Theater for Change

Local theater company dares to Conspire

Local theater company dares to Conspire

Con-spire (v.): To join together to bring about a particular result.

While the verb 'conspire' typically connotes nefarious activity, one Austin theater company is providing a positive spin on the term.

Since 2009, Austin's Conspire Theatre has been leading performance workshops in women’s minimum-security jails across Central Texas. Their mission: to rejuvenate the women housed in those institutions and help them transition back into the mainstream.

Conspire works in conjunction with the Travis County Correctional Complex in their volunteer-based program called P.R.I.D.E. (People Recognizing the Inherit Dignity of Everyone). The four-week series, created in 2008 by TCCC Program Coordinator Jennifer Scott, teaches 24 incarcerated women at a time.

Scott initially arranged partnerships with groups like Goodwill, SafePlace and Planned Parenthood to provide the classes on domestic violence prevention, job readiness, parenting and money management.

After working with incarcerated women in London during her Master's program at Goldsmiths College, Conspire Executive Director Katherine Craft offered her educational theater skills to Scott as well.

"This kind of work was not getting done here in Austin," recalls Craft. "So when I offered it to [Scott], she invited me to start teaching classes immediately. Since then, the jails have been extremely supportive."

Craft and fellow facilitator Meg Booker began engaging the women in the program with sharing, storytelling and movement exercises that expressed PRIDE's life lessons through the body. While new activities are added sometimes, the same basic lessons remain the same as they began two years ago.

"Our classes are very different from the others in the PRIDE program," says Conspire Program Developer Michelle Dahlenburg. "We bring in community building games and activities that invite everyone to laugh and sing and move around. I think our classes help open everyone up to engage with the other forms of learning."

The term ‘theater’ might be confusing to some, as no traditional stage production is mounted at the end of a PRIDE workshop. Instead, the work done behind these walls remains in the room where they were created. The rehearsal, says the facilitators, is more valuable than the final production.

Craft explains in a recent Conspire blog post:

"I’m a process person—the product doesn’t always matter so much to me. I love the devising, the workshopping, the playing and the ‘hot damn!’ moments that happen when a group of people create together. The creation might be a hot mess but I’m always less concerned with that than with making sure everyone is getting what they need out of the process."

To accomplish this task, Conspire workshop leaders employ creative writing and exercises like those popularized by activist Augusto Boal that emphasize lessons of agency, voice and power dynamics. Encouraging the women to practice ownership over their own words and feelings is a transformative event that many of these women may have never felt before. Certainly not while being imprisoned.

Research indicates that the majority of incarcerated women have histories of physical, sexual and emotional abuse at a young age; a continued pattern of domestic violence as adults; and a history of substance abuse related crimes. The continued cycle of reliving and unsuccessfully coping with early childhood trauma regularly leads to the decisions that land them back in jail.

“Instead of focusing on ‘Why did you do this thing?’ Conspire focuses on other possibilities,” says Craft. “We broaden the women’s horizons about who they could be rather than condemning who’ve they been in the past.”

Once the women begin sharing their stories with one another, they also begin re-directing their energies to supporting one another and — more importantly — rebuilding their self-identities.

"At the end of every class, we share what everyone learned that day," shares Dahlenburg. "Responses range from 'I was tired but I still showed up' to 'I wrote a poem for the first time in my life; I never thought I could do that.'"

Secure in the efficacy of the PRIDE program, Craft is now looking to expand Conspire’s efforts to head into Travis County's maximum-security women’s prison to reach the women living inside those walls.

The new program is called PEACE because these women are serving longer sentences and their convictions are more severe. PEACE will focus more on teaching women coping strategies for living their entire lives behind prison walls and handling day-to-day frustrations without turning on one another.

“We’ll have parenting classes like in PRIDE; but instead of ‘how to be a good parent when you get out,’ it’s more about how you maintain a relationship with your child while you’re behind bars,” says Craft. “I’ll go in with the same lesson plans and activities and adapt as I go. I just really want to go in with an open mind.”

When asked about the tolls this line of work presents, Craft answers with a smile. “Some days, it’s draining. But the more I do it, the less draining it is because I get better at it. And of course, there’s resistance from the women. It’s important to be open to the fact that some days are just bad days, and not take it personally.”

To that end, Craft also recognizes the challenges of expanding Conspire. In the next year, Conspire aims to start adding new teachers, financial backers and qualified business advisors into the mix.

Conspire is currently a sponsored project of the Austin Creative Alliance, an umbrella organization for seedling arts organizations getting on their feet. With guidance, Conspire is now seeking to establish their own 501(c)3 nonprofit status, to select a board of directors and to begin applying for grants.

It's a tough financial time for arts organizations in the country, so Craft is approaching fundraising cautiously and creatively. “More than Dallas or Houston, I think Austin has a real hunger to establish ourself as a nationally recognized arts scene, and I want to get tied into that,” says Craft. "But we'll need help getting there."

To do so, Conspire kicked off a month-long Indiegogo campaign Monday to begin raising some much-needed funds for their organization. Indiegogo is similar to the very popular Kickstarter fundraising campaigns but focuses on organizational goals instead of one-time events.

By January of 2012, Conspire plans to hold the PRIDE class and the PEACE class each twice a week in Travis County. For that, they will need to hire and train at least four other part-time facilitators.

Craft also envisions long-term programs that unite the women inside the facilities in Gatesville and Lockhart with facilitators and undergraduate students at UT. She envisions parallel performances emerging from the sustained dialog from both sides of the prison walls.

“After establishing these programs, I would eventually also like to do work on the outside, with women who have been incarcerated,” says Craft. “Creating advocacy pieces for the public about issues of incarceration and women. So many of these women want to work with young people to help prevent them from undergoing the pain they experienced.”

For this work to be effective, Austin must remain compassionate and open-minded, overlooking past decisions and providing women who have made mistakes, the opportunity to evolve.

“There’s one woman who is really powerful presence in our class. And she’s a repeat offender,” recounts Craft. “She says things like, ‘Every time I’m in here, it’s for a felony, there’s just nothing I can do.’ Even her jokes are fatalistic. And it makes me realize there’s a whole other world of Austin that most of us never see. I see more of it than most of my friends, but there is just a whole other world that I have no real firsthand experience in.”

Conspire is offering solutions that prisons are not. In a society—and a state—focused largely on punitive approaches to reform, new methods like those promoted by Conspire may be the type of workable solution we require to begin healing inmates rather than hardening them.

“I think jails are ineffective,” offers Craft. “I want to acknowledge that, yes, there are violent crimes, but I think the way our system handles it doesn’t provide closure for victims and it doesn’t do a lot to correct problems in the long run.”

Adds Dahlenburg: "A lot of people ask me, 'Why should we be working with and entertaining people in jail? They're there for a reason. And I always answer them, 'Yeah, so why would we want to turn out angry and hurt individuals when this is the perfect time to remind them about hope and joy?' I think that's why I love this work so much."

Providing individuals, especially women accused of non-violent acts, the chance to actualize themselves as valuable community members is what Conspire does differently.  

“The original root meaning of ‘conspire’ is ‘to breathe together,” points out Craft. “It really signifies the work we do together as a group. But I also like the idea of a conspiracy of women who have been discounted, put aside, coming together to create something of our own.”

Nothing criminal about that. Just inspiring.