies. I started my work with PCAP in September 2015 by taking Ashley’s “Atonement Project” course, and have facilitated theater workshops at adult men’s prison in Michigan for two semesters since then. I wanted to participate in the PCAP Brazil 2016 trip because, as a performing artist myself, I knew there were many things to be learned from various theatrical practices that transcend cultural differences — across borders that separate countries from countries, prison from free world, poor community from rich community, younger generations from older generations. Brazil is such a culturally vibrant country that I didn’t want to miss a chance to come here with the best bunch of people that I could imagine! Today, I am excited to share with you a little bit of my experience in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This trip has been very eye-opening for me, realizing that music and theater really go hand in hand. One night, after a panel on arts in prisons by four wonderful panelists including our own Ashley, we were able to listen to two incredible musicians from prison perform samba music. Their talent was discovered and brought out to the world partially because of their connection with the “theater in prison” program at UniRio, our partner university. The concert demonstrated the potential that programming in prisons have to really connect the inside and outside.

musicians on stage

I was so inspired by the music that I actually couldn’t dance like everyone else in the group. (Not to mention, I don’t dance really well…) Not only is it unimaginable that the Michigan prisons would let musicians from inside perform for public audience, but also it may be very difficult to unite the U. S. American audience under the same music. Rio is such a culturally vibrant city that people have the biggest appreciation for arts, and that passion is inspiring.

Because the current situation in Brazil definitely requires that passion for the arts. Brazil is going through a politically tumultuous time right now. Dilma Roussef, who was elected to be the president of Brazil by two million people, was impeached in early May (during our trip) and replaced by interim president Michel Temer. One of the first tasks he did in his new position was to dissolve the Ministry of Culture, meaning that a lot of cultural organizations have now lost governmental funding. Many artists are going out on streets, occupying public areas to demonstrate the importance of arts. It’s a very tough time to be an artist in Brazil, when the government simply cannot recognize the value of arts. We have seen a lot of performances on the streets and in theaters in response to many injustices, voicing the concerns of some of the biggest injustices I have seen yet.

This trip reminds me of my privilege to be able to share the art I love with many others. It is such a humbling experience to be asked to perform in new spaces, whether it be an improv session with one of the musicians here in Brazil or a tribute to famous Brazilian musician Tim Maia at a hospital. Also, I have significantly fewer hoops to go through to organize a performance myself, which is not a privilege that everyone has. What can I do with my art that lets me connect with others at the same intensity as the two musicians I saw? The theater groups that tell their stories from the bottom of their hearts? The artists occupying streets throughout Brazil?

My reflection will continue for the days, weeks, and years to come. I am very appreciative of this opportunity to be in Brazil for 3 weeks, and will miss this country so dearly. Saudades!

Guest blogger Caroline Baron on the UniRio program Teatro em Comunidades

11 Jun

My name’s Caroline Baron and I’m a recent graduate from the University of Michigan undergraduate policy program, where I studied gender and racial biases within criminal justice policy. I’ve been facilitating creative writing workshops in youth, adult male, and adult female correctional facilities for 3 years in Michigan with the Prison Creative Arts Project. As a student I’ve sought and helped cultivate communities that encourage thoughtful, committed, and engaged work — it’s become clear to me that my salient anxieties about graduating from college revolve around a desire to sustain these nourishing and supportive spaces. The various incredible organizations and participants we’ve encountered in Brazil are all imbued with a commitment to enabling these spaces, and they work to uphold each community’s accountability to serve all its inhabitants — where such communities might be severed, they work to connect and heal.

PCAP courses and curriculum historically include the work of Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal and their elaborations on “theater of the oppressed” — it was fortifying and exciting to continue our education from PCAP to the teatro em comunidades programs in Florianopolis and Rio de Janeiro and work with folks whose values and practices also stem from these two Brazilian authors and activists. Freire and Boal write about the importance of recognizing the humanity of all people through communal imaginative work. Where structural change can be necessary and far overdue, the philosophies at play in theater of the oppressed claim that everyone continues to have the capacity to live, love — Freire talks at length about the politics of love — and to create powerful art. Not only do we always have that capacity, but within communal art work, we can imagine and create a better world.

In Rio, we had the privilege of working with Marina Henriques Coutinho and take part in her Teatro em Comunidades program, which connects youth in favelas with UniRio theater students — some of whom grew up in the same favelas where they now work — for engaging and energetic theater workshops. In her forthcoming article, Marina writes about Freire’s insistence on imagining a better world, the ways that theater can enable such an process, and each community’s responsibility to provide spaces for reflection and growth to all of its members. She quotes author David Harvey writing that,

the right to the city…is much more than the right of individuals or social groups to       have access to the resources of the city. It is the right to change and re-invent the city from one’s aspirations and desires, which depends on collective action (Harvey 2012:4).

Twice, I and other U of M students accompanied UniRio students to their weekly theater workshop that they facilitate at the Centro das Artes in the Maré favela. Marina and Isabel, another woman who works at Centro das Artes, took us around the block to visit the building of the organization that funded the creation of the Centro; Redes is a nongovernmental organization that works to provide educational and arts programming, child and adult libraries, and college readiness projects to the community of Nova Hollanda, a smaller neighborhood in the Maré favela. During our visit to Redes, we learned that official city maps of Rio don’t include the street markings of favelas but list them instead as blank slots of land — people living in these sites end up undocumented on national and city-wide census, which in turn affects their access to public services like sewage maintenance or public safety; the lack of documentation prevents many inhabitants from having an authorized address to receive mail. In the temporal context of our visit to Rio, this lack of public attention stood in stark contrast to the city projects that work to prepare more visible parts of the city for the upcoming Olympic Games. Such a worldwide community event exposes where the city is willing to provide money — it highlights the divisions of worthiness that inform who the city is built to protect, and to whom the city owes nothing and virtually wipes out of existence.


This division resonates with the way the PCAP community often understands and talks about prisons in the U.S.; prisons and the process of incarceration sever communities and work to basically wipe a created class of people out of society. Our justice system frames crimes as individualized problems, rather than manifestations of community harm to which we are all, in some part, accountable for. We talk a lot about how U of M can be more accountable to serving its communities. U of M is an incredibly powerful public institution, and while it is funded in part by taxes from every city in Michigan, its wealth of resources rarely reach beyond students and faculty. Programs like PCAP actively work to distribute university resources and programming to those who exist outside the walls of the university, but remain intertwined with our lives and responsibilities.

I think Harvey and Marina highlight the way that severing communities diffuses the accountability we have towards each other, for taking responsibility for societal problems we’ve all contributed to creating. The collective action and imagining that everyone involved in Teatro em Comunidades commit to each week stakes claim on the “right to the city” that each person holds. While I’m navigating the world post-graduation, and even choosing the cities where I’ll live, I’m recognizing more about the ways I depend on my communities to help me grow, make me feel safe, challenge me and support me…and the commitment I make to support these spaces in turn.

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