Building Bridges through Theatre, a post by Elaine Chen

6 Jun
My name is El Chen and I am a Master of Social Work candidate at the University of Michigan. I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, where I took the Atonement Project, a course taught by my dearest professor Ashley Lucas,  during my sophomore year. Since then, I have been a member of Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). After my trip to Brazil, I’ll be joining PCAP’s staff team as the Exhibit Assistant and a member of the curator team. I hope to build a career where I get to build bridges across communities and create dialogues through the arts. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to do just that through PCAP, where I’ve facilitated theatre and music workshops and participated in art selection trips for the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners.
On June 2nd, I visited Professora Marina’s Teatro em comunidades workshops in the favelas. I and four students from Professor Lucas’s class participated in a theater workshop with kids from the age of 11 to 17. During our workshop, one of the warm-up activities required participants to form partnership in pairs and never break eye contact with their partner while moving around the room. If one person loses eye contact with their partner, the pair would act out a slow and dramatic death signifying the death of their connection. “The dead” are then free to roam around the room trying to break the bonds between remaining couples.
Even though I’ve been with PCAP for almost five years, witnessing what theater can do never gets old. Through this activity, I was able to connect and communicate with my partner without speaking a word. We laughed through the awkwardness of staring at each other for an abnormally long period of time. We somehow managed to co-create how and where we move, rotating in leading the movements constantly yet smoothly. We helped each other avoid crashing into fellow participants as we were relying on each other to see, with peripheral vision, what’s going on behind us as we move.
As the workshop continued, we experimented different ways of communication that brought the group closer despite language and cultural differences. I was amazed by how Professor Marina and the facilitators from UniRio extracted different aspects of theater – from sounds and gestures to interpersonal dynamics and ensemble-making – to create a collaborative and supportive group within two hours. Experiences like this are what fuel my passion for the arts, because I get to create and immerse in spaces where people are humanized and celebrated. I can’t wait to return to the workshop next Saturday and soak in every moment of our last week in Brazil.

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.

Teatro em Comunidades & Working with Children who Speak Another Language, a post by Azhar Aboubaker

4 Jun

My name is Azhar Aboubaker, and I am going into my fifth and final year of college. I am double majoring in International Studies with a sub-plan in International Security, Norms and Cooperation, and Sociology with a sub-plan in Law, Justice, and Social Change. I got involved with PCAP as soon as as I transferred to the University of Michigan in the Fall of 2016. I discovered PCAP through UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program) and chose it as the yearlong project I wished to be a part of. I worked under Vanessa Mayesky, the Associate Director, and my jobs included mail correspondence, social media management, and database archiving.

I signed up for Ashley’s class, the Atonement Project, the following year in which I co-facilitated a music and theatre workshop at Cotton Correctional Facility. It was my first time inside prison, and I was struck at the level of intellect, honesty, and kindness of the men in my group. It was bittersweet. I looked forward to every Thursday though I knew once our workshop ended we were barred from keeping any connections, which is oh so cruel. We may not have been experts in the arts, but by the end of it, we were all better communicators and human beings.

I then signed up for Theatre and Incarceration the following semester not knowing about the study abroad opportunity. Eventually it came to light and after the initial nervousness that comes with flying to a foreign country, I signed up. From watching plays back-to-back to inhaling every dinner plate within a mile radius of me, it has been a whirlwind of emotions and excitement.


Our workshop group included 30 kids from the neighborhood, two UniRio student facilitators, six Michigan folks, and Isabel, who is the coordinator from a local NGO called Redes da Maré.

This Saturday was our first theatre workshop with UniRio and also my first workshop with teenagers/kids. As soon as we walked in, their eyes lit up. We were vastly outnumbered, and I loved the fact that Portuguese was the dominant language in that group for what felt like the first time on this trip. (So many faculty and students at the universities we’ve visited have spoken English.) They split up all “the Michigans” amongst three workshops, so there were six of us in our Teatro em Comunidades (theatre in communities) workshop. We kicked things off with an intense dance routine in which the Michigans struggled to keep up with what felt like professional little Brazilian dancers. They loved watching us try to keep up. The sweet little girl in front of me turned frequently to offer two encouraging thumbs up. Although my muscle mass was low, my spirits were high.

Navigating the language barrier was fun because it involved a lot of body movements and very expressive eyes. I noticed that kids in particular have more vibrant facial expressions and interpreted the language barrier as more of a fun challenge rather than a frustrating one.


The UniRio student in the foreground of this picture was teaching us to dance. She was amazing, and we could not keep up. We were out-danced by a group of incredible children.

For our last activity, we were split into five groups with a Michigander in each one, and we were to improvise a little skit. We immediately got to work and, of course, Beyonce was their music choice (which I totally support). They assigned me to be the choreographer, and after a little translating by Ashley and Diego, I was told they wanted me to be Beyonce. I may have botched the performance a bit, but they appreciated my effort. I appreciated their desire to not only put me, but all the Michigans in the spotlight.

They were so happy to have us. I remember being nervous starting my workshop at Cotton. What if they thought I was a big headed girl who thought she knew everything about the system and was coming in with that white savior mentality, or in the case of Brazil, “voluntourism” mentality? That wasn’t the case with either. Those kind of toxic mentalities are rampant. I was expecting some kind of cynicism but that’s what communication is for. The guys in Cotton asked us of our intentions the first day, and we made it clear this is a workshop driven by mutual growth. We are not here to teach; we are here to listen, to learn, and to share. We genuinely care, as everyone in this world should. We all have a stake in mass incarceration. We all have a stake in systematic oppression. That doesn’t mean it is upon you alone to solve the world’s problems. Sometimes, it just means that a little fun goes a long way.

Theatre at Any Moment, a post by Myra Visser

3 Jun

My name is Myra Visser. I study biophysics, and I will be a senior at the University of Michigan in the fall. I joined the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) the fall of my sophomore year. Since then, I’ve volunteered with our literature review, The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, which publishes writing submitted by incarcerated men and women in Michigan; the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, which curates Michigan prisoner’s paintings, drawings, and 3D art into a two week exhibition; and lastly, I’ve facilitated theatre and visual arts workshops in facilities around Ann Arbor. I decided to visit Brazil with Ashley Lucas because I was interested in observing the ways in which our work at PCAP is similar and different from what our partners do here in Brazil.


Our workshop group: kids from the neighborhood, an UniRio student facilitator, and Michigan students.

This past Saturday, June 2nd, our class visited Professora Marina’s Teatro em comunidades workshops in the favelas. I was with a group of 13-17 year olds. We played many theatre games that were improv based and similar to charades. We also had a dance off. Here in Brazil, theatre is taken out of the traditional dimly lit auditorium and more widely used for applied purposes. For example, in teatro em comunidades, we use theatre as a means to engage everyone in inventing the moment and focusing in on the ways the present can become theatrical versus being more distanced from the performers in the traditional theatre setting we are more accustomed to in the United States.

For the dance off, two people began dancing to a chosen type of music while the rest of us watched and decided whose moves we liked best. We then joined the dancer of our choice. If one dancer changed his or her moves, and anyone in the “audience” changes their opinion on who’s best, the individual was free to switch to the other person and join his or her dance. In this exercise, the “performance” begins with two performers and the rest of us are spectators. However, as time progresses, we all become performers. In all the exercises we do, we construct each instant according to directions, a thought, or an interpretation.

By comparing my experiences in the USA with my experiences here in Brazil, I’ve been able to approach theatre differently. Observing and participating in Brazilian theatre spaces with dedicated students and professors gave me new appreciation for theatre as an art form and as a more practical means for communication and understanding. I’ve been presented with new ways to express myself and communicate ideas. In PCAP, as well as in Brazil, we use theatre games and improv to relay ideas and experiences to others. Through such “performances,” people may relate to others with similar experiences, but they may also understand someone else’s struggles in a new light after watching another’s story during our theatre exercises. Emotion and body language are aspects heavily emphasized in theatre, and they allow for a new form of expression that morphs beyond speech.

As a student in STEM, I’ve acquired greater insight into the world of theatre and the ways it can be used to express artistic urges and also the needs of a community and greater structural changes to our societies.

Theatre for Social Change at UDESC, a post by Eddie Williams

28 May

My name is Eddie Williams and I am currently a student at the University of Michigan studying Acting and Psychology. I have completed four years at the University so far, but I still have one more year to complete because there are many more class requirements that come with having two majors as opposed to just one. After graduation I intend on continuing my education by pursuing a Master’s in Social Work. I figured by doing this I will be able to find a career where I am able use my love for theatre and the arts, not for entertainment per se, but more so as means to deal with social problems in our society today. Throughout my time at the University I have been looking for classes to take that combined both of my interests. I found that intersection when I took the Theatre & Incarceration class, taught by Ashley Lucas who is also the director Prison Creative Arts Project, also known as PCAP. The class and the program overall opened my eyes to the problems that exist in the criminal justice system and incarceration not just in the United States but around the world. I’ve gained so much insight, over the past couple of months, into the harsh realities of the incarcerated population. It is through PCAP that I was able to facilitate a theatre workshop at Milan Federal Correctional Institution. With the use of theatre, I was able to cultivate an environment that enabled the men to express themselves freely and creatively. All around it was a great experience, one that made me feel very fulfilled because it showed that importance of the arts and how they can be used to uplift, heal, connect, and ultimately rehumanize people.

Coming to Brazil was another aspect of PCAP that broadened my horizons and made me think about the issues of incarceration on an international level rather than just nationally. I would have never thought that I’d be able to go to Brazil. I knew going in that this was going to be a life defining experience, one that would further confirm what I want to do with my life. In just the first week in Florianópolis I have been able to see the different ways theatre can be used to express oneself and raise awareness to issues you never thought about before. On day two in the Florianópolis, the class and I had the privilege of watching four black women perform a piece discussing the issues of race in Brazil. They used dancing, singing, and different scenarios to bring to the forefront their black experiences. This specifically included issues of police brutality against blacks, colorism within the black community, lack of positive black representation, and ultimately the issue of slavery and its impact on us today. I was not surprised at all that the experiences that they had shared were exactly like the experiences of black people in the United States. As a black person myself, I resonated with the piece. It was important for people that didn’t identify as black to see it so that they could understand what life is like in our world.


The talkback with University of Michigan students after the UDESC students performed the first half their play.

There were also the pieces by presented by Sisi, Alé, and other students of UDESC throughout the week that touched on very important topics. These topics ranged from what’s it like to be a queer black woman to the need for philosophy classes to remain an option as a major on the university level. Each performance was charged with a strong specific social message which forced the audience see things from a different perspective. The performers took our assumptions and pre-conceived notions about specific identities and flipped them on their head. This was reinforced by the very unconventional and Brecht-like presentation of each performance. For example, the UDESC student performance of the first half of their play started with us coming into a dark room and walking around the set, while the students began repeating different sentences, at various points of the stage, and lighting the room up with their phones. Another example was Alé’s performance which had the audience sitting in the round. He started by greeting everyone in a very sensual way either with a kiss or laying on their laps, and at many points throughout the show he talked directly to the audience. I found out later that his purpose for this doing was to make people think about how we often fetishize the LGBTQ community. All the performances made for an overall educational experience. I loved every bit of it as I felt I grew better as a person. It made me want to fully immerse myself in the act of listening to understand rather than assuming and thinking I know all the answers, because I don’t. With all that the class and I learned and was exposed to in the first week, I am excited to see what is in store over the next two weeks.

A Visit to the Women’s Prison in Florianópolis, a post by Stevie Michaels

28 May

My name is Stevie Michaels, and I am a student at the University of Michigan. I became affiliated with PCAP, the Prison Creative Arts Project, just one semester ago. After graduation, I plan to attend the Police Academy and become a police officer. I thought that PCAP would be an amazing opportunity to gain a well rounded education about the criminal justice system in the United States. And in the past six months, I’ve gained so much more that simply education. I have found passion, hope, and humanity in every person in the program as well as the inmates that have participated in the workshop that myself and two co-facilitators led in a men’s prison in Jackson, Michigan.


Michigan and UDESC students at the university, getting ready to go to the women’s prison.

Coming to Brazil was not something I intended to do when I began my journey with PCAP. I thought PCAP would be a one semester class and in April, when my workshop ended, I would just walk away. That wasn’t the case. I didn’t want to stop learning about the people and I just wanted to immerse myself in a program that could actually bring change to a system that I found to be so cold. Maybe I couldn’t make a change individually, but as a collective group I found that, at the very least, PCAP brings smiles and fun to the inmates all around Michigan. So I decided to pack my bags and get on a plane to see what PCAP does with its partnerships in Brazil.

On just day two in Florianópolis we had the opportunity to visit an all women’s prison. The prison was right next to a historic men’s prison which is over 90 years old. The women’s prison is perched up on a hill, very small, and one might not even realize it is there. Prior to becoming a prison, it was a storage shed for the men’s prison. When I say shed, I mean it. It is incredibly small, housing 71 women inside it, which is overwhelming. They are currently building an addition onto the back of it so that by June they will be able to house 220 women. At the moment there is no grass, unlike the prisons I have seen in Michigan. Usually there is grass in the “yards.” If you look around you can see the paint chipping off the cement walls, and the unkept corners of dirt buildup and places where the air conditioners into the offices would leak water and rust. Because of the lack of space, the theater space that Vicente, a professor at the university here in Florianópolis, uses is an awkward open “cage” where everyone can see you. Vicente has only done a semester worth of workshops here, as he is still trying to gain more access to run programs in the nearby prisons. This type of area where the workshops are held is different than in the US, and many of the prisons have classrooms.

We spoke with the Warden of the prison, along with three of the women on the Minister of Justice’s staff, who were in a meeting the previous day with both Vicente and my professor Ashley to discuss prison programming and its importance. The entire time a woman from the Ministry of Justice was taking photos and staging photos of us to put in a press release. This was a bizarre experience because in the US no photos are ever taken inside the walls.

Although the prison doesn’t have conventional places to run the workshops, I think that this is a vital place to run them. Because of the lack of space and programming, a workshop could really bring some hope and happiness to a place where there may not be much of it.

Having the opportunity to speak with the Warden has encouraged me to learn more about the laws and rules of the criminal justice system in Brazil, not only to advocate for programming in prisons there, but also to compare to the US and see what we can take and use and learn from each other.

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.

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