I haven’t written as much as I would like to about the experience I am having here, because every day is so different depending on the environment in the prison. My feelings about our work, about the women, and my confidence level are also constantly in flux. Some days the women show up ready to concentrate and we have a fantastically productive day. Other days, some dynamic is happening behind the scenes that I can barely grasp a hold of, and it feels like we are more in the way than helpful. Some days I feel like I can communicate what I want to say, and some days I feel so impatient with my progress in Spanish it drives me crazy. I also feel that our work is so complex, and it’s not the easiest thing in the world to articulate. I want to be careful not to speak for the women and their experiences. Yet witnessing their world and listening to their stories every day is a huge part of my experience here. It’s a difficult line to walk, but I’ll just try to remind myself that I am writing from my perspective and not theirs.
On Monday of this week, a very intense day led to a thoughtful reflection on collaboration between me, Nell and Pati. We started the workshop with 40 women, but on Monday morning four people showed up. We started the dance but there was so little energy in the room because everyone was disappointed about the attendance. Pati asked the women why they thought this was happening, and the small group offered numerous reasons. One woman whispered to me and Nell that visitors bring in drugs so many of the inmates get high on the weekends, and therefore are sick on Mondays. One woman who has been showing up expressed that she was really “disilucionada,” which means discouraged. Around noon, Pati went to go speak with the Major, Vivian, the head of the prison and one of our biggest advocates. While Nell and I were trying to make the time productive for the two women who were left, all of the absent women came into the room. It was kind of amazing to see every single woman we have worked with all in the same room again- that hadn’t happened since the very beginning. Soon after, Vivian walked in with Pati, and the guards motioned for the women to stand up. After gesturing that they could sit, Vivian asked why there were only four women that morning when we had started out with so many. Many of the women had dropped out without saying anything to Pati, while others had spoken to her to tell her they weren’t interested. Pati always emphasizes communication; she doesn’t care what decision it is as long as they communicate about it and take ownership over what they want. Some women who have been attending spoke up to say that they love the workshop and only couldn’t come that morning for various reasons as usual; they are sick, they were washing their clothes and can’t leave them otherwise they will get stolen; they had to do their chores later than usual; any number of things. I don’t say this to be dismissive. The environment of the prison is always up in the air, and often the women have so little control for when they can get things done that they have to take advantage of the opportunity when it comes.
Finally, one woman spoke up. She had been a solid participant for the first three weeks, then hadn’t come for the last two. She said that she appreciated what we were doing, but she didn’t want to talk about her life. The questions we asked to get them thinking caused her to think about why her life is bad. A few weeks ago, she volunteered to do a skit about her family and a decision they had to make together. It was a beautifully powerful skit, and at the time it seemed to be therapeutic. Turns out she didn’t come back because she didn’t feel up for going through that again. I was really impressed that she spoke up about this in front of the whole group. Some women went to defend the workshop, mentioning that Pati always emphasizes that the women should take inspiration from their lives but not specific details unless they really want to. At the same time, I did see how that woman could have felt pressure to talk about her experiences in prison, because that is the main difference between her and us. It’s very human to identify ourselves by contrast. In the States, I wouldn’t consider my Americanness a huge part of my identity, but in Chile it’s the most prominent part, to others and to myself. Despite Pati’s efforts to insist that the women’s identities extend way beyond the prison walls, our simple presence highlights the contrast of our liberty and their imprisonment.
I thought it was a really productive discussion, but over lunch I expressed frustration by how the morning was handled. I felt like we had wasted the time and let down the women who did show up by talking about the women who didn’t. Pati, on the other hand, expressed that she was very happy with how the morning went. Since then, the women have been more actively attending rehearsals and being more clear about the parts they do and do not want to participate in. They seem to understand a greater sense of group responsibility, which is one of Pati’s main goals with Telling My Story. Someone at the meeting also suggested using a script, and Pati adamantly defended her position. She wants these stories to come from the women, not from some random irrelevant playwright. She doesn’t feel it’s her place to tell the women what to say and how to act. That afternoon, away from the major and the whole group, many women expressed their support for this method, of devising skits from their lives. One woman said she would feel totally lost if it was someone else’s script, but because it’s her life, she has full ownership and understanding of what we are doing. That afternoon we developed one of the skits, about solitude, by doing a huge improvisation that took up the entire room. Pati just let the women go with it, not stopping to question the relevance of any parts or the wording. We had a long discussion afterwards about what parts of the improv to keep, which were most relevant to what the women were trying to say and how to say it.
On Tuesday the three of us had a meeting to check in about how the work is going. It was a really productive discussion about each of our strengths and differences, and what it means to collaborate together. It’s really important to strike a balance, because each of us brings our strengths to the situation and adds immensely to the work. That’s the beauty of collaboration!
Pati began by saying that she sees herself as more of a social worker than anything else. She always keeps one ear to what is happening outside of rehearsal amongst the women, the dynamics with various guards, and even among the higher-ups. She is so incredibly adept at navigating the complex society that exists within the prison walls. The challenge Pati brings is providing the opportunity for the women to take ownership of their experience and take responsibility for their presence both for themselves and for the group. She often uses a phrase, “putting the arts to the services of the situation.” The project, the play, the improvisations are all an artificial platform for the women to develop their voices and have them heard. She creates individual relationships with each woman, and knows when and how to push them. She believes in each of the women to rise to this challenge, helping them to believe in themselves as well.
It was incredibly helpful to hear her say this, because then I was able to articulate my interest in this work. The challenge for me has always been within theater, within certain improvisation exercises, and growth happens within the struggle for creative expression. Viola Spolin talks about creative problem solving as the basis of theater. Exercises set up problems, and everyone in the room has to accept the rules of the problem. This is a risk. It’s scary to think that you might take the game seriously, accept the rules then not be able to find a solution. But when you invest in the situation and can solve the problem, it’s exhilarating. For example: The Human Knot. Everyone stands in a circle and grabs two hands of two different people. Without letting go, the group must untangle itself until it is back to a circle. When the women did this exercise for the first time, they worked together and tried many different ways to untangle themselves. When they succeeded, they were so happy and excited, they insisted on playing the game three more times! The creative problem solving and risk-taking can be applied to any situation in life- the risk is accepting the rules and trying, because of the possibility of failure, but once you do you try many different ways to solve the problem at hand.
I also realized that my Spanish is going to be a barrier for the entire time that I am here. While I have gotten a lot better, I will never fully understand what the women are saying, or be able to articulate myself as much as I want to. As an opinionated person who takes pride in her ability to observe, I have found it challenging to not be able to understand what is going on right in front of me. Pati and Nell have been so helpful by filling me in about conversations or skits that I didn’t understand. Sometimes I have not wanted to accept what they tell me about a conversation I have witnessed, simply because I want to be able to form my own opinion about it. But I can’t always do that! It was really helpful to realize this, because I am being more patient with myself and with the work. When I get frustrated, I ask myself how much my ego is playing into that frustration, and remind myself to be patient and contribute in the ways I can. The reality is that I can’t contribute like I would in English, and that’s okay. I am so thrilled that I have this opportunity to improve my Spanish. It’s an important exercise in listening.
This week finally helped me make sense of a lot of this experience so far. The “Lindsay” side of me- anal perfectionist planner- has had trouble with the fact that most days we end earlier than we could, we start late, and we take extra long breaks. But Pati makes purposeful decisions about how we spend the time, constantly trying to listen to the group dynamics. If we go in with a fixed schedule immune to any changes in the environment, we impose our need to feel productive instead of responding to the needs of the situation. I’m learning to let go of a strict definition of work as only including the second we begin a scheduled activity. The work is every interaction we have, our long conversations over our hour-long lunch break, having both silly and profound conversations with the women in the downtime- all of this is a part of our collaboration and serves to build a community and connections.