Teaching Artist Spotlight: Elia Enid Cadilla

We recently talked with Elia Cadilla, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Elia has done research for the FILIUS Institute, part of the School of Medicine of the University of Puerto Rico (among other projects, a study about the effect of theater in the rehabilitation process of female convicts.) Cadilla teaches Acting for Film and TV at the University of Sacred Heart, and directs the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Theater Program since late 2001. Elia speaks on the current effects of pandemic on carceral settings, the role of the arts and radical empathy during this time period, and the ways in which she believes the intersection of creation and justice might help to improve our collective societies.

  JACAs we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

EC: This is a complex question, with a complex answer. The main negative effect is frustration, both for the ones who are still inmates, as for the ones already free. Ironically enough, the situation – in terms of sheer survival – can be more dire for the ones out of prison than for the ones inside. The ones still incarcerated have food, lodging, medical attention. We’ve had to help out several of the women outside through our non profit, which is NGO, because many didn’t have the necessary tools to handle this situation. Many times they have to accept the most menial jobs, which don’t have benefits such as health insurance, for even though unemployment benefits have been extended for people who don’t usually receive them, some don’t have the tools to navigate the system, or lack a proper ID, and so on and so forth. On the other hand, those inside the prison are experiencing a type of incarceration they had left behind when they joined the theater group, mixed with a new restriction, which is the lack of family visits to prevent contagion. They communicate with their loved ones by phones provided by the Department but lack, of course, physical contact. However, in my communications with members of the group, I find there is a general understanding that this affects the whole population, not just them, and that these restrictions have managed to keep them healthy. They have access to information from outside, and are aware that some prisons in other states and countries have horrific stories going on. That doesn’t detract from their desire to go out and do their work, and see their families, but it makes it less hard to bear. The males of the Correctional Theater reside in a correctional institute that houses programs with certain privileges, and they’re concentrated right now in exercising to stay in acting form, and writing new ideas to work on as soon as we can resume our activities. The females reside in an area of the women’s prison, and are not as well organized as the men. This responds to patterns established in their own communities, and is one of the situations we deal with in the Program, but it’s a work in progress. The net result is that it’s easier for the men to manage their frustration at their inability to perform their job as actors and educators, but in general they are all coping, because they have something to look forward to.

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

EC: All prisons should have a robust health system, access to prompt medical care, and a crisis management capacity that has been sadly lacking in many prisons, both stateside and in many countries, from what I infer from the different news leaking out of some facilities, and from what transpired in our zoom meeting this past week. As far as what action is needed, I can refer to our own experience here. The minute the magnitude of the covid threat to health was ascertained, on March 13, the Secretary of the PR Department of Correction and Rehabilitation ordered a lockdown eliminating access to all civilians not indispensable for vital operations, with an organized plan that included checking temperatures of any indispensable personnel before allowing access to the institutions, with observation and testing in place, established correctional officers’ shifts rotation, preventive isolation of any possible source of contagion, such as inmates that had to go to hospital, and upon return were quarantined until proven clean. It hasn’t been easy. A lot of people have had to work remote to ensure safe conditions for the inmates, but it has worked. All our inmates are covid-free. The 2 that pop up in statistics are two juveniles who came in already contaminated, were isolated at once and treated. If you have that kind of preventive crisis protocols, all concerns will not go away, of course; families will still want to see their loved ones and send them things, etc., but the bottom line here is we have to protect the lives of incarcerated people and stop the virus spread. A good management plan, such as instituted here in Puerto Rico, will accomplish that. Of course, nothing in the world is foolproof and we might have some cases in the future, but the situation has been managed successfully, so far.

JAC: As you know, the JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

EC: It’s very difficult to balance safety with social connectivity in such a dangerous scenario as covid-19 presents for an incarcerated population; heck, it’s very difficult for the rest, non-captive population, with a great deal of stress and psychological damage taking its toll on a lot of people. The theater’s usual chores have literally, been one alleviating factor that has contributed to helping them cope. They have kept on writing, exercising, inventing alternatives to keep on with their acting through virtual strategies, etc. They recently sent me a proposal to perform by some platform through the sergeant, but it was one I had already presented to the administration. Regardless, I’m sending it also, in support of the already proposed tactic, but I’m conscious that getting it implemented will take some time. We’ve kept in touch through several avenues. One, their families. Even though not all inmates have a supporting, caring family, quite a few more than usual do when it comes to the theater group. This is because we foster family relations in different ways: we try to have relatives assist activities at open venues: theaters, for example, where anyone can attend. Usually the Secretary or the Sub Secretary (both very favorable, through the years, to the Theater Program) attends such an activity, and up to the very last one, they have authorized at the end of the performance relatives getting close to the inmates and congratulating them, hugs and expressions of affection included. The pride in families when they see their previously errant relative standing on a theater stage, applauded for their artistic work and their honesty (for the plays often depict the route that led them behind bars, and their reflection and repentance as well), have many times created a new bond of communication and respect between the inmate and his/her family. I try to keep in touch with those families that respond positively, and also with what are called “counseling friends” – people from all walks of life that decide to sponsor an inmate and give them some of emotional support and even sometimes some financial assistance for their more immediate needs, such as depositing money for their phone calls (which are very expensive, as we all know), and other urgent things. Two, our own team – the correctional officers and the penal case worker who see them during their shifts, let me know how they are coping, and advise them while at the same time letting them know what I’m doing to keep the Program going during this time. Three, I keep in touch with the commander of the institution, who is very favorable to the Theater Program (because they have an excellent behavior in and out of the institution, and help out in anything needed, plus keep their living quarters immaculate – part of their theatrical discipline) and with whom I maintain an open communication.

JAC: The JAC, 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?

 EC: Knowledge. Powerful networking. Funding. Not necessarily in that order. Funding is probably of the first order. Regardless of our commitment, our reptilian brain commands us to survive – food, lodging, health needs are fundamental. Most artists have never been the most savvy when it comes to making money a priority (first-hand knowledge speaks). But when the urge to survive slaps you in the face, it’s a must needs that has to be addressed immediately. And there the powerful networking and the knowledge comes in. We have to be able to identify possible sources of funding. People with the knowledge of where to find accessible grants, interested philanthropic or high profile personalities that can attract them, people with knowledge to create platforms that attract a lot of traffic and hence, support through the acquisition of high visibility… I can go on, but they are the same rules I have applied as a producer to my own productions in the past, and these are all very connected. You need one to get the other, and so we reach the egg and hen dilemma. If we all pool our resources together, the goals will move forward faster.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

EC: No contest there: to see how their lives change completely. Even before they are able to go home free, they change. I’ve seen people who came from being drug dealers, prostitutes, addicts, gunners for the punto (the drug dealing business), thieves, car hijackers, you name it, become actors, artisans, writers, preachers even, for even though I do not participate myself in organized religion I do applaud the ones who look for it in order to deal with their past lives, as sometimes they need to feel God has forgiven them, and so they can forgive themselves and start anew. I keep track of many of my ex students. They send me information about their new lives, jobs, mates, homes, etc., and it’s a source of joy that we all share with each member of the support group and with other inmates that look up to the ones that have made it, and see in them that they can make it, too.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?

EC: One of the jokes (we use humor a lot in the Program, in order to cope) we have shared within the Program has been: well, now a lot of people know how it feels to be trapped in a cell, to not be able to walk down the street when you feel like it. We’ve discussed how this new awareness can maybe change the way some people view incarcerated people, and perhaps influence lawmaking in some way or other. If you ask my personal opinion, I feel we have a long way ahead. The US has less than 5% of the world population and yet it has  22% of the world’s imprisoned population, far ahead of several totalitarian regimens. There is too much feeling of “otherness” towards imprisoned persons, and I firmly believe that we can change that through the arts, for I have seen it happen here in our system. When I began, almost 19 years ago (and I had already had a close look at the system though volunteer work with imprisoned youth), the officers almost uniformly disliked the Theater Program. What helped me in the beginning was that I was a well-known and respected artist, and so the manifestations tended to be polite in general, but there were also quite a few not-so-polite ones. Now (even though there’s still rejection from some quarters), we have no problem getting officers who want to be part of the Program and it’s actually a coveted position. Very soon some people who were skeptical about theater in prison saw the change in attitudes and behavior and recognized it as a positive movement towards rehabilitation and many became advocates of what the arts could do to change lives.

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

EC: It’s funny how you manage to ask a question that sounds simple but its answer is anything but. It’s been a long road. I believe free will and fate coexist happily, thank you very much. Early in my career, my looks (then), would get me TV bimbo and femme fatale roles time and again, but I felt a very strong pull towards social theater and the minute a very respected theater director, Victoria Espinosa, cast me in a one-woman show as an aging, run-down prostitute (I was still very young, and so it was a fantastic characterization for me, which are my favorite roles), and got rave reviews for it, someone asked me to do it in a low-income residential project. From then on, somehow, I would get offered opportunities to work with low-income, high risk populations, both in PR and when I moved to NY. There I lived 8 years, and I found myself splitting time between acting in theater, TV and doing some film work, but giving a lot of my time to social theater. I taught at the Human Solidarity Institute (mostly to immigrants), ASPIRA – to disadvantaged youth, and the New Federal Theater, at the Henry St. Settlement Playhouse, almost always with disadvantaged populations. When we returned to PR for family reasons, after several years in high-profile work in TV stations and theaters, I eventually gravitated once again towards teaching high-risk behavior populations, and when the then Secretary of Correction and Rehabilitation looked for someone to teach at the women’s prison, it was almost by default that my name came up. The first year there were 4 teachers – 3 males actors working with the male population and I with the females. One year later I was the only one left, and wound up directing the whole project.

Elia co-authored an article for an arbitrated publication (IRB approved), about a small-scale (3 subjects sample) research study on how and why theater can be a rehabilitation tool. Below is that article.

CORRECTIONAL THEATER PROGRAM 2020

People can learn more about Elia’s work at:
Facebook: Elia Enid Cadilla
Twitter: @EliaEnidCadilla

 

Actress, producer, director and writer, Elia Enid Cadilla has represented Puerto Rico in film and theater festivals. Cadilla was Chairperson of the first Cultures of the Third World Symposium at the United Nations, and has received honors and awards for her work in several fields of endeavors. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the PR Association of Film and Audiovisual Producers for over a decade and hosted the First Puerto Rican Coproduction Forum for Ibero American Films. 

Cadilla produced and directed the TV film “Cal y Arena”, based on a story she co-wrote. She’s producing and codirecting the documentary “Cicatrices” (“Scars”), about formerly incarcerated females who have used theater as a rehabilitation tool. She also wrote the series “De carne y hueso” (Flesh and blood), inspired in the real-life stories of incarcerated men and women. 

She produced, co-wrote and directed the series “Después del Adiós” (Beyond Goodbyes), lauded by the media as the best production of this genre in Puerto Rico. She’s written, produced and directed short film series for the Office of Women Affairs, and has produced and directed films for TV, musical videos, television specials and public service advertising campaigns. She coproduced and wrote the script for “Múltiples Ellas”, breaking the Performing Arts Center’s attendance record, a statistic that remained unequaled for several years. Cadilla produced, among other projects, seven environmental education festivals (with concerts, multimedia exhibitions, recycling, reforestation and beach cleanup drives and educational conferences), and was awarded and recognized both by government agencies and private environmental organizations. 

Cadilla was a leading figure in soap operas. Her roles include costarring in TV films and the Spanish-Puerto Rican film “Agua con sal”. A recent performance was in “The Vessel”, starring Martin Sheen. She produced and starred in Cyrano de Bergerac, receiving the best actress award of the Drama Critics Circle, which also chose the play as the year’s best.

The Becomings of A Master: Abstract

By R. Zumar

This is the first piece of abstract art that I’ve ever made. I didn’t know what it would mean to me once it was finished and really didn’t have a plan of what I wanted when I was looking at this blank piece of paper in front of me. Then I started thinking about this pandemic we all are going through, how it spreads to all four corners of the world with no reprieve no matter who you are. It spreads and takes us further from each other cause we are force to isolate to fight it, but in that isolation we are not really alone. While the virus spreads sickness and death we can spread kindness, life, love, help one another when we can and have empathy for our fellow man.

We will make it through this and I believe we will be even closer to each other once we do. I only wish to spread hope for now and eternity. What is it that you wish to spread.

The Spread

I am the artist R.Zumar and this is The Spread. This is The Becomings of a Master.

About the guest contributor:

“I’m Rayfel Zumar Bell known as R. Zumar and discovered my passion for art while incarcerated. I’m a self taught artist who strives to break into the art world even from a cell. I spend the lions share of my time thinking about and creating art, the rest working out and my favorite pass time, snacking :)! Through art I want to help others and contribute to various charities I care about; cancer, autism, sponsoring kids in need around the globe, and preserving wildlife.”

View the first four installments in the artist’s blog series here, here, here and here.

Rayfel asked that we include this note within this post:

“The Justice Arts Coalition!
What can I say about The Justice Arts Coalition?
I could say that they do good work. I could say that they are wholeheartedly dedicated in what they do, but those would be understatements.
They don’t only do good work they do great work. They are not only wholeheartedly dedicated in what they do, they believe in what they do. They are not looking to exploit artist they deal with, they are looking to help the artist grow and I greatly respect and appreciate that.
Wendy, the founder of JAC, and those that work with her does a lot. This isn’t their jobs, this is work that they volunteer to do because they believe in the concept that people can grow to be better than they were. That when you give the voiceless a voice and let them speak their truth, you can bring forth the good that’s deep within them.
I trust that JAC will always do the right thing and I don’t have much in the world in way of wealth, but what I can contribute I will. So I ask of you out there in the world to contribute how ever you can. Even $1.00 can help in contributing to the cause.
I am the artist R.Zumar and I thank you all for just being here whoever you are. This is The Becomings of a Master.”

 

The Becomings of A Master: The Portrait Series #3

By R. Zumar

This is baby Harmoni, born January 27th, 2020. I look at her at peace with no worries in the world. A new little human gifted to us, a life with so much potential. Like all children, at least in our country, she will have the basics to survive and grow. She will have clothes on her back, food in her mouth, and a roof over her head; but like for my son I think of what the future holds for her, for all children born to us. What will they become?

Blessed child

Will we teach them to be like us? Be worse than us? Or will we help them grow to be better than us? I can only wish for the latter. Each generation should be a little better than the last generation. Just because we’re not going to live forever doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about the quality of life for our descendants 100 to 1000 years from now and more. But to do that we must be better than we were.

Each life is a blessed life, it’s only hell if you choose it to be.

I am R. Zumar and this is Blessed Child. These are The Becomings of a Master.

 

About the guest contributor:

“I’m Rayfel Zumar Bell known as R. Zumar and discovered my passion for art while incarcerated. I’m a self taught artist who strives to break into the art world even from a cell. I spend the lions share of my time thinking about and creating art, the rest working out and my favorite pass time, snacking :)! Through art I want to help others and contribute to various charities I care about; cancer, autism, sponsoring kids in need around the globe, and preserving wildlife.”

View the first five installments in the artist’s blog series here, here, here, here and here.

Rayfel asked that we include this note within this post:

“The Justice Arts Coalition!
What can I say about The Justice Arts Coalition?
I could say that they do good work. I could say that they are wholeheartedly dedicated in what they do, but those would be understatements.
They don’t only do good work they do great work. They are not only wholeheartedly dedicated in what they do, they believe in what they do. They are not looking to exploit artist they deal with, they are looking to help the artist grow and I greatly respect and appreciate that.
Wendy, the founder of JAC, and those that work with her does a lot. This isn’t their jobs, this is work that they volunteer to do because they believe in the concept that people can grow to be better than they were. That when you give the voiceless a voice and let them speak their truth, you can bring forth the good that’s deep within them.
I trust that JAC will always do the right thing and I don’t have much in the world in way of wealth, but what I can contribute I will. So I ask of you out there in the world to contribute how ever you can. Even $1.00 can help in contributing to the cause.
I am the artist R.Zumar and I thank you all for just being here whoever you are. This is The Becomings of a Master.”

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Sarah Dahnke and Sarah Pope of Dances for Solidarity

We recently talked with Sarah Dahnke and Sarah Pope, our newest additions to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Sarah Dahnke is the Artist Director and Sarah Pope is the Associate Director of Dances for Solidarity (DFS). Dances for Solidarity is a collaborative dance project where Dahnke and Pope, who both possess a professional and creative background in choreography and dance, co-create dances with people who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. Through the project, the artists at DFS collaborate and correspond through the mail and written word, initiating conversations by sending a 10-step dance sequence to the incarcerated. All recipients receive the same piece of choreography and are encouraged to perform it with the knowledge that at any time, there could be another person held in solitary confinement performing the same set of movements at the same time. Dahnke and Pope speak on the vital nature of connection to those inside during the ongoing pandemic, the necessity of direct release for those most vulnerable in carceral settings, as well as the expanding role that art networks like JAC can play in remaining connected to incarcerated individuals.

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Sarah Danke and Sarah Pope with a group of their New York dancers. From L to R: Milton Jones, Sarah Pope, Hasson “Dizzy” Harris, Christina Colón, Benji Hake, Sarah Dahnke

 JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

SDBecause Dances for Solidarity already has an established practice of creating and collaborating through the mail, we are very equipped to deal with the distance this pandemic has warranted. However, even the mail is much slower, especially when it comes to receiving communication from inside. It took me about a month to hear from our most frequent collaborator, Dushaan, who is incarcerated in Texas. His letters usually only take about a week to arrive. Knowing how dire things are inside, this slow turnaround has me very nervous. If I don’t hear from someone, are they safe? By the time I receive their letter, they could have fallen ill. We also have our network of formerly incarcerated artists, who Sarah and I check in with regularly via text or phone call. We haven’t been able to create together in this time. Currently, DFS is collaborating with Black and Pink‘s New York chapter to connect people in the free world who want to establish new choreography-based collaborations with people who are inside. This is a slow process, but it is one way we are attempting to keep the core of the project going. And Sarah and I have been brainstorming ways we can act as a conduit for choreography already created behind bars pre-COVID19. The workshop we facilitated with JAC is an example of one way we are doing this work. We are also working on a packet of written materials and a series of videos that can be distributed through organizations that have direct relationships with prisons to distribute this type of content. DFS is always thinking about how to form connections with people inside then pull that outside of prison walls to have larger conversations about justice and punishment with public audiences. It will likely be a long time before we can have a live performance since it is more challenging for DFS performers to be a part of a process that requires collaborating via the Internet.

SP: A big challenge is access to the technology to stay connected. Access to the internet, the time, space and privacy to use it as much as you’d like, is not possible for those on the inside, not always possible for those recently released. Thus their voices are diminished even more.

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

SD: This current moment has definitely highlighted the human rights crisis happening behind bars. When there is a pandemic that requires distance between humans and access to proper medical care, it becomes very obvious who has access to this and who doesn’t. The reports I’m hearing from inside are horrific. One DFS collaborator said the prison he is in is short staffed with no medical supplies. Infected people are sent to a quarantine room and left to recover or die. But I want to be clear: the situation in prisons across the United States has always been a crisis. In this current moment, I support efforts behind releasing a large number of folks who are serving longer sentences than their convictions warrant, juveniles and the aging. But I also don’t want this conversation to end once this pandemic is over. We need to take bold steps to completely re-writing what the criminal punishment system looks like in the United States, and right now is a great time to begin those steps.

SP: Releasing people, particularly the aged, from jails has been one step; prisons could do better. Fewer admissions to jails and prisons. Increased access to medical care, reduced copays, increased access to phone and video calls. As per [Prison Policy Initiative’s recommendations]: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/virus/virusresponse.html

JAC: The JAC, 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?

SD: Center those who have been affected. Ask them what they need. Even though we are all currently isolated, we should never be having conversations in isolation. 

SP: A supportive network is a diverse network, that is continually asking, who needs to be involved? Who do we need to hear from who we are not hearing from? Who is not being represented, that could be? And then the question of resources. Who is getting resources, and who is not. A supportive network would center the voices of those who need, and seek to supply, not just resources, but also power.

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Photo still from performance of Dancing Through Darkness at HERE Arts Center in 2019. Pictured are Benji Hake, Hasson “Dizzy” Harris, Christina Colón, and Milton Jones. Photo credit: Maria Cobb

 JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

SD: The ability to affect audiences and potentially affect change. DFS is a project, not an education effort, meaning we don’t go into prisons and teach art. We instead form one-on-one collaborations with incarcerated people. The work from these collaborations goes into a process with formerly incarcerated performers. And then this work is performed for public audiences. The real education happening here is with audiences. Each time we have a performance, I will have a conversation with an audience member, and often one who works in close enough proximity to the system that you would assume they understand the conditions of prison. And each time, their minds are blown. They are blown away to see the artistry behind bars. They are blown away to see the honest and authentic performance before them. Knowing that we are helping the public be more empathetic and see each individual as a human is incredibly valuable.

SP: Seeing the public encountering art whose origin lies with incarcerated artists, and witnessing a shift in perception of, and thus a change in language used around, people who are incarcerated. A shift to understanding a person who may be incarcerated as a person, an artist with a unique voice, instead of a nameless, faceless “other” who is only defined by what got them into prison. Change like this is slow, small, and incremental, being person-to-person, but it builds awareness by allowing members of the public to feel personally connected and involved, and may lead to bigger changes in community engagement, activism, philanthropy, and voting practices, which is bigger!

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?

SD: I hope it has made a lot of people wake up. Again, this pandemic has only highlighted dangerous and inhumane conditions that have always existed because prisons are inhumane by design. When this pandemic is over, prisons will still be inhumane. People will still be over-sentenced and tortured and silenced. What I hope is that the public will keep paying attention to what is going on behind bars in the future.

SP: I’m trusting that individuals who are currently isolated in their homes, will look twice, think twice about individuals who are a part of the carceral system. I’m hoping that a systemic shift will come in the future of health care, and workers’ rights, in the United States, that will also touch the rights of incarcerated individuals, and that the systemic shift will include valuation of life and not just of money, that will build more equitable systems for health care especially for those who have the least access to it.

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Photo still from performance of Dancing Through Darkness at HERE Arts Center in 2019. Pictured are Benji Hake, Hasson “Dizzy” Harris, Christina Colón, and Milton Jones. Photo credit: Maria Cobb

People can learn more about Dances for Solidarity at:
Instagram: @solidaritydance

Sarah Dahnke is the director and founder of Dances for Solidarity. She is a Brooklyn-based choreographer, multimedia artist, and arts educator. She creates performance experiences that often feature non-performers, highlighting and celebrating the nuances of natural, untrained human movement. She works with public school students to facilitate the creation of their own choreography and video projects, makes giant group dances to teach to the general public, and films instructional videos to disseminate dance sequences widely. 

Through Dances for Solidarity, Dahnke has been a guest lecturer/teacher at Tulane University, Princeton University, UCLA and New York University, a presenter at conferences such as Create Justice, Prison Outside, and NCA – Policing, Prisons & New Public Voices. She was an awardee of a residency/commission from A Studio in the Woods in New Orleans and is working to maintain an ongoing presence of DFS in the New Orleans area.

Sarah Pope is a Brooklyn-based dance artist, dance & fitness educator, and clown. She has worked with many dance companies in New York, most recently Mark Lamb Dance and Renee Gerardo Dances. Her clown character, SarahBesque, debuted new work at the NY Clown Theatre Festival at The Brick Theater, September 2016. As an educator she has taught in many NYC public schools with Together in Dance, as well as at Spoke the Hub Dancing and the Prospect Park YMCA.

 

The Prison Story Project

On May 23, 2020, in collaboration with The Prison Story Project, the Justice Arts Coalition will be presenting a premiere screening of “On the Row,” a documentary created by The Prison Story Project that explores the humanity and stories of men currently on death row. As part of our larger Create + Connect: Online Workshop Series, JAC feels privileged to be a part of this vital dialogue, and looks forward to your attendance at this screening. JAC recently spoke to Kathy McGregor, Founder and Project Director at The Prison Story Project. Her profound words are below.

To register for the “On the Row” screening, which will be presented on May 23 @3:00 pm EST, visit this link. 


Since 2012, The Prison Story Project has entered correctional centers in Arkansas to give
women and men the tools to tell their stories. We believe that no voice should be silenced, and we hope through staged readings of the women’s and men’s writing that we will help bridge the gap between the incarcerated and the communities to which they hope to return.

In May of 2016, The Prison Story Project gained unprecedented access to the men on death row. We knew that these men had, through violent acts, silenced the voices of innocent lives forever. We entered partly on impulse, partly on faith, and partly because we could. The men on the row initially met us with curiosity and a good deal of resistance. They wanted to know what was in it for us. They feared we would manipulate or exploit them. They didn’t trust us. Over six months, through mailings and visits, we asked them to tell their stories. Many of our proven strategies failed. The men on the row told us they were different from other prisoners and that we couldn’t possibly understand them. However, they kept trying and we kept trying. The magic of looking a person in the eye and treating him like a human being started to take hold, and without a doubt the men on the row were powerful writers with stories that surprised us with their insights and emotional depth. They didn’t dwell on their pasts or blame others for their crimes. Some of them had found an immense peace that eludes many of us in the free world, and they wanted to share it purely out of gratitude for having found it. By facing their crimes, enduring their sentences, and accepting their impending deaths, they each found ways to survive and retain their humanity. Their writing exploded, and by our final class we saw each other eye to eye. They trusted us, they said. We
had just gotten our first glimpse of them, we said back.

We didn’t know how they would react to our presentation of their writing. They had put up resistance all along and doubted that we could properly represent their stories. On October 8, 2016, the day of the inside performance, we showed up with an entourage of two poets, a storyteller, five actors, and a musician. We brought snacks. We chatted. We threw a little party in one of the darkest corners in America. When the performance started, we fell to silence and listened deeply. As one of the men on the row wrote us afterwards in a thank you letter, we were all transformed by the writing we heard that day: inmates, teachers, and actors. The writing, he said, culminated in something that’s bigger than all of us.

The Governor of Arkansas signed orders on February 27, 2017 for an unprecedented 8
executions over 10 days to begin just after Easter. Four of the men scheduled participated in this project. Stacey Johnson and Don Davis received stays. Jack Jones was executed on April 24, 2017, and Kenneth Williams was executed on April 27, 2017. Many of us held silent vigil at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, AR on each of the scheduled execution dates as the defense lawyers and Attorney General filed briefs with the Arkansas Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court literally up to minutes before the death warrants expired at midnight. One participant described the vigils as feeling like silent screams.

The film screening of “On The Row” reminds us all of the humanity of the men on the row and the redemption they have found during twenty plus years of being locked away in solitary confinement. They are profoundly grateful to be heard and share their stories. And we are lucky to be able to hear them.


For more information on the Prison Story Project:

Matt Henriksen, Prison Story Project Creative Writing Director for “On The Row”
Kathy McGregor, Prison Story Project Founder and Project Director
Fayetteville, AR
www.prisonstoryproject.com