The theatre niche of the social media stream operates much like any other Animal Farm and in this particular backwater Animal Farm I am a donkey who has lived a long time. Hang around long enough and one sees the patterns of people entering and leaving or the ebbs and flows of the heat of the conversation. One also sees topics come and go, but there are gestalt topics that come up daily or near daily, chief among them: “What’s the point?” The theatre-makers’ equivalent of “why are we all here and what does it mean?”.

There is a common push in this question of theatre’s relevance to prove real world payoff or in the buzzword “return on investment”. For purveyors of traditional narrative theatre it can be a tough sell. Proving hard value in collective experience is voodoo statistically, which is why I think the reaction around #2amt and to Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) and to Conspire Theatre has been so positive. These programs demonstrate a clear, visible social benefit to these skills we share.

I have been a fan of Conspire Theatre for some time as they have grown and become a core part of the Austin theatre community. As they take the next steps toward expanding the program I reached out to Kat Craft, Executive Director and Lead Workshop Facilitator, to gain a deeper understanding of how Conspire operates their program and what their plans are for the future.

What can you tell me about yourself and your compatriots in Conspire Theatre?

We are all women who are passionate about changing the world in some way.  I’m a radical feminist, Michelle Dahlenburg (Associate Director) is committed to rethinking old structures through the use of theatre and Shirene Garcia (Assistant Facilitator) is heavily involved in the food justice movement through her work with the Urban Roots program.  Meg Brooker (former workshop facilitator and co-founder) is an Isadora Duncan dancer and yoga teacher who works with the body the relieve stress and trauma.

All of our guest artists have been drawn to Conspire because it gives them the opportunity to witness how their skills and practice can have an immediate transformative effect on a group of women, including the guest artists themselves.  We have no control over these women’s lives and they have very little control over their own while in an incarcerated setting so walking into that classroom space and making it a space of change and exploration powerfully affects everyone in that space – the facilitators and the participants.

Where did the impulse for Conspire come from?

I worked with Clean Break while I was in graduate school in London.  They blew me away – I was inspired by their program and their facility in central London.  They have a holistic, whole-woman approach to working with women who have been incarcerated and it really opened my eyes to what a powerful tool theatre can be.  I knew that I wanted to explore that more, so when I moved back to Austin, TX, I decided to try and start a program myself.  Meg Brooker and I ran a 5 week workshop with women at the jail to test it out.  I was terrified – mainly that the women would tell me to fuck off and absolutely refuse to work with us.  It was the opposite – they were so appreciative and excited and participatory that when the 5 weeks was up I thought, so how do we do it again?

What does the average visit to the facility consist of?

We walk into the Visitation building and hand over our IDs to the officer at the front desk.  Most of them know me at this point (and I make a clear point of being friendly and polite) and so we (myself and a co-facilitator – Michelle Dahlenburg at this point) typically get waved on to the metal detector.  They x-ray our bags and let us walk unaccompanied through the legal visitation area (where incarcerated people meet with their lawyers) and into the complex.  We walk through another building and then outside – along a sidewalk encased by chain link and razor wire.  Incarcerated people of both sexes wearing horizontal black and white stripes walk by us, with and without officers.  Travis County Correctional Complex is a somewhat low security facility so some of the people kept there can move about somewhat freely.

We walk into the administration and education building, and greet “our” officer.  He generally razzes us a bit and we exchange small talk about the upcoming weekend and various sports games.  We’re lucky – he likes us and “gets” what we’re doing but he can still be pretty cranky some days.  Michelle and I get the plastic box with golf pencils (no erasers!), our walkie-talkie, sign-in sheet and dry erase markers.  We walk down a long corridor to our classroom, go in, set up and wait.

Sometimes the women are early.  Most of the time they’re late.  Michelle and I stretch and chat as we wait.  The women file in and we greet them enthusiastically, hand them blank paper and one of those tiny pencils, and then we all freewrite for the first five minutes.  I don’t ask that any woman ever share her freewriting or give it to me.  At the end of the five minutes, we crumple up our papers and play basketball with the trashcan.  One particular woman makes sure that I take all of the crumpled balls with me to recycle at the end of the class.  I never read them.

Then we get on our feet and do a physical warm-up to music (I’m fond of Motown and Amy Winehouse).  After that, we play one or two theatre games and then get the main activity of the day.  This varies between creating short performative pieces, engaging with a piece of written text like a poem or story, and creative writing from some kind of prompt.  Women enter and leave the program quickly and so our class changes from week to week.  We have to make sure that each class is self-contained but can still be linked.

At the end of class, we go around the circle and say one word for how we’re feeling and one thing that we’ve accomplished that day, either in the class or before it.  Then I get on my radio and tell the officer that “We’re ready to release” and the women file out with lots of waves and smiles.

What are you trying to accomplish through Conspire? What is the long term goal?

The long term goal is to have ongoing programming in several different facilities in central Texas AND to have a program running on the outside for women who have been incarcerated that includes theatre classes, life skills trainings and social workers on staff who can guide women into services.   And our own building with a black box theatre space.

This connection between programs on the inside and the outside means that women who have expressed interest in creative work have easy access to it once they’re released.  I’ve encountered many women who say, “I love this!  How do I do this once I’m out?”  I haven’t had any great answers for them because often, theatre communities and classes A: cost money and B: aren’t welcoming or accommodating.  If we can form our own community, then women will have a place to go as well have access to working artists and social workers who can act as mentors and support.

You’re currently running an Indie Go Go campaign, why now?

The Social Services Program Coordinator at TCCC has just begun a new program for women in maximum security – she has asked Conspire Theatre to be a part of this program and to offer a theatre class to women in max.  Incarcerated people in maximum security units typically receive less programming than those elsewhere, so we feel it’s really important to start a new class for these women.  We’ve been working on a small grant from the City of Austin over the summer (thanks, Cultural Contracts!) but that ends soon and in order to add extra classes, we will need to hire more facilitators and continue paying the ones we have.  While I have been willing to work for free, to move forward, we need to be valuing our facilitators’ time and financially supporting teaching artists. I feel a strong commitment to the applied drama practitioners out there who are constantly being asked to donate their time.  I think we all deserve to get paid.

What next steps does this sort of campaign enable?

It enables us to start the class in Maximum Security and also to establish our legitimacy in the eyes of more institutional funders.  If we can raise $3,000 from the community, then granters will be more likely to consider us a funding prospect.

In a perfect world where you had all the necessary the funding what would Conspire look like?

An office/theatre/community space with classroom and a theatre space, and maybe a cafe?

My dream structure is:

  • -Ongoing theatre classes and workshops from beginner to advanced that include anything from basic techniques to dance to mime to puppetry to facilitation to scene study to directing.

-Life skills classes that are taught by instructors trained in and willing to use creative techniques that make job readiness, computer skills, parenting, and public speaking classes effective and fun.

-Some kind of in-house work program like a cafe or partnerships with local businesses that help our women find and keep jobs.

-Daily free lunch for staff and participants.

-Onsite, free childcare for mothers so they can bring their children to class with them.

-Our own building to house all of this, which includes classrooms, a rehearsal space, common areas and a black box theatre space.

-We will serve incarcerated women while they are in jails and prisons, and offer services to women post-incarceration, and to women who are at risk of being incarcerated.

I feel very strongly that theatre is only one piece of the puzzle – an important piece and the one that I’m best at, but it needs to be part of a larger framework.  I’m always looking for chances to connect with other organizations and service providers because we’ll be much more effective working together to create a large web of services.  The City of Austin Health and Human Services Department talks about “one point of access” for youth seeking services so that they can go to that one place and be directed wherever they need to go.  We need to be thinking the same way for incarcerated and marginalized women.  I’m not a go-it-alone kinda gal – I always want my work to be situated within a larger community.  I’m not going to catch everything but someone else will see what I’ve missed.  Hell, I usually don’t even facilitate by myself; I like working with a partner.

There has been a lot of response on #2amT and to Conspire and to Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) how can someone get involved in their communities?

Like, their own hometown communities?  Research the county and state jails and prisons that are close to them.  There are often many people already doing stuff and many facilities welcome volunteers.  Start a book club.  Get in with that church group that’s always going in (in Texas, it’s mainly church groups).  Offer to do the shit work for some other group that’s trying to get bigger – I know that we have very little room for new facilitators but write a grant for us, fund raise for us or help us with strategic planning and if you’re reliable and you keep showing up, you’ll be a part of the team before you know it.  Be prepared to give for the long haul – prison and jail work sounds sexy but it’s draining and often there are many boring hoops to jump through.  The incarcerated people will almost always welcome you, as long as you come in with a respectful attitude and don’t think/act like you’re better than them.  Do it!

Gratuitous Plug: I’ve been pushing folks to Talk About What’s Good ( what favorite moment can you share with us?

From my work?  I love (almost) all of it.  At our last sharing, we read poems that I collected from women over the past two years.  Several women adamantly refused to read anything but agreed to sit “on stage” (we were in a classroom) with the women who were reading.  By the end of the sharing, however, every single woman got up there and read.  One woman even scolded me for picking a piece to read that SHE had wanted to read.  They all did it, even the woman who has difficulty reading out loud – another woman stood up beside her and helped.  The generosity they show each other in my class and in their performances is beautiful.

Another favorite: I brought in the lyrics to “Killing Me Softly” so we could sing together and as we got the chorus:

Strumming my pain with his fingers..

A woman said, “One time, one time” and transformed it into the Lauryn Hill / Fugees version.  She then laid down a beat with her fists on a desk and lord, we sang it out.  It was so good.

  • August 17, 2011