Archive | June, 2017

The Impact of Social Justice Theatre in Rio: A post by Brittani Chew

20 Jun

Although I grew up in a multi ethnic household, it was not until high school when I started to critically understand the effects culture and identity can have on individuals and their interactions between and within communities. For me, it was specifically invisible communities that caught my attention because of the complicated history often associated with society’s choices. I think it’s easier to ignore problems that cause fear than to find the root problem, and in a time where fear is seemingly more prevalent, I felt the need to get more proximate, more empathetic, more proactive in being an ally which ultimately lead to applying to this study abroad program. Fast forward 3 months later when I found out I got accepted into the program I was both nervous, anxious, and excited. How does one ethically enter into a community that in many ways does not belong to one and have positive substantial impact?

Brittani at the Escadaria

Katelyn Torres, Brittani Chew, and Nia Willis at the Escadaria Selaron.

My name is Brittani Chew, and I decided to join Prison Arts Creative Program (PCAP) because I wanted a better understanding of the community within the prison. This past semester I facilitated a theatre workshop with Christa at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional facility, which is also the only adult women’s facility in the state of Michigan. It is one the most transformative things that I took part in and possibly my favorite thing I’ve done so far.

It is the last week in Rio, and I still find myself looking forward to theatre classes.“Breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Move your arms up as if you are a tree,” Professor Carmela Soares. Many of these classes, despite the chaos, are structured with exercises that contain purpose and meaning behind them. For example, similar to facilitating prison workshops, it’s important to start with name games and get to know everyone in a group before moving onto other exercises. After sliding and ducking through legs, speaking gibberish, and touching multiple body parts of people I met 50 mins ago, I found myself near a water station in record time.

Public transportation is how most of the UniRio students get around the area and how the U of M students got around these past few weeks. Buses magically avoid collision when they zoom past each other, and traffic laws seem to be merely suggestions. On a rainy Wednesday, I visited the hospital and participated in Professor Miguel Vellinho’s program called Hospital como Universo Senico. As we were rehearsing our songs, a patient dressed in purple pants happened to drop by and started singing and dancing with us. She told us she is 80 years old and that she is happy to be around “youthful and happy energy and that before that she was just normal and then became very energized.” Our set list contained both Brazilian songs and American ones: Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” “Stand by Me” by Otis Redding, “South American Way” by Carmen Miranda, “Mas Que Nada” by Sergio Mendes. As a group we visited the pediatrics center, chemotherapy room, as well multiple patient waiting rooms.

In addition to singing, we were giving “happiness consultations.” It begins with the UniRio student, Diego playing on strings in order “to listen to the heartbeat.” It turns out the man getting the “happiness consultation” was there because of heart problems. As we pulled from a box and read aloud the advice, his wife clutched his hand and started to tear up.

Theatre and art for the Brazilians seems to be another way to speak their minds, and it seems to be one the ways they can openly criticize their government. In many ways though, it can be hard because one can find this work to be isolating because many people choose to ignore them. I’m still coming to terms of how I should move forward from this whole experience, and I think in the capacity that I can help and with theatre as a medium I have come to a satisfactory yet unsatisfactory conclusion. I can’t help but wonder as I move through life, how I want to shape my world and in doing so, hopefully others along the way.

Not Just Clowning Around: A post by Erich Eberhard

19 Jun

It’s impossible to be mad at a clown.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to shadow the clowns of Enfermaria Do Riso (rough translation “ward of laughter”). This group has been sending UNIRIO students to the local hospital for over twenty years to bring joy to a place that’s otherwise pretty bleak. Wednesday morning, our clowns were Baqueta (“drumstick”), a 6-foot-something junior at UNIRIO who’s costume was carefully curated to exaggerate his lanky limbs – short pants, long socks, and an oh-so-tiny vest – and Caprichosa (“Capricious”) an UNIRIO senior and clowning veteran who’s slight stature and colorful tutu made her a perfectly absurd compliment to her partner.

Erich's hat

Becoming the clown is no easy task. I sat in a backroom of the hospital as Baqueta and Caprichosa stripped out of their street clothes and powdered their faces. Baqueta, who spoke some English, told me a little bit about the art of clowning as he touched up his makeup – a look he has developed himself over the past year.

According to Baqueta, the job of the clown is not to make people laugh – but to interact honestly with the world around him. This is to say, Baqueta had no prepared jokes for the staff or wacky rubber chickens to throw at the children – contrary to the common image of a clown we have in the US. Rather, he and Caprichosa “play” – in the space of the hospital, and anyone with whom they cross paths. This often entails trying to solve a problem, and in doing so, creating a new problem which sparks a cycle of what looks like incredible incompetence, though, in reality, is a clever game requiring the clowns to think quickly on their feet. It’s quite difficult to explain without seeing, frankly. There’s logic to the world of the clown, his actions aren’t random, nor are they rehearsed. Through the right lens, his behavior is perfectly sensible – it’s the disconnect between our world and his that makes him so charmingly funny.

The conversation stopped when Baqueta and Caprichosa slipped on their bright red noses – our UNIRIO friends were gone, and the clowning began.

Wandering the different wings of the hospital, the clowns exercised an impressive amount of freedom – the likes of which you’d never see in a US hospital. We followed closely behind as they stumbled into private meetings between patients and staff, obstructed busy hallways while playing with a door, rummaged through cabinets of medical supplies to find syringes so they could spray a particularly combative child with water, and even sneak up to scare the director of the hospital during a board meeting moments after being told not to interrupt the meeting. There was no hesitation – ever. No second-guessing their actions. The clowns were so fully committed to their roles that every breach of privacy and personal space and professional etiquette felt completely natural. And, most impressively, not a single person was upset.

One of, if not the, best things in the world is seeing someone lose the battle against their laughter. A hospital is supposed to be serious place. People here are ill, families are frightened, doctors are professional and prestigious – an image that many probably find comforting when it comes to their healthcare. When we go to the hospital we conform to this rigidness. Maybe its because we’re tired, maybe it because we’re frightened. Maybe its because it’s what everyone else is doing.

And then come the clowns.

We don’t want to laugh – don’t want to let these obnoxious intruders win us over. After all, we’re tired and frightened and so is everyone else – who do these clowns think they are! Don’t they know a hospital is a serious place for serious business! Can’t they just leave us alone!

You start building up you wall to defend against their antics – you pretend to check the time or read a magazine. But then they find an opening, a crack in the brick, that little sweet spot that tickles you just right. Maybe its something they say or a face they make, but you can’t help but crack a smile (or if its really good, laugh through your nose). And just like that they’ve got you on their side, laughing at their absurdity. For a moment you’re no longer working through that tedious paperwork, for a moment you’re no longer worried about affording a treatment, for a moment you’re no longer a ten-year-old boy who’s spent 6 months in a hospital bed.

And then they go. Despite their best efforts, Baqueta and Caprichosa haven’t fixed a thing – just made it all a little easier.

How Brazil Changed My Thinking about PCAP: A post by Kaitlin Prakken

18 Jun

My name is Kaitlin Prakken. I graduated from the University of Michigan in April, where I studied Psychology and Organizational Studies. When I joined the University’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), I was surprised by how immediately I felt that I understood PCAP’s purpose and method. Though I have participated in other organizations on campus, I had never understood or agreed with both an organization’s principals and practices right away as I did with PCAP.

Pico da Tijuca

Katelyn Torres, Kaitlin Prakken (me!), and Ashley Hails at the summit of Pico da Tijuca (we hiked up here!).

PCAP’s director and my professor, Ashley Lucas, has told my classmates and me that PCAP believes that art is a human right. To carry out this purpose, PCAP trains U of M students and community volunteers to facilitate creative arts (creative writing, music, and theatre) workshops in prisons, youth facilities and community spaces in Southeast Michigan. I believed in the necessity of this objective right away because I had learned about the capacity of creative expression to support physical and emotional health in psychology and public health courses, and I had experienced this power firsthand while taking creative writing classes in college.

 I co-facilitated two workshops in two Michigan Department of Corrections facilities through PCAP this year. At the end of each workshop, I felt inspired by the capacity of PCAP to create connection among individuals with different identities and backgrounds. I wanted to come on this study abroad trip about theatre in Brazilian prisons and community spaces to see how programs like PCAP might create connections among communities in Brazil and between us Americans and the Brazilians we meet.

It is the third week that my classmates and I have been in Brazil. We’ve had the privilege of learning about how theatre supports community building in many places: prisons, hospitals, and community centers, from individuals in several different theatre programming organizations. We’ve had conversations with incredible people from these organizations, comparing and contrasting our experiences with community theatre. A conversation with Professor Ana Achar, the director of Enfermaria do Riso, which brings clowns to visit patients in hospitals in Rio, inspired me and caused me to re-frame how I think about PCAP. Ana said that the purpose of her organization is to highlight the health that exists in hospital patients, who are often defined by their lack of perfect health.

I realized that I had been conceptualizing PCAP’s purpose and work from a deficit-approach. I thought that the best description of PCAP’s purpose was that it seeks to provide incarcerated men, women and children with the tools needed to create art, a human right they do not have access to. However, the focus of this purpose is on what incarcerated people do not have. However, I realized that PCAP’s work is very similar to the work done by Ana’s organization. PCAP seeks to highlight the creative potential that still exists in incarcerated people, who live in a system that tries to convince them that no potential exists within them.  This new conceptualization stems from a place of abundance. Focusing on what prisoners do have seemed more respectful of the innate humanity that we at PCAP acknowledge in prisoners, rather than the things that they lack access to.

View from Big JC

View of Rio from the top of Cristo Redentor.

Changing my way of thinking about PCAP’s purpose has helped me to notice new things on this trip.  Although we already visited an infirmary where senior citizens gather to practice theatre last week, when I visited again this Wednesday, I kept noticing how the actions and movements of these old women seemed silly and youthful. Last week, I noticed how loving the women were, but I was anxious about their health. I worried that someone might fall or hurt themselves during an activity.

However, after re-conceptualizing how I think about our theatre work I paid attention to different things in this workshop this week, which shaped how I interacted with the women. Because I was thinking about how much energy women had this week, I didn’t hesitate to suggest games or activities that I might have been hesitant to suggest last week, when I was worrying about the women’s mobility and/or memory. Instead, if we ran into a problem, I figured that we would solve it creatively. I think that this mindset is important for me as a facilitator because it expands, rather than limits, the creativity and possibilities that exist in the group.

We also watched a play this Wednesday that was created in part by a man named Edson Sodré who lives in an “open prison,” which means he gets to attend classes at the local university during the day but returns to the prison each night. We got to hear him speak about his life and why he was involved in the production during a panel after the performance. Sodré explained that he joined a theatre group while he was incarcerated because the group met in a room that had access to a sewage pipe large enough climb through and escape the prison. His escape plan failed, but the man continued attending theatre class. He spoke about how the theatre classes helped him to find freedom in his mind, even while he was incarcerated. Perhaps the creativity that PCAP seeks to highlight in incarcerated people is also freedom, as Sodré stated. I think that acknowledging the freedom that still exists in prisoners could be a powerful thing if done in the right way.

I think that shifting from a deficit-approach of thinking about PCAP’s work will make me a better facilitator. I hope that this way of thinking about community arts is helpful to others doing this kind of work, and I’m grateful to Ana, Sodré, the beautiful students we have met, and everyone else I have met here for shaking up how I think about PCAP and what’s possible in our workshops.

Theatre in a Prison with Mothers and Babies: A post by Alex Bayer

17 Jun

My name is Alex Bayer, and I am entering my senior year at the University of Michigan. I am a psychology major and ultimately hope to be a therapist who works with youth. I’ve always had passion for the arts—I was a dancer for 15 years, participated in theatre throughout middle school and high school, and discovered how much I love creative writing during college. I heard about the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) during my freshman year of college and was instantly intrigued by the idea of bringing different art forms (creative writing, theatre, and fine arts) into a prison, where people are constantly denied of their humanity and self expression. Although I was intrigued, I was also slightly hesitant. I was well aware of the stigma attached to incarcerated people and didn’t know enough about the prison system to justify why I wanted to involve myself in this type of work. After taking a study abroad course in Copenhagen, Denmark, called the Psychology of Criminal Behavior and visiting various rehabilitation programs, my frustration with the prison system in the U.S. escalated. By my junior year at the university, I made the incredible decision to join PCAP.


Alex on the dock behind a restaurant where we ate in Florianópolis.

It’s safe to say that PCAP has changed my life. Compared to all other classes I have taken at U of M, I have never been surrounded by a group of such intelligent, open-minded yet skeptical, and passionate individuals. I facilitated a workshop at a youth facility in Detroit with Adelia and Kaitlin, who are now two of my closest friends. We went to Lincoln every Sunday at 5 PM and led a group of 10 boys in various theatre games. It didn’t take long for us to fall in love with these boys, and going into that facility soon became the highlight of my week. We continued our workshop into the summer, and only stopped because we were all going to Brazil, where we would have the opportunity to visit prisons and hospitals and exchange our knowledge and excitement for the work we do with Brazilian students who engage in similar work.

We are now in our third and final week of our experience in Brazil. Today I went into a prison with two students from UniRio (a university in Rio) and four students from the PCAP program. We went into a facility with mothers and babies, made for incarcerated women who are pregnant during their sentencing and can keep their babies for the first six months of their lives. After six months, these women are forced to find someone else to take care of their baby or hand that baby over to the government.

view from the mountain

Before arriving to Rio, I had never visited a women’s prison, only the juvenile facility I worked in during the winter. Going into the women’s facility was much different than what I had experienced in the past. I never went inside this facility; we played theatre games with the women right outside of their rooms on a deck. As we walked up to this deck, we passed a church built for the women in the prison. We then approached a group of women on the deck, and they were all holding their babies or gently rocking them in their strollers. At first, I was so distracted by the cuteness of the babies. The women welcomed us and seemed happy for us to play with their kids; many of them even handed us their babies to hold for a little bit. We began the workshop with a name game, but at this point, a lot of women left. Many of them were preoccupied with other tasks, such as breastfeeding or changing diapers. After the name game, we played a couple of games that involved dancing/singing/hugging, and we got much more comfortable with one another. During these games, we had a rotating group of about 3-4 women, depending on who could participate in each moment.

Following the games, one of the women suggested having a group discussion instead of playing more games—a suggestion I would have never heard when I worked in a facility with teenage boys. The woman began by asking Asma, one of our group members, about the hijab she was wearing. The woman was curious as to why Asma wanted to cover up her hair, and explained that Brazilian women are often very comfortable with displaying their bodies in more revealing clothing. Although Asma was put on the spot a little bit, she handled the pressure really well, and the woman was thankful for her willingness to answer the questions. The woman admitted that she has never really talked to anyone from the United States and does not see many people wearing a hijab, so she wanted to educate herself. These questions sparked openness among the whole group, and a lot more women came to the deck to join the discussion and ask more questions to all of us.

In class in Floripa

Our PCAP group in class with Prof. Vicente Concilio’s theatre students in Florianópolis.

The discussion was just like it would be with any group of women I met in Brazil—our group shared experiences with these women, and they did the same in return. It felt natural, and I quickly forgot I was in a prison. At the end of the discussion, we hugged and kissed the women goodbye. It wasn’t until exiting the prison that I was reminded of where I was. Right in front of the prison, a police car was parked with a giant rifle sticking out of the window. My heart immediately sank. I knew that it was used for intimidation and that I wasn’t in any personal danger, but it reminded me of the intimidation tactics that are constantly used against the women I just talked to for the past two hours. I was reminded of the fact that these women aren’t free; the fact that these women will have to say goodbye to their babies soon; the fact that one mistake a person makes could lead to being incarcerated and put in inhumane conditions.

Thinking about these facts cause a lot of frustration, but I then remind myself of the people I am surrounded by and become hopeful again. Such strong, resilient people who also recognize the problems with the prison system surround me. Of all aspects of this trip, the people are why I am most grateful—not just the PCAP group, but everyone I have met on this journey. I am beyond grateful for the various professors and students from Brazil who not only include us in their work but also welcome us with wide arms and make us feel at home. The Brazilian students who speak English continuously translate for us during conferences and classes. All of the students we met have taken a huge interest in us, asking us questions about our lives, showing us around, and teaching us about their culture. Although I knew I would have an amazing experience with the entire PCAP group and our fearless, nurturing leader Ashley, I had no idea how much I would connect with the Brazilian students here. I am looking forward to the rest of my week in Brazil and will always carry the love I have received from all of the people here.

The City Behind Bars: A post by Renisha Bishop

16 Jun

Why are the darker skinned people and indigenous people treated the worst in every country? Why are the rumors, stereotypes, misconceptions so standard across the board for these people? They are poor. They are dangerous. They are uneducated. They are criminals. WHY? Is it that the people in control are afraid of their potential? Their strength? Afraid that they would actually be smarter, more creative, intuitive, in fact more powerful? So powerful that they would actually be on the top and not the bottom.

It really saddens me to think about the mistreatment, discrimination, abuse that people face globally. For some reason, I only believed that racism existed in the United States but I was so wrong. My friends here in Brazil quickly dispelled this myth for me. I thought I wouldn’t have much in common with them, but we share much more in common than I ever imagined.

Renisha mural

Prior to coming to Rio de Janeiro, I was told that it was very dangerous, that I shouldn’t walk around by myself. I really feared for my life. I was paranoid for the first couple of days. I thought there would be people just waiting to rob me for the little I had. Once I got adjusted and saw more of the city, it seemed just like any other major city in the US. Rio really reminds me of Los Angeles for some reason.

I’ve been to two different prisons here in Rio; both are facilities for women, but one had a wing for women with infants. During our workshop with the mothers, I was able to hold a two-month-old for almost the entire workshop. It was a different experience, being inside of a jail with babies. Babies are a source of innocence and pure joy, but the reality of their futures is dark and unfathomable. The women are able to keep their babies for up to two years legally, but since the facility is over-crowded, they are only able to keep them until they turn six months. Then the babies go with their mother’s family or are given to foster homes. Most of the women don’t have any family to raise their children until they’re out of prison, so the babies are given to the foster homes. It’s a hard process for women to give their babies away. I felt the pain of uncertainty while being inside of the prison with them. It was such a stark contrast. The happiness and innocence of the babies but the heaviness of the women. I was glad that we were there to take their minds off of their realities for a brief moment with theater games. But it’s always sad leaving workshops knowing that once we leave it’s back to reality for them.

The other women’s prison I went to was very different than the first. As soon as we got there, it was a small room near the gate with a small opening where the sun could barely peak through. These two women came to the small hole to speak to us. I was very disturbed that two women were in that small room, and we were told to not speak to them. Once we got into the prison, the other incarcerated women warmly welcomed us affectionately with hugs and kisses. We all sat through my professor’s performance about families who had loved ones incarcerated. We were all deeply moved by the various monologues in Spanish, English, and Portuguese. I left the prisons and returned to a chic neighborhood that had bars around the houses and apartments. It’s a crazy dichotomy. Everyone is behind bars for various reasons. Who are the real criminals here?

Renisha Bishop is a recent graduate of The University of Michigan. 

Racial oppression in Brazil: A post by Ashley Hails

15 Jun

Hi my name is Ashley. I am a rising senior at the University of Michigan, studying International Studies and Sociology. I wanted to go on the GCC Brazil study abroad experience with Ashley Lucas for three reasons. First, I have always wanted to go abroad. I think it is important for me to get out of my comfort zone and to learn first-hand about another country’s culture. Secondly, this study abroad trip aligned with both of my majors. As an International Studies major, it gave me an opportunity to learn about a country within my region of focus, Latin America. As a Sociology major, this trip helped me learn about the power that art mediums, such as theatre, can have on creating social change in prisons universally. Lastly, I was very interested in the concept of this class. Prior to taking Ashley Lucas’ class during the winter semester, I only knew about the prison system based on its portrayal through the media. After our weekly readings, discussions, and having the ability to co-facilitate weekly theatre workshops in a prison, my views on prisoners and the prison system completely changed. This abroad experience gives me an opportunity to continue to learn about the relationship between theatre and prison systems in other countries. Now that I know about the impact of theatre in the United States, I wanted to continue to learn about it in Brazil.

We have done a lot during this trip ranging from theatre classes with students from the University of Rio to facilitating theatre workshops in a Brazilian prison. However, on June 9, we were able to do something a little different from our usual theatre activities. Myself and a few members of the group were able to go on a tour of downtown Rio. It was a great opportunity to see a part of Rio that I have yet to see. Downtown was very busy with a lot of people. There were many shops and vendors that reminded me of a scene from a movie. There were also beautiful landmarks throughout downtown Rio that was remodeled for the 2016 Olympics. We were also able to stop by an art museum where we stood on the top floor and had an a breathtaking view of the ocean.

The last stop of our tour was the Instituto de Pesquisa e Memória Pretos Novos. This is a museum that was built under a cemetery where African slaves were buried. Inside of the museum there were many African artifacts and students researching about the history of African slaves. The museum even showed us a graphic video detailing the slave trade from Africa to Brazil. As a black woman, it was hard for me to watch and process the tragedies that transpired not only in the United States but in Brazil as well. Before leaving the museum, we were able to see an archaeologist at work. In the museum, there is an area where archaeologists can dig to find bones of slaves. We were able to see an archaeologist recover a fully body of a slave woman. It was painful to see the physical body of a slave. I left the museum feeling sad and frustrated. It is still hard to process the mistreatment and the continue mistreatment of people of color worldwide. Unfortunately, violence against black bodies did not end with slavery but it continues with the criminal justice system.

Ashley H mural

I chose this picture because I think it represents the strength that black people have despite being silenced and all the harm they endured.

People of color have been targeted for centuries. From slavery to police brutality, people of color are continuously being harmed by the system that is supposed to protect them. The prisons in the United States is disproportionately filled with people of color. Unfortunately, it is the same in Brazil. I believe going to this museum reconfirmed to me that the issues that is not only affecting the United States but it is a worldwide phenomenon.

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done within the prison system. Coming to Brazil and seeing racial problems similar to the United States makes me want to be hopeless that change will ever happen. While I want to give up, I know that I can start to create change by continuing my work with programs such as PCAP. It is remarkable the work that PCAP and UniRio’s program, Teatro na Prisão, do to find ways to create an expressive outlet for prisoners. While I know I cannot solve all the problems with the prison system overnight, I know that I can start somewhere.

The Excluded People: A post by Asma Ali

14 Jun

Growing up  in the common American discourse of prison walls, my understanding and notion of prisoners is often the common negative stereotype of the hyper-masculine aggressive male. This stereotype allowed me to exclude them from society, and to rationalize their oppression. It was not until my senior year at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor that I first entered the prison walls. I mainly did this through an organization called PCAP- Prison Creative Arts Project. PCAP seeks to bring a diverse group of students, from different courses of study, inside prison walls to do theater workshops/games with the men, women and children locked inside the walls. It was through my work with PCAP at Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, that I learned that the men incarcerated were not this imaginary villain I had in my mind and that they do in fact share common notions of love, respect, and family, that the general population holds dear. I also was stunned at how receptive the men were to theater games. They themselves said that theater games allow them to express themselves in a way that they would be unable to outside the prison walls. Theater games also allow them to put their guard down and provides an avenue for emotional relief. This is particularly why I was interested in going to Brazil. I wanted to see how those oppressed and prison walls are in a different country and if theater is an effective tool in a different land.


Asma in the Tijuca Rainforest

Perhaps the most eye opening moment in my trip to Brazil thus far has been going to the Favelas. A favela is similar to the American notion of “ghetto” but more extremely cut off from the rest of the city. The streets have no addresses, the homes have no numbers, there is no public sanitation system, amongst a wide array of other problems. The favelas are walled off from from the rest of the city, with no city bus or taxi entering it. Those who live in the favela are not counted in the Brazilian census, it is as if they do not exist. They were also the site of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us.” Everything I’ve heard, from the news to the guy sitting next to me on the airplane to Brazil, have told me about the dangers of favelas and that to go in there is basically me “asking for trouble or to get hurt.” I recall thinking on the bus ride that if I get hurt I’m blaming Ashley on my death bed.

Katelyn at waterfall

Katelyn Torres at a waterfall.

When we entered, I was utterly shocked at how well favelados (people who live in favelas) built a community without any governmental help. They had their own shops, their own radio show, they managed to provide themselves with their own clean water supply, the children are taught more than one language at school, amongst a large array of qualities. This is by no means to say that they are happy and thriving, but rather from my observation- they managed to do the most with what little they have. Rather than feel scared, I felt a sense of community. Even when I went to the fruit market, the men would offer me free fruit and refused to take my money.


Our group eating traditional Brazilian churrasco.

The group of adults I worked with in the favelas were the most adorable group I encountered in the longest time. They each gave the tightest and longest hugs and would proceed to compliment me and Erich ( the other facilitator from UMICH). I was shocked to see how shy many of the participants were (which is very different than other Brazilians I have met). I was not sure if it was our presence and the notion of wealthy Americans – poor favelados, that made them shy or if it was another factor. Interestingly, by the end of it they were all dancing and singing.


Desserts at the churrasco restaurant.

What I assumed was going to be a less-than favorable day turned out to be my favorite day of the trip. I caught myself realizing that the same stereotypes I had of the incarcerated men, I placed on favelados. Essentially what PCAP and this Brazilian trip taught me was that we are all connected in our desire for humanity and compassion, and that is regardless of our situation or location.


This cat lives at the Mango Tree Hostel where we are staying. His name is Branco, which means White in Portuguese, and Asma has fallen in love with him. She feeds him all day long.


Bonding with people in Brazil: A post by Nia Willis

13 Jun
My name is Nia Willis, I’m a junior at the University of Michigan. I became involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) this past semester because several of my friends had volunteered and attended the Brazil exchange program. They told me about how it was a life changing and eye opening experience, and highly encouraged me to become involved. In this past semester I took Ashley Lucas’ class on Theater and Incarceration, and volunteered at a men’s correctional facility in Michigan.
Nia & the Big JC
When coming to Brazil, I planned on doing theater activities with those in prisons and favelas. I never expected to make such a strong connection with some of the locals. During our time at Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina (UDESC) in Florianópolis (Floripa), there was this amazing student named Ale who showed us the city and made sure we had a good time, along with other students who always greeted us with huge smiles, hugs and kisses. After long days of conferences and workshops, it was refreshing to be around their positive energy and grow closer to them. In one week I made friends with people that I know I will stay connected with for years. I feel that when I return to Brazil one day, I have a place to stay and people I would be eager to visit.
In talking to people from both Floripa and Rio, I find it amazing how similar some of our experiences have been. During lunch one day at UDESC a student was talking about how difficult it is to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community: people using microagressions and families not being accepting of their gay or bisexual members. One of the gay bars in Floripa was threatened, which scared many frequent visitors from going back to the bar. This reminded me of the attack on the gay bar in Florida in 2016, and many of my friends’ experiences with not being accepted for their sexuality.
Favelas are parts of Rio that are not recognized by the city which means garbage trucks don’t come to pick up trash. There are no addresses or street names, and all electricity and running water is pirated from the city, rather than being offered by the city as a public servce. When we visited the favelas, I was working with a group ranging from 12 to 15 years old. Towards the end of the workshop we did an exercise where we split into five groups, and each group had to make a skit about discrimination. In the skit we all had to act and move like dolls. One skit showed how when selecting a doll many children desire the white Barbie that is skinny with long, blonde hair. I was so intrigued because I didn’t know longing for the blonde Barbie was an occurrence internationally. As a Black female I can relate to having a lack of representation of dolls and having a difficult time finding a doll that looks like me. I was saddened that young girls have to face race issues worldwide but was happy that kids in this workshop have a space to dialogue and learn how to navigate these issues.
Throughout this program, I have been amazed with the high level of interaction and deep connections I have made with students and workshop participants in both Floripa and Rio. I thought with a language barrier and difference of culture I would only be able to interact through theater games while here for a short time, but my bonds have been much more meaningful than I expected. Even with thousands of miles in between us, varying languages, and dissimilar cultures, it’s astounding to me the ability we have to form close relationships and how alike people are worldwide.

Our first week in Rio, including a visit to a men’s prison: A post by Katelyn Torres

12 Jun

My name is Katelyn Torres. I graduated from the University of Michigan in May, and it is safe to say that the Prison Creative Arts Project courses were some of the best courses I’ve taken throughout my college career. Art has always been a significant part of my life, and whether it was dancing, making music, or painting with acrylics, it has always been my greatest passion. The courses I took at the university also resulted in the cultivation of a new passion; social justice. When I discovered PCAP classes, I realized that they were a mixture of the two, which could not have been more perfect for me. In the course this year, I had the privilege of facilitating a theatre workshop at Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, with my classmates, Justine, Kevin and Erich. We had a large group of talented, incredibly creative men with whom we truly fell in love. While I was initially nervous to walk into a men’s prison, the room in which we held our workshop each week came to feel like one of the safest spaces in my life. We had so much fun, and the men were so appreciative of the work that we all do through PCAP. I love this work so much. And it just so happens that visiting Rio de Janeiro has always been at the top of my bucket list. I am so grateful for the opportunity to do work that I love in a place to which I’ve always wanted to travel. And what an incredible experience it has been so far.

ocean view

The people that we have interacted with thus far have been so beautiful in so many ways. I’ve noticed that in Brazil, people just seem to care less about how other people choose to dress, act and live their lives. Perhaps it’s different in other parts of the country, or even within other populations in Rio, but in the areas we’ve been exploring this seems to be the consensus. The women are natural. The sun and humidity serve as the makeup that illuminates their faces. Some shave, some don’t. Some wear bras, some don’t. Anything goes when it comes to clothing. And everyone is accepted and loved. I’m finding myself feeling so much better and more comfortable in my own skin- wearing less to no makeup, leaving my hair in its natural state and wearing whatever clothing I feel like wearing.
I’ve never been hugged and kissed more within a two week time span than I have since my arrival in Brazil. I love this aspect of Brazilian culture. It so starkly contrasts the somewhat distant, “Hi, nice to meet you,” (followed my a firm handshake) greeting one would receive in the U.S. Neither is wrong, but the Brazilians’ lack of value placement on personal space makes me feel much more loved and welcome in new spaces.
Brazilians also seem to have a different concept of time and timeliness. If something starts at 8 am, perhaps it will really start at 8:17, or later. They are not incredibly uptight about being on time (to the minute) like we are in the United States. It’s not a rat race. I feel my anxiety levels depleting in this country. It’s a very liberating and stress free atmosphere.
Our first week in Rio was a crazy one, saturated with different classes and workshops and events. We went into Brazilian prisons for the first time, which was an experience that I will not soon forget. My group (4 people) was assigned to the men’s prison, Evaristo de Moraes. This facility used to be a bus terminal but was transformed into a prison. We took the bus to UniRio, met two of the student facilitators and from there, took another bus to the facility. Upon pulling up to the area, the differences between this prison and the one in which I held my workshop in Jackson, Michigan, were immediately apparent. A group of about 40 individuals sat outside beneath a roof waiting either for visits or to drop off items for their loved ones inside. Of the 40 people, all but three were women.
As is anticipated when attempting to enter any prison, we ran into some difficulties getting in. The guard working at our entrance insisted that he did not have the proper authorization and documentation to let the Americans in, even though this had been organized well in advance. So, we returned to our small bus in the dirt parking lot and sat in the back waiting for things to be sorted out. It was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and we were in our “prison attire” which always consisted of conservative clothing (often long sleeves and long pants) and closed toe shoes. Leaning my head against the window, I kept the van door open in hopes of ventilating the space with some sort of breeze. This breeze never came. But something else did begin to circulate in the van. I started to hear the soft hum of feminine voices flowing together and looked over to see the group of waiting women forming a circle, holding hands. One woman was speaking to the others. She told them about how necessary it was to pray for their loved ones that were inside of the prison- how much they need their prayer and how much they need God right now. All of the women began to sing a song. I’m not sure what song it was, and I couldn’t understand much of it. But they sang it so beautifully and so passionately that it gave me chills. I could feel the pain and suffering that they’ve endured as a result of their loved one’s predicament; a pain and suffering that is not always acknowledged the way it should be.
The inside of the prison shocked me a bit. It was very dirty. The floors were made of dirt. The walls and the cell bars were riddled with stains and rust. Guards walked around fully padded and armed with intimidating firearms. The men were not in uniforms like those that I was used to seeing in the Jackson prison. They wore flip flops and shorts and t shirts and, to me, sometimes were not distinguishable from those inside who were not incarcerated. The prison was not surrounded by barbed wire, and my group and I spoke about how it looked like it would be much easier to escape from this prison than from those we’d seen in Michigan. We soon came to the realization that while it may seem this way, that is not the case. We learned that guards in Rio prisons use their guns very liberally and will shoot on the spot without much forethought. Or afterthought.
The things we’ve done this week have been diverse, yet they all relate to one another. For example, another of this week’s most prominent experiences occurred on Friday. While half of the group went to see Ashley perform her play in a women’s prison, the other half of us went to take a tour of downtown Rio de Janeiro. It was a bright, sunny day, and we walked around the city looking at old buildings and landmarks. The tour concluded with a visit to a small museum filled with ancient African artifacts. We were taken into a room which looked like it was some sort of construction, and we were led into a connecting room in which a documentary was shown to us. This documentary reflected on slavery in Brazil. The video was difficult to watch, yet incredibly important. I was shocked to discover that slavery was not abolished in Brazil for 30 years after it was in the United States. African American and Afro-Brazilian history have a great deal to do with the way our prisons systems are today, so this was supplementary to our prison work in Brazil. As the documentary continued, it began to discuss slave cemeteries and how the bodies of slaves were handled. It was then that I realized we were sitting on a Brazilian slave cemetery. Exiting the documentary room, still in a daze from the film, we entered the room that appeared to be under construction. It wasn’t. Peering over the edge of a large hole in the ground, I saw an archaeologist with a small brush in one hand and a petite sand shovel in the other. She was kneeling on the dirt, gently brushing an object that I couldn’t quite make out at first. Suddenly , I realized what it was, and this realization hit me hard.
art of woman's face
The archaeologist was brushing away dirt from the skeleton of a woman, a former slave, who had been buried there. The skeleton was still somewhat submerged in the dirt, but the entire body was clearly there and intact. As she gently grazed the woman’s teeth with her brush, a wave of emotion jolted through my body. I’ve watched videos and read books that told me about the horrors of slavery and about the inhumane ways slaves were treated even after death, but it had never felt as real as it did that day.
So far, our trip to Brazil has been filled to the brim with exciting new experiences, many of them life-changing. We’ve met new and incredible people who’ve taught us so much about their culture. We’ve gone on new adventures and tried new foods. And we’ve created bonds and memories that will last a lifetime. I’m so excited to see what the next week holds.
Katelyn on beach

Prison Arts and Education Conference at UDESC: A post from Julia Timko

12 Jun

Hello folks! My name is Julia Timko, I have been a student of Ashley’s and a PCAPer for the past three years. When I transferred to the University of Michigan in 2014 and enrolled in Theatre and Incarceration it somehow slipped my mind that we would actually be going into the prison, but after my first week at Women’s Huron Valley, I was in love with everyone in my workshop. Working with PCAP has changed my life in so many ways and I am so grateful to have had the experience. I recently graduated with a degree in theatre, and although I will no longer be at U of M, I hope to continue the work wherever I end up. This starts with Brazil.

While in Florianópolis, our group attended the first “Seminario International de Arte e Educação Prisional” at the Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina. We, the Americans, were the international element. Everything was conducted in Portuguese, with our fearless leaders Ashley and Silvina (and some lovely English-speaking UDESC students) translating as best they could along the way. As a person who is often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of social injustice in the world, it was so moving and inspiring to be in a room full of people who cared deeply about folks who are incarcerated and have identified that the arts are a way to help them. It reminded me that even though these problems are numerous, there are also so many people in this world working towards justice.

On the first day of the conference, (after singing both the Brazilian national anthem and the anthem for the state of Santa Catarina) we listened to different presentations about prisons in Brazil and the kinds of work being done in them. The conference provided handy little pads to keep notes, and I used mine to get down some of the quotes/ideas that really stuck with me. The first of these is the idea the prison is the last frontier of education. As the daughter of an educator, education is something that’s on my mind a lot – what the purpose of education is and how we make the system better for those who come from marginalized backgrounds. People in prison generally tend to be forgotten in the overall discussion about education in the USA, and I feel that it’s important that they be factored in.

Later on in the day, one of the speakers discussed the fact that prisoners in Brazil have been conscripted to work on restoration projects such as fixing up old buildings. The people who are made to do this work develop skills that they could easily take with them once they are released, but even when they do have skills it’s difficult for them to get hired. Similarly, some incarcerated folks are taught to bind and repair books but are not taught to read them. These issues that were brought up, with specific reference to people incarcerated in Brazil, are also issues that are faced by people who exit prison in the US.

Another similarity worth mentioning (but briefly, as I wasn’t able to get the full translation) was the fact that false research about who is more pre-disposed to go to prison continues to affect darker skinned Brazilians. This is something that we have been talking about with our UniRio friends as well.

While it was challenging to listen to an academic conference in Portuguese, overall I was very grateful to have been included in the conversation and to have learned more about Brazil and the way that the system functions. If anything it has made me more determined to continue the work.


Apropos of nothing written in this blog post, I’d like to share this picture of a monkey that was spotted on an adventure to the Botanical Gardens in Rio. Just after this picture was taken, we watched him eat a banana out of a toddler’s hand.

Forming bonds with children through theatre work in the U.S. and Brazil: A post by Roland Gainer

9 Jun

Hi! My name is Roland Gainer. I am from New York City. I am a senior here at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Last semester I had the opportunity of volunteering for PCAP at Lincoln-Caulmet juvenile facility in Detroit. I had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop with Renisha, Yara, and Hannah. They were the best workshop partners I could’ve ever asked for. The young men in the facility were such intelligent, silly, respectful and inquisitive people. They were always excited to see us and always participated with such joy and high energy.

PCAP in the sand

One of my favorite moments in the workshop was when we were all playing hangman. I learned so many new words that day. We all got pretty competitive and the Michigan students lost the majority of the games of hangman. I really appreciate the lesson that they taught us. They taught me that there is a reason for every person’s experience and that fundamentally we all are great people and should not be judged by the decisions we’ve made in the past. One of the purposes of life is to learn and grow from each experience that you go through. I really pray that I will be able to see and interact with the young men in the workshop again.

I wanted to come on this trip for multiple reasons. One reason is that I have a goal of transforming the minds of people all over the world to love those around them and make the world a better place and to believe in themselves and one another. Traveling with PCAP gives me an opportunity to have a positive effect on those around me and gets me closer to my overall goal in life. Another reason is that I am culturally inexperienced. I want to understand and immerse myself in different cultures and learn from them. No longer do I want to walk around ignorant not knowing anything but the small and shallow culture that exists in America.

My experience here has been unbelievably great. I’ve grown really close to a large number of people in such a short amount of time. When we attended the social justice theatre festival at UDESC, we spent the day moving from one theatre workshop to another with a group of children who are part of a theatre program in a rural part of the state of Santa Catarina. The children who were attending the theatre festival in Florianópolis were the greatest group of children ever! They all had so many ideas and perspectives and was not afraid to express them. What really got me was when the children started crying on our last day when they realized that we would be leaving Florianópolis. The children made my heart melt. I would not have traded experiencing them for anything else in the world. We formed such strong attachments, and I love them so much.

Roland with kids from theatre festival

Roland with children who participated in the theatre festival at UDESC.

I really enjoyed the workshops that we did at the theatre festival. One workshop that we did was called “See, Judge, Act.” The kids who took the workshop with us decided to improvise a scene of bullying because the friend of one of the boys in the workshop was getting bullied at school, and this boy wanted to know how he could help his friend. The performance was very powerful and created by the children. I played the kid being bullied, and Erich, another Michigan student on our trip, played the bully. The kids decided to play supporting roles where they stopped me from getting bullied because they didn’t want to be bullied nor did they want bully anyone else. They are so creative and caring. It’s beautiful.

Reflections on a panel at the UDESC Prison Arts and Education Conference: A post by an anonymous student guest blogger

7 Jun
Group at Lagoa
In an institution where every aspect of humanity, identity, and individuality is stripped from you as a prisoner, those aspects become harder to maintain. Prisoners both in Brazil and the United States can use their imagination to create visual arts, music, theater and more to oppose such a system. While we were in a conference lecture in Florianópolis, Professor Natália Fiche talked about the importance of theater and acting within the prison. She and many others discussed how this ability to express oneself and one’s imagination is liberating in a place where you have no liberation. There are similarities but also stark differences between Brazilian prisons and U.S. prisons. In Brazil, prisoners are allowed to critique the system. They can speak or create art about their oppression, the corruption of the government, or even a revolution. However, once they critique a specific guard or figure of authority to their face, that is when their lives become threatened. Guards will not put up with disrespect to their name, but they’ll allow it when it addresses someone else. But this “freedom of speech” within Brazilian prisons comes with a cost. The lives and bodies of Brazilian prisoners are disposable in the eyes of the authority. Guards in Brazil are armed to the teeth and will not hesitate to use it. U.S. prisons are the opposite. In most prisons guards are not as heavily armed, and prisoners cannot criticize anything systemic without being punished for it. It’s interesting because as similar as prisons can be or seem, the differences are deeper than we see from outside their walls.
Houses on edge of water
Additionally, Natália said something that caught my attention. She was talking about her students who went into the program and did workshops in prisons. She said something along the lines of “My students go into these prisons as boys and girls but come out as men and women.” I found this line in particular to be quite profound and relevant to all prison related work in general. There is a process of maturation that occurs when one enters these prisons. You see things that you didn’t believe existed behind prison walls. You learn that society is lied to about human rights protections for such populations. And I feel like what Natalia said was a perfect way to summarize this.
Florianópolis was amazing. The people welcomed us with open arms and smiles on their faces. The theatre students and lectures kept the audience entertained but never lost track of the purpose of this whole conference. I’m extremely humbled to have met some of the people I did on Florianópolis. I look forward to more experiences like this in Rio.

UDESC Prison Arts and Education International Conference: A post by Christa Shelmon

5 Jun

Olá! My name is Christa Shelmon, and I just graduated from Michigan with a Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology (woot!). This past semester was my first semester being involved with PCAP, and I wish I hadn’t waited until the last semester of my senior year to join.

I facilitated a theater workshop every Saturday morning from 8:30-10:30 am with Brittani Chew at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV) in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Waking up that early on a Saturday was not ideal. However, we had an awesome time every week. Our experience was unique in the sense that we concluded our semester with only woman in our workshop—a PCAP first!

I was really interested in coming on this trip, especially after finding out that theater and arts programming was actually a thing in prisons, and the fact that we could do such a thing in a totally different country struck gold for me. I have been learning so much already during this first week in Florianópolis, particularly at the first annual Seminário International de Arte e Educaçao Prisional, hosted by the Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina (UDESC). This two-day conference featured guest speakers from all across Brazil who spoke about the challenging, yet rewarding work they do in prisons, as well as a concluding presentation by our very own Ashley who explained what PCAP is and what us students do in our weekly workshops. The conference was not catered to us—it was entirely in Portuguese. So, you can imagine how difficult it was for us to follow along. But, with the help of our Brazilian friends, Ashley, and Silvina (the graduate assistant for this trip), we were able to receive translations along the way in order to be present and attentive throughout the conference.

UDESC conf group pic

Michigan students pose with the panelists.

The second day of the conference particular was meaningful to me, for it highlighted many challenges and triumphs that I experienced with the workshop I was a part of this past semester. Day two of the conference consisted of various presentations on the work that was being done in prisons across Brazil. Most, if not all, of the presenters worked in women’s prisons, as I did, so I was that much more curious to listen to the type of workshops and classes they facilitate or teach. Carinie, one of the presenters, had a very interesting presentation that stood out to Brittani and me. Her first experience almost paralleled our workshop at WHV, and we immediately began making connections and comparisons. Initially, Carinie was a student who just wanted to make art and do theater, and did not think too deeply into the prison institution itself. She reflected on how she did not realize the effects of the prison institution until after two years of facilitating workshops. I found this to be relevant for me as well, and it is very hard to know how things are going to go each time you visit the prison. Some days are better than others—it’s so situational. This has been frustrating for many of us at PCAP.

Later, Carinie talked about how at times she found it hard to connect with the women, especially as a twenty-one year old college student who didn’t have as much life experience as some of the women she worked with. She also discussed how many women were experiencing depression, which obviously hindered them from participating in the workshop at their best ability, or how the prison staff failed to communicate to the women about her absence, leaving her in a tangled web of angry women and careless workers.

Finally, Carinie mentioned how the women opted out of a final performance at the end of the semester, and instead vied for sharing out their experiences with others instead of putting on a show. Listening to Carinie’s story allowed us to reflect on things we could have done differently in workshop. Brittani and I were so inspired, that we went to speak with her one-on-one during the break, just to get some feedback and let her know how similar our situations were. Carinie could understand English, but could not speak it very well, and therefore Silvina helped translate during our conversation. She was very insightful and appreciative of us going up to her and sharing out our feelings. After talking with her for a few minutes, she revealed that she, too, finished her semester with one woman in her workshop. This was heartwarming, and made that moment even more special. She left us with some really good advice of focusing on the work and not the grade—it is important to always consider the needs of our workshop group. She also reminded us that persistence is key, and although we may not be able to see the impact we had on the group, do not let that deter you. “Just one, that’s all it takes to make a difference!”

After the other five presentations, the presenters formed a panel for a question and answer discussion. The final question asked what inspired or motivated each individual to continue doing the work that they do, despite the trials and challenges they face daily. The entire panel gave beautiful answers, closing out the forum portion of the conference. It was an amazing opportunity to hear from individuals who are striving to be the change they want to see in the world, and served as motivation to never give up, despite how tough it may be to crack the system.

UDESC conf Q&A

Question and answer time after the panel.

Welcome to the PCAP Brazil Exchange for 2017: A blog post about theatre class at UDESC by Adelia Davis

4 Jun

Dear Readers,

It’s that time of year again! University of Michigan students have traveled with me to Brazil for a three-week prison theatre exchange program. You will now start seeing posts from the students about our journey. Enjoy!


UDESC:PCAP students in class

UDESC and PCAP students together in Prof. Vicente Concilio’s class on May 29, 2017.

Hi, my name is Adelia Davis. I just graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelors of Science in Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience on the pre-med track. I have had the privilege of participating in Prison Creative Arts Program (PCAP) this past Winter semester for the first time, which gave me the opportunity to facilitate a theater workshop with teenage boys in the Spectrum Juvenile Justice Calumet Center in Highland Park, Michigan. That experience of working together to create a space where the boys and my co-facilitators and I could be creative and joyful in a space that is typically bleak and painful truly touches my life. I think about the idea of humanity with a broader point of view recognizing that we are all deserving of it. The Theater and Incarceration course as well as the facilitation experience has challenged me to not define people by the worst thing they have ever done whether they are strangers or have hurt me personally. My desire to learn from people who society has disregarded by denying them their humanity also led me to apply to study abroad in Brazil for three weeks over the summer with the professor leading the theater and incarceration work.

The Brazil program includes visiting two cities: Florianópolis (Floripa for short) and Rio de Janeiro. We will be meeting students and professors doing similar work to PCAP in both cities. One of the first experiences we have had in Floripa was visiting a theater class at UDESC – Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina. As we entered the theater portion of the UDESC campus we heard a roaring chant: “MI-CHI-GAN, MI-CHI-GAN, MI-CHI-GAN!” The students greeted us with a kiss on the cheek and big hugs. The were so warm to their new friends from the U.S. before we were even able to become friends. The rest of the day followed with as much energy and love. The two-hour class consisted of sharing theater games with each other. My group taught games we played in our workshops in Michigan, like “DOWN,” where we ask each other to show us a new dance move and “Whoosh,” where “energy” is sent around a circle with many different twists to get people interacting and excited. Similarly, they should us games with passing energy around a circle (Zip, Zap, Doing) and a game to get more comfortable with each other through a name game (saying the name of the person to your right or left in the circle but the direction and speed changes). The biggest thing I took away from the class we shared is how grateful I am to have met people from across the world who treated me and my classmates like old friends. Since the class, the students of UDESC have gone out of their way to show us a good time, especially one student in particular who I love so dearly. I will miss them when we leave for Rio, but I will always cherish all that they have shared. This time in Floripa has shown me how it doesn’t matter how much people have when it comes to showing love. Many of the students here have never left the island where Floripa is located but have found joy in hearing our stories from across the world. I hope I have given them as much inspiration and hope as they have given me. Thank you, UDESC, for having us and loving us.


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