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.