JAC recently spoke with Judy Dworin, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. The Judy Dworin Performance Project (JDPP) is an arts non-profit that harnesses creative expression as a catalyst for positive change. JDPP uses dance, theater performance, and multi-arts engagement to examine social issues, build bridges of understanding across diverse communities, and inspire both individual growth and collective action. Judy founded JDPP in 1989 based on a commitment to the important role the arts can and do play in creating change in our universe – personal, educational, and global. She oversees the entire organization’s activities as well as the artistic direction of the Ensemble and designs the curriculum and programming for the Bridging Boundaries programs in which she is a lead teaching artist.
JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?
JD: Judy Dworin Performance Project [JDPP] has always had its mission art as a change agent and giving voice. Prison wasn’t necessarily on my radar screen in terms of that mission. Sixteen years ago we were invited to perform at a conference for volunteers in prison and after seeing our performance, Wally Lamb, who is a well-known novelist and led a very successful writing group at York Correctional Institution for many years, asked my colleague, Kathy Borteck Gersten, if we had ever considered working with women in prison. We hadn’t really thought of it but, I asked myself, why haven’t we thought of it? So I called Wally and he put me in touch with Joe Lea, the York librarian and media specialist and self-appointed arts coordinator at York, who has brought so many arts offerings to York in his time working there, and Joe led our way through the bureaucracy so it could happen. The thought was to do a multi-arts residency using spoken word, dance, and song on the theme of ‘time’ as experienced by the women. We had an initial conversation with eight women who were in different arts groups at the prison. We were deeply moved by this conversation—when they told us the amount of time served and left to serve it took our breath away. It was clear that we were going to be there for the long haul. That was how it all started; since then it has grown to include a Moms & Kids Residency; an outreach in Hartford Public Schools to children with parents or loved ones in prison; a Dads & Kids Residency at Willard-Cybulski CI Reintegration Center; an outreach to York CI women who are 18 to 25 titled I AM (Imagination, Arts & Me) and several reentry initiatives including an arts workshop with returning citizens and Trinity College students called New Beginnings and a mentoring program working with the JDPP professional ensemble called Stepping Out. All of these residencies and outreaches culminate in some kind of a a performance.
JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programs you have been creating?
JD: The initial program that we started, the York performance residency which is now in its 16th year, is a very intense and intensive program. We meet monthly, then weekly, then bi-weekly, and then in 4-hour double sessions to collaboratively create a performance piece developed from the women’s original work. The residency is always based on a theme and the performance that is created becomes available to about 200 women on the compound along with invited state dignitaries. There is an evening with outside guests and a performance for families. Approximately 400 people get to see the performance including about 150 to 200 from the community. It’s really unusual that that many people are allowed in– not to the visitors room, but the school of the prison which is where we have the performance. We’re able to take some of the material that is approved by the prison out into the community so that we not only have the community coming to see the performances, but we have the performances going out with returning citizens performing with my professional ensemble. The ripple out of the program has emerged by listening and learning—our experiences teach us about new needs and they then take us to the next steps in this work.
For example, from the families performances we saw the great joy families have in connecting with their loved ones and also the impact it had on the performers, kids and family members alike. So we started a Moms & Kids program. It is unique in that we are allowed to have three special visits with the moms, their children and caregivers, one of which is a weekend in July where the women have four hours each day to be with them. We transform the prison school into an ‘arts mecca’ with stations of activities that the moms have agency in creating. The families are able to stay at a conference center nearby, a beautiful place with a petting zoo and nature trails. At the conference center we have a special caregivers group and a social worker with us who helps in leading that group.
This points to another unique aspect of our Bridging Boundaries prison programming: everything we do, we do in partnership with social work. We work closely with the social worker at York for both the performance residency and Moms & Kids program. The performance work goes very deep and the social worker is there in case something comes up for someone, or if someone on the team feels like a group member is having problems. And she runs a Moms & Kids support group for our moms throughout the year so there is real continuity throughout. We also partner with a social worker from a Hartford social service agency, Community Renewal Team (CRT), to follow up with the families after Moms & Kids and Dads & Kids visits to see if anything needs to be processed. We have found it to be a very helpful and important partnership. We work with kids in schools who have loved ones in prison through the school social worker. And our most recent outreach with the dads at Cybulski is a pre and post family conference with the CRT caseworker, the soon-to-be-returning citizen and the family to set up some shared expectations about coming home and having several sessions of follow through when the dad is released. COVID got in the way of this getting off the ground but we are hoping we can do it via phone.
Our most recent program at York is the I AM program, (Imagination Arts and Me). There is a special unit now at York, the WORTH Unit, for 18 to 25 year olds. It’s the first unit of its kind for women in the country and it provides both activities and support to help prevent recycling into prison time and time again. We received an NEA Grant to start the program and it’s been extremely successful.
JAC: How do you think your program affects participants?
JD: I feel like there’s been a huge impact within the Performance Group. For a lot of the women, they have realized for the first time they have this huge creative potential that in many cases they might never have found otherwise. We’ve had women in our residency for as many as 15 years so there are those who have an enormous longevity and then there are new people that come in. Every year they raise the bar on themselves and keep trying new things and going to the next level, and the bar is also raised for those who come in because the senior members have set a standard. There’s this incredible growth process that happens and the work becomes an anchor point for them – they become a kind of family to each other in both the performance residency and the moms in our Moms & Kids program as well. The dads at Cybulski do as well. There’s a sense of community in a place that so often discourages community. They develop trust and the ability to trust is so hard to do in prison.
It’s so incredibly moving when the women can perform for their families too. That’s not always their best performance if you were looking at it from an artistic perspective, but it’s deeply emotional—hard to get through without tears. I think it has all changed their experience of prison. I know that so many of the evaluations we get say “there’s no program like this”.
The Moms & Kids Program has made it possible for the women to hold their kids, dance with them, eat two meals with them, and create with them. It took us a very long time to get it worked out as to how we could have shared meals and the first time we did, in a group of twenty-two women, six had never eaten with their child before and that’s just mind-boggling. It was so incredible for them to have that experience with their child. Those kinds of things are so important – it makes not being able to be there now very hard.
JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art?
JD: I feel a sense of urgency to bring issues around incarceration out and bring more awareness and understanding. Social justice has always been a big part of my performance work and I’ve felt that the issues that arise in mass incarceration are rarely foregrounded. So I’ve done a lot of pieces that have been developed from material from the inside and from new material that’s written by those who are released and we now have a series of performance pieces that are about the prison experience that are performed by my professional ensemble and returning citizens. That’s been one big impact.
There’s also a style of work that we do in the prison. It’s obviously very pared-down and it combines narrative with song and dance. I’ve always been cross-disciplinary in my approach, but in this case it has been good to stay true to the sensibility of the performance that happens in the prison in the material that we take out. There is an amazing authenticity and honesty that happens there and I try to infuse the outside work with the same sensibility. The women are outstanding and their strength, their stories, their resilience is a huge part of the impact of the work.
JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists and actors?
This work has been transformational in my life and I think it’s been transformational in the lives of everybody who’s on the team and everybody who participates. It’s very emotional work and I find myself on the edge of tears at times because the women and men at Cybulski hit on such essential things about life, and about people, and about possibility. I have not talked much about the dads at Cybulski which is a newer program (2016 we were invited by the Department of Correction to initiate it), but their work has been equally strong – making themselves vulnerable and growing in self, within their community of dads and with their families. They have fully embraced the movement activities, performing small original pieces for their families at the 3 visits—all of it. It has been beautiful.
I feel very lucky to have dropped into all of this and I feel very committed and driven to be sure it keeps going and it keeps growing. I may not be able to change the system but I can work to affect as many people as possible within it, in the most positive ways possible so that everyone’s life can be better. It’s seeing someone who never thought they could speak out their narrative, tell their story, or deal with wherever they are in their process of healing and growth and with trauma that may be so deep, and they DO it. A social worker that we work closely with at York said to me, “you know, you get to the stories that we can’t get to and then we process it”. I think it’s true there’s a sense of trust and safety in this arts work that allows a kind of growth to happen that doesn’t happen in other situations and I think that’s so incredibly rewarding.
JAC: What is your greatest challenge as a teaching artist in the justice system? Are there any current obstacles you are trying to overcome as an organization?
JD: We have learned through the years how to work with the Department of Correction– to both understand the ways that they’re comfortable with things happening and to gradually build trust to be able to expand that. We look at it as a partnership because we’ve been there a long time and, over time, gradually, we’ve been able to do things that go beyond what would normally be allowed. We are very careful that everybody on our staff is aware of what one can and cannot do. It’s its own training and then within that, how can we preserve and optimize the integrity and the value of what we want to do, and not have that suffer as a result. And expand it along the way. We’re very interested in longevity and seeing it through the long haul so that we keep building and finding the balance of how far we can build each year. That’s been a really valuable learning process and how to be patient and know that all the ideas that one has in the beginning are most likely only going to happen slowly over time and not all at once. I mean, the shared meals are a perfect example. That took six years to happen and it was frustrating. But you have to keep working on it and believing in it and not losing sight that eventually it can happen. The other thing is trying to make sure nothing happens that will jeopardize the program or that nothing happens in other programs at the prison that will jeopardize all programs. You also always have to maintain absolute flexibility because you can drive an hour and 15 minutes to get to the prison and arrive there and find it in lockdown and you can’t go in. But one must be persistent in one’s vision, patient, and it is critical to never give up. If you have an idea, know what the balance of it all is, and know how to present it so that it can move forward, if not right away then in time.
I feel that that if you take a kind of adversarial stance against the prison administration, you won’t last. We are there because of the permission we’ve been given to walk in those doors. One has to honor that; you don’t have to agree with the structures in place, in many cases one doesn’t necessarily, but you need to know that you’ve been given that permission and how can you best utilize that for the betterment of everybody.
JAC: The JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. Has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?
JD: All of our programs have been able to continue during COVID. The only one that we have not found a solution for yet is our schools programs for kids who have loved ones in prison, because they need to be in cohorts and they can’t mix in-between classes. We’ve been able to reach out to the kids who are part of our Moms & Kids and Dads & Kids programs. We send them monthly books, art materials, writing prompts and on our Facebook page we have Suzi Jensen on our staff who herself had a mom in prison when she was growing up, reading stories every week. And a social worker from CRT checks in on the caregivers each month to see if any services or help is needed. Pre-COVID we also created a Resource Guide for families who have loved ones in prison that lists all the resources in the six major cities in Connecticut that we hope is helpful during this time too.
We are creating booklets through correspondence with all of our groups in the prisons, sending writing and art prompts via the prison counselors that we edit and get designed by a graphic designer and then printed and distributed to program participants and their families. At the men’s prison, prison admin has approved the dads who live in one unit to meet as a group, guided by the senior members to maintain the connections and collaborative spirit of our Dads & Kids program. But it is still hard not to be there and great when I get their writings and art and get a sense of how they’re doing and where they’re going with their work.
JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?
JD: Something that I’ve found very useful is the bi-weekly sharing of how all of us are dealing with COVID-19 in our prison outreaches. We’re reinventing ourselves in so many ways in our lives and in our work and trying to navigate that through the prison system has its own variables and distinct challenges. To hear what people in other parts of the country are doing is very useful and it has also brought me to realize how different situations are– what’s allowed in certain places that we would never be allowed to do. So I think establishing national conversations as opposed to conversations just within one’s own sphere are terrific. Right now it’s COVID, hopefully after it’ll be another more positive catalyst– conversations and idea sharing are so helpful. Each of us has our own way of doing things and we have so much to learn and benefit from each other, so these informal conversations have been really key. Also a national conference would be a great idea to realize.
I feel that if people are allowed to feel the common humanity that exists among all of us, they can feel the wisdom that comes out of the performances that emerge in the prison work that we do and gain a different understanding of who lives behind the razor wire and some of the critical issues that surround mass incarceration.