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.


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