Teaching Artist Spotlight: Lori Pitts

We recently talked with Lori Pitts, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Lori is the Founding Director and a Facilitator at Voices Unbarred, a platform for individuals who are currently or formerly incarcerated to have their voices heard. Voices Unbarred uses the ideology and techniques of Theatre of the Oppressed to guide their participants in identifying needs, discussing issues, exploring solutions, and telling their stories–culminating in creating and performing an original play around relevant issues that is performed for peers, legislators, and the wider community. Through this process, participants learn key reentry skills, feel humanized, and realize they can be change agents in society. Voices Unbarred believes that those most affected by the issues are the best situated to lead the reform process. Lori speaks on the current effects of pandemic on carceral settings, the role of community advocacy during this time period, and the ways in which she believes the criminal justice system might grow from the turmoil of this moment.

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Photo Credit: Kelly Wardle – Lori Pitts

 

 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?

LP: The biggest challenge for us is the lack of access to our participants. We were about to start a new session in a prison that is now postponed. It can take a long time to get into a new facility and build trust, so we hope that we are able to start where we left off with the administration there. We were also about to start a new project creating a full script with our returned citizens. Much of our style of work using Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) techniques relies on human interactions and seeing what comes from those, so creating virtually doesn’t feel like an obvious fit. We are excited to explore the possibilities though! The creator of TO, Augusto Boal, thought we should “demechanize” ourselves–get rid of preconceived notions and structures that we follow habitually–so that we can truly examine our society and move beyond habitual thinking
and interacting. We are getting to use these methods we follow on ourselves now! How can we create together virtually? What does a finished product look like? How can we share our work with others in new ways?

Of course, another challenge comes in the form of worrying for our participants in the prisons. I can only imagine how scary it is to be in a prison where you can’t really physically distance from others and you don’t have access to health care or cleaning supplies. On top of that, you are no longer allowed visits from your family or friends and all outside activities are suspended. You are completely isolated and yet not safe from Covid-19. We want to do more to help with their physical and mental health, but aren’t sure what we can do besides advocate to our representatives and raise awareness. It’s a real challenge not to know how to be helpful.

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

LP: We definitely support REFORM Alliance’s SAFER Plan.

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REFORM Alliance’s SAFER Plan

Lowering the number of people in the prison system is vital to stopping the spread. There are so many people we have worked with who are nonviolent offenders and who would be getting out in the next few months anyway. If those people are released early, as well as those who are at high risk for Covid-19, we could significantly decrease the crowding in prisons.

It’s also important to not re-incarcerate people for technical parole violations at this time, such as failure to pay a fine. Let’s look into alternatives to incarceration!

Finally, people who are incarcerated should have free access to health care visits, sanitizing products, and masks. They are under the care of our governments and shouldn’t be denied access to these basic things during this pandemic (or ever).

I’m hoping many of these changes stick around after we’ve gotten to the other side of this, but let’s just start here.

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?

LP: Many people are focused inward right now. Life has been vastly disrupted in some way for most people, and it’s a scary time. Adjusting to a new way of life is a hardship and is completely valid. However, when we’re scared, we don’t want to have to think about others’ horror stories. Things are hard enough. We now also are confined to our own neighborhoods, houses, and virtual contacts, which puts us in a bubble where we don’t have to hear concerns that vary wildly from our own. Both of these factors can make it hard to get people to think about those who are currently incarcerated and connect with them. Prisons and jails have also had to make drastic changes to their operations to try and protect people’s physical safety, so making sure people inside have access to creative arts or outside connections has become a lower priority. Overall, making connections is tough right now. 

Voices Unbarred is not currently in a position where we can have contact with our participants in the prison, unfortunately, so we are mainly focusing on keeping connections with our returned citizens. We are pushing content on our social media that aims to raise awareness about people in prison during the Covid-19 pandemic. We, also, have been highlighting other organizations’ efforts to keep people connected, like The JAC and the pARTner project’s initiative to write letters to artists on the inside! We are also so excited to see JAC’s virtual workshop series starting to take place for those in the prison. It is so important to keep these connections in place, and we’re glad the arts world is stepping up to do it.

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Photo Credit: Manaf Azzam – Two returned citizens act out a scene from Dear America: Disconnect Between Perception & Truth

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?

 LPFirst, I have to say that we love the support that the JAC is already giving us! We’ve been so excited to partner with them on past events and appreciate the connections that have been made. Being able to connect with others in the field, prisons, and community members are very important factors of a supportive network, so I hope those aspects continue to strengthen. I also think an outstanding support network should provide places to get feedback or advice on curriculum and best practices for this field of work. Finally, it would be great to have access to funding resources and partnership opportunities. The network could provide these, as well as compile a list of others that offer these resources and opportunities. 

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

LP: “You all were the greatest part of LCP for me. You made me feel human again. Thank you so much for that. … I tell everyone about your group and what you did for me and for those you reach. … I would like to stay in touch. You all are great and truly helped me in many ways. … Thank you soooo much for what you all do.” — M 

When I hear the impact our sessions have had on our participants, like in the comment above, it is incredibly rewarding. Voices Unbarred started as a small idea in my head to use theatre as a tool for those most impacted by incarceration, so to see it working and hear that it’s meaningful is beyond amazing. We are incredibly grateful for the many relationships we’ve formed with our participants. They continue to reach out to us upon release, and even work with us when in the same city! Seeing our talented, brave, and committed participants grow and thrive is what this work is all about.

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Photo Credit: Manaf Azzam – Voices Unbarred returned citizens perform a poetry piece from Dear America, entitled I Am A Repair Man.

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?

LP: There have always been issues with the justice system. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted some of these issues for people who may not have been aware before. I hope this helps people see how inhumane prison can be and how it affects us all. The coverage of the conditions inside some facilities, as well as the changes being made to try and stop a prison pandemic will hopefully bring these issues to the front of peoples’ minds. We keep prison so far on the edge of our society that it’s easy to forget about or be unaware of what’s happening. This global crisis will allow us to examine our systems and the things that don’t work, and give us time to start making changes. I hope that some of the temporary changes made to the system right now show people that it’s possible to approach incarceration in a different way, and maybe some of them will stick around! 

Also, while being at home is not the same as being in prison, it does give you some insight to how isolating prison is and what that can do to your psyche. Many people were complaining about going stir crazy inside their homes after just one week, and that’s with access to streaming TV, freedom to cook what they want, and being able to go outside for a break. Some people are experiencing true depression or financial hardship during this time. No matter your experience, from mildly irritating to truly bad, I hope this period of social isolation and fear helps people empathize with those in prison and see how damaging long-term isolation can be. Maybe this will help people realize that a prison sentence doesn’t have to be so cruel.

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Photo Credit: Manaf Azzam – A Voices Unbarred audience engages in a demechanization activity before the performance begins.
People can learn more about Voices Unbarred at:
Facebook: @VoicesUnbarred
Instagram: @voices_unbarred

 

Lori Pitts is an Applied Theatre practitioner, Joker, teaching artist, performer, and director in the DMV area. She is passionate about creating platforms for voices that often go unheard. In addition to her work with Voices Unbarred, she is a core member of the DC Coalition for Theatre & Social Justice. Pitts teaches and performs regularly with Young Playwrights’ Theater and has recently been seen on stage with Second City at Woolly Mammoth, Rorschach Theatre, Ally Theatre, and The Welders. She is a member of the inaugural cohort of the Culture Caucus with The Kennedy Center, a graduate of the 202Creates Fellowship, and is a two-time recipient of the Arts and Humanities Fellowship Program grant through the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work within the community.

 

 

 

 

“We, the Unbound”

by Peggy Rambach

Address for the HOC Mural Project Unveiling Celebration with MIT at the Suffolk County House of Correction

Feb. 15, 2019

We, The Unbound
We, The Unbound A collaboration between artists at MIT and The Suffolk County House of Correction. Directed by Sara Brown. Acrylic on canvas, 40in x 60in panels.

Lately, we’ve all been hearing a lot about walls – whether we like it or not.

And as a result, we can’t help thinking about what a wall represents: division, protection, confinement – all of which are a necessary part of a facility like this.

But a wall can also be a canvas that inspires imagination and creativity.

Mural design work

And big walls, like this one, communicate a message with a particular kind of power.

The message of the women in the Women’s Program here, who designed this work of art in just four, one and a half hour classes, was conveyed in this way:

One might interpret the eyes as the eyes of the soul, and our sorrows illustrated by tears. And so often – if we’re patient enough – we find our sadness leads to new growth represented in the form of the tree. Jellyfish are unconfined by walls and water. Walls become the universe, a ceiling the sky, and flowers break through anything that might stop them from blooming. All of this saying, that no matter what, we have to capacity to break through what may confine us. And that’s why everyone wanted a doorway that leads to the light of possibility and hope.

Practice eye

And so, art transformed a blank wall into the image, I would say, of human resilience, showed how we can dissolve, scale and transform any wall that may threaten to permanently confine us. Walls like: disappointment, failure, addiction, poverty, fear, heartbreak, prejudice, and any number of traumas we encounter as we live our lives.

If we are human, it’s pretty hard to avoid one or all of these things — no matter our life circumstances.

That is why a large part of the HOC Mural Project’s vision was to form an unlikely union between two groups of people in two very different life circumstances.  

Instruction with Sara Brown

One group would be considered to be privileged, celebrated for their skills and the social and technological contributions they will make to our country and even the world. The other, once back in society, will have a great deal to face and overcome, including stigma and a sense of alienation, in order to establish a life that is secure and settled, productive, and healthy.

And yet, put these two groups together in this room to learn together how to make what you see before you, and what lies between them is no division, only respect, camaraderie, and friendship.

Group photo MIT and HOC

My role in this project was small. I thought of having the women here paint a mural long ago, and I made the first overture to MIT. Other than that, I pretty much just stood around; and while standing around, I couldn’t help but observe. And this is what I saw:

I saw an immediate bond develop between Mijin and Sokhee, created not only by a common purpose but by a common language.

I saw and heard everyone express admiration and respect for Johanna’s portrait of mother and child, and I saw Johanna glow with new-found confidence in herself as an artist.

Painting the mural

I saw admiration and respect for Yahaira’s leadership, and the patience and perseverance that she and Jennifer brought to the two full weeks they worked together to perfectly execute the leaves on the tree.

I saw the moment that Allison, urged on by everyone’s encouragement, broke through her hesitation to put paint to canvas. I saw Lesley and Farrah, Norma and Graciane let go of self-doubt to engage whole-heartedly in every aspect of the experience. Along with the creative work, they often took on the less romantic yet equally important task of prep work and clean up.

Painting the mural

I saw the group’s dependence on Taylor and Johanna’s ability to make the sky, and dependence on how all the MIT students effortlessly measured and strung the grids that showed everyone where to place each image.

 I watched how everyone arrived each day to immediately plunge in and work without a break (unless there was pizza and doughnuts) until it was time to go.

And I saw everyone, without exception, contribute his or her individual strengths to a single purpose and goal — in no way motivated by ego or the need for individual recognition.

Practice leaves

And I have to mention Yinka. Yinka’s candle, the image she suggested be in the design and the image that perfectly depicted Yinka’s spirit, one that brought her to come and work cheerfully on this mural just a few hours before she knew she would be deported to Nigeria and separated, perhaps permanently, from her husband and two young sons. Yinka’s optimism and courage and faith was an example to us all, and I believe we will always think of that candle as the symbol of the light Yinka brought to our lives.

Design work

So again, there was no wall at all between the individuals who made this work of art. And because they experienced that unity in a tactile and visceral way, they will disperse what they learned here throughout their lives, and I hope influence those who might see only division where there is unity and only difference where there is always commonality.

This may just have been this project’s greatest achievement of all.

I am proud to have been part of this institution, the Suffolk County House of Correction, and to have witnessed two very different institutions cooperate and collaborate to make all of this happen, spurred by a common belief in the value of art to heal, unify, and inspire.

Group photo
MIT Mural, Installed Feb. 1 2019

Funding for this project was provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of the Vice Chancellor and The Council for the Arts at MIT.

About the guest contributor:

Peggy Rambach M.A., M.F.A., is the author of several books and is recognized primarily as a writer, though she has become intensely devoted to pastel.  She has studied with local pastel artists and is otherwise, self-taught. She has taught as a non-benefit employee at Suffolk County House of Correction since 2008.
Along with her work in Corrections, Ms. Rambach has taught in healthcare, in social service centers, and in the Medical Humanities. She has received grants and fellowships from the Schwartz Center, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, The Massachusetts Literacy Foundation, and the Yaddo and MacDowell artist colonies. Ms. Rambach is also a featured artist in the documentary film: The Healing Arts, New Pathways to Health.