Spending Quality Time in a Stigmatized Community Changes Your Perception of It, a post by Isabel Sandweiss

5 Jun

Hi everyone! My name is Isabel Sandweiss and I recently graduated from U of M with a double major in Psychology and Creative Writing and a minor in Criminal Justice. I have been involved with PCAP since the beginning of my sophomore year and have since facilitated two workshops (creative writing and theatre) at a men’s correctional facility in Jackson as well as the Sisters Within Theatre Troupe at the only women’s prison in Michigan. The Sisters Within is a special PCAP workshop because it is actually the first workshop PCAP ever had—before the organization was even formed enough to have the name PCAP— and has been running continuously since it’s creation in 1990. All other PCAP workshops run on a semester-by-semester basis, with participants and often facilitators changing in each rotation. While these workshops are of course still incredibly meaningful and productive, it means that a lot of hard goodbyes must be said quite often, after the group has just gotten the chance to really find their flow and feel like a community. With the Sisters, I have had the blessing and the honor to be with a consistent group of incredible women for the last two years. Since the women’s facility is the only one in Michigan, each Sister comes from a distinct walk of life and the age of our group ranges from an 18-year-old to a couple of women in their late thirties and forties. Some of the Sisters have less than a year left in their sentence; other Sisters were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives within the walls of the prison. Because of our unique opportunity to run continuously, and much more because of the brave, loving, resilient, and talented group of women that comprise the group, we create a space of comfort every Monday night in the prison auditorium.

I came to Brazil to see and experience how theatre serves as a vehicle for this type of space-creation and community within other non-traditional contexts. This weekend, we had the privilege of joining Teatro em Comunidades, a program from the Universidade Federal do Estado de Rio de Janeiro that facilitates theatre workshops in the Maré favela, at their workshops in three different neighborhoods within two favelas. Before I came to Brazil, my concept of what a favela really is was blurry at best and was shaped by connotations with violence, poverty, unsanitary conditions, and struggle. During our time here, I’ve learned that favelas are areas outside of the city which we as folks from the U.S. are prone to relate to slums. However, favelas are different than slums because they are not actually recognized by any level of government in Brazil and therefore are not given any social services such as mail service, garbage pick up, or even addresses. People who live in favelas are greatly stigmatized by the general public in Brazil, to such a point that people feel have to hide where they are from or else they will be barred from educational and job opportunities. I learned these important realities about favelas throughout the course of the trip but the most important lesson on favelas came from actually going to one and interacting with members of the community. The most important lesson was one I have gained countless times during my experience with PCAP: that whatever nonsense you’ve heard about a stigmatized (and thus often fetishized) community like the incarcerated population or the people that live in favelas will be totally broken down just by spending some quality time with the individuals and their humanity. The ability to make art is a human phenomenon; it hits right at the core of all of us, and thus a theatre workshop is a profoundly valuable and beautiful space to get to get to know and grow a community.


Our intergenerational workshop group

What struck me most about the workshop I participated in in Ramos (one of the three neighborhoods) is that same sense of familiarity and fierce loyalty and love between the participants, which I know so well from the Sisters. I and four other students from my program joined into the workshop of about 20 people, which took place in a classroom at the community health clinic. While the other Teatro em Comunidades workshops work primarily with youth, this workshop is multi-generational with participants that range from the four rambunctious 6- or something-year-old boys to the three equally vivacious women who are in their late 80s. There were a couple teenage girls, a 14-year-old boy, and that boy’s mom. The love and comfort among the participants was genuinely palpable. In the ways they played off of one another during improv, joked with one another during the breaks, and hugged each other both on and off stage, it was clear that this is a group of people that know and love one another. It is also clear, from talking with the participants in the little Portuñol (a mix of Spanish and Portuguese) that I can muster, that they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to know and love each other if it weren’t for this workshop.

It was so special to see how the facilitators tailored the group to the diverse needs and abilities of the participants. We did a mixture of directly theatre-based games and energy-building/ simply fun exercises, each with the physical capabilities of all participants in mind. We did a few games that involved a lot of standing and movement, and then a few in which we were sitting down so that the older women could rest. It seemed to me that the main goal of the workshop was a simple but powerful one: just to have fun. Throughout the entire workshop facilitators pulled up YouTube videos of popular Brazilian music (particularly baile funk) to play in the background while we did our games, which kept the space really light and energized.

One huge difference from PCAP workshops is that here we were allowed to touch one another, which we did in essentially ever game we played. It shouldn’t be overlooked what a privilege this is; every time I go to hug one of the Sisters after a particularly intense, or hilarious, scene and then quickly have to stop myself, it is a hard reminder of the limitations and de-humanizing tendencies of prison. And so, during the closing exercise at the workshop this weekend I got a little teary-eyed by how full my heart felt being able to participate in such open and unrestrained love. The final exercise consisted of the whole group standing in a circle and holding hands. Then one by one we “passed” a kiss around the circle by lifting our hand, linked with the person next to us, and kissing the back of the other person’s hand while looking at the person directly in their eyes. A comfortable silence fell over the group as we did this, all of us watching the exchange of tenderness and friendship between the two people who currently had the kiss. The mother kissed her hand linked with her son’s, and he pretended to be annoyed that he was next to her but then gave her a playful, pure smile. One of the older women sent the other elder woman beside her an exaggerated, loud kiss. And when the exercise was over, and it was really time for the workshop to end, each and every one of us gave each and every other one of us a long, warm, hug.

One Response to “Spending Quality Time in a Stigmatized Community Changes Your Perception of It, a post by Isabel Sandweiss”


  1. Mais uma visita de amigos da Universidade de Michigan – Programa Teatro em Comunidades - June 12, 2018

    […] Spending Quality Time in a Stigmatized Community Changes Your Perception of It, a post by Isabel Sa… […]

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