We began tonight by watching the Go Further video that was made about our program. We watched it several times (it’s brief!). I asked the group what they thought about it and how it made them feel.
“I think it conveyed a powerful message about this group and what we do here… I think it really humanized us as prisoners and it de-stigmatized prison as just ‘corrections,’” said one woman.
“I felt overall it was pretty cool – there are very few people out there who take a moment to find out what we’re really about,” said another.
“I get a lot of woman empowering from it. It made me want to stay in this class. I get a lot of doubt… I get that fear of performing, but watching that was empowering,” was another comment.
“It gives our moms and people at home some hope, knowing that their children can get help and find something they like when they’re here,” said another ensemble member.
At this point, we circled up to check in with each other. A few ensemble members shared some personal difficulties they are having, and some tears were shed. We made sure to be supportive, and thanked them for being honest with us, as it helps us to be more sensitive. One person mentioned that she had been having a bad day during our last session, much of which was a group discussion, and she wished she’d told us so that she could have been a more constructive part of the conversation.
After we lowered the ring, in the midst of determining what to do with the rest of our time, a member of the group threw down her book and left, extremely upset. After our initial confusion, we determined that there had been a miscommunication between her and someone else in the group that led her to believe that we were talking about her in a negative way when she wasn’t there to “defend herself.” This is not at all what happened, but the way it was phrased to her, with no context or further explanation, led to her feeling unsafe and upset. We all could understand that, and we spent a good deal of time trying to help the person who made the comment to understand what her alternatives might have been. The conversation got quite heated, and a number of ensemble members left to “cool off,” stating that they would be back on Friday.
In the end, I hope that the person who was upset will be open to an explanation of what actually occurred when she was absent and the unfortunate phrasing that the other group member used to tell her about it. I also hope that the latter person will reflect on what happened and learn from it. We can certainly make our space safe again, but it’s going to take work on each ensemble member’s part to get there.
Meeting on the day after Thanksgiving was something we knew would present challenges, as it coincides with a visiting day. We were expecting facilitators to get through security a little late, and for a number of group members to be absent due to visits. Both of these things were true, so it was a smaller, shorter meeting than usual, but it was productive nonetheless.
During our check-in, we revisited the issue of how long this part of our routine sometimes takes. We decided to further emphasize that this is a time to share important personal updates (both positive and negative), and not a time for small talk or goofing around.
The woman whose comment caused an ensemble member to leave last time, leading to a discussion that made many people upset, apologized to the group. I asked her if she wanted to say anything else, and she said no. No one wants to keep discussing this, but we decided that we’re going to have to revisit it once more when more people are present to be sure we’ve all learned from the experience. I reiterated to all that, while being defensive in prison is natural, in our group we must trust each other and believe that we are all inherently good – we need not read things into people’s comments and actions, but take what we’re told at face value.
We decided to play a bit to loosen up and start the process of re-establishing our safe space. We played a couple of games, the second of which led us to do some pretty silly and outrageous physical actions. It didn’t totally work, though, because one ensemble member didn’t fully commit. I asked her why, and she said that she’s uncomfortable being silly – more uncomfortable than dealing with the vulnerability that comes with some of the darker themes in our play. We talked about pros and cons of being uncomfortable in a theatre game – what’s the worst that could happen, and what’s the best? I mentioned a quote from John Patrick Shanley that Kyle shared with us a few weeks ago: Theatre is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done. We all assured her that she can let loose with us – we’re doing the same.
This bled into a conversation about how our perspectives on art change over time. “When art makes you uncomfortable, it’s doing its job,” said one woman. One woman said she’s been having a hard time recently dealing with racist themes and language in movies she grew up watching – she sees all of that differently now. She sees herself as a representative of her people (she’s a woman of color), and that feeling puts a lot of pressure on her “not to make a mistake.”
I asked if she had ever considered whether Othello might feel the same way. How much would a similar feeling drive him, both in the play’s back story and in the play itself? He is written to be the only person of color in the play – maybe the only person of color some of these characters have ever seen. How intense must the pressure to perform, to find a way to be respected, be? One woman mentioned that we’ve all felt that way to a certain extent – even those of us who are not cultural minorities have felt pressure as the only woman in a group of men to somehow perform better than they expect us to.
With this new perspective, we put part of Act I Scene III on its feet with our “freeze” approach. We decided to focus on Othello’s monologues. When we got to Desdemona’s entrance, we stopped.
“Othello is smart,” said one woman. “He uses what they think of him to his advantage. When you approach something in the right way, you get what you want.” The rest of the group nodded – we agreed with this assessment. Considering Othello’s status as an outsider will almost certainly be of great concern moving forward.
We raised our ring back up with a feeling of having begun to move on from a very rocky time. There was still an undercurrent of tension, though, as the woman who apologized at the beginning of our meeting chose not to participate in anything we did, either physically or verbally. I’m not sure why she made that decision, but I’m hoping when we meet next week she’ll be more comfortable doing the work with the rest of us.