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Home » Discover Rackham » Diving into the Unknown: Tackling Theater in a Detention Center

This semester I’ve taken the plunge into becoming an amateur actor. My only formal acting experience was appearing in my elementary school’s annual fifth grade musical. As the mayor’s wife in The Music Man, I was able to capitalize on my talent for singing outlandishly poorly. Thirteen years later my singing hasn’t improved at all, but I’m beginning to appreciate acting in a whole new way. It is theater that has brought me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to explore creativity and group dynamics in a community I used to know nothing about: the Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention Center.

Every week this semester, I led a theater workshop at the center with two other Michigan students. To be clear, I was not going in as a teacher. I’m getting my Ph.D. in English Language and Literature, so I have confidence in my ability to analyze plays, but I really have no qualifications to teach anything about improv. I stumbled into this work by doing something much more in my comfort zone: selecting pieces for the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, which is one branch of the university’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). For over twenty years the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) has been organizing arts workshops—theater, dance, creative writing, art, quilting, you name it—in Michigan’s prisons and juvenile centers with students of variable artistic backgrounds, including people who have no stage experience. There are years of proof that their format works, but I couldn’t help feeling doubtful about how effective I would be. Imposter syndrome is a real problem a lot of times in grad school—I have to remind myself that I may not have read all of Kant or Spinoza or Wordsworth but I am qualified to speak up in class or write a twenty page paper—but teaching theater? How could I not be an imposter doing that? And here, so much more was riding on my abilities. This may be the only time in the day if not the week that the participants of my workshop get to find fun or relief or connection through the arts. I accepted the fact that I would be learning a lot as I went along, but I was hoping for my sake and the youths’ that I would learn fast.

I did learn, a lot and quickly, too, but it wasn’t really learning about theater knowledge. I have a pdf of suggested exercises and two co-facilitators to help guide the process, but what seems to matter most in the workshop is commitment and enthusiasm. Despite not being a teaching role, it has taught me a lot about classroom management and how to keep the whole group engaged. We changed the course of the workshop all the time to adjust to how the girls are feeling and what they want to do. It’s a type of pedagogy built on respect and appreciating the different types of talents people bring. I have to acknowledge the power that I wielded within the center, but I learned to guide the process with an open ear. I happily yielded control to the girls who want to teach us all a dance number for our final performance. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of opportunities where I get to experience peer-to-peer teaching, and this experience has really opened my eyes about the beauty of learning as a community.

This semester, PCAP let me block off a few hours each week for the love of creativity and meeting new, wonderful people. It could be discouraging to think that I was only helping ten girls for a few months, but I know the value of quality relationships in my own life and hope I was providing the same. I counted my successes one person at a time. I’m thinking, for instance, of one of the girls who could hardly have been called a participant during the first few weeks. She shook her head when we asked if she wanted to take a turn in a circle game or play even the smallest of roles in a skit. That is until, one week, when we introduced the game, Circle of Friends. In this game, the audience chooses a situation for three participants, and one by one the actors leave the scene and return. While an actor is off-stage the other two complain about a particularly bad trait of the missing person. When the person returns, she has to enact those traits, which tends to lead to a lot of physical comedy. This girl sat through the first round, somewhat skeptical and quiet as usual, but by the second round she could hardly stay in her seat, getting up to demonstrate how one of the girls in the sketch should walk for the best humorous effect. And in the third round she was center stage herself, for the first time all semester, and she controlled the entire scene with her energy as she embodied a gossipy old lady, bent over her imaginary cane and extolling the virtues of bingo to the other actors. Who knows if that moment will stay with her for a long time, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

Even though sometimes I wish I was a theater expert, someone who could improvise new types of theater games on the spot and didn’t have to keep reminding myself to face the audience, I have realized over the course of the semester how important it is that I show up. It would be a different story if there was a backlog of trained actors and directors trying to get into prisons and detention centers. At the very least I am someone who laughs and snaps when a girl transforms into a monkey escape-artist or a wide-eyed country girl in the city for the first time, and I am someone who takes these stories out with me. In addition to learning about pedagogy and trusting to step outside my comfort zone, it is this presence of detained people outside of the institutions’ walls that has made the biggest difference to me this semester. It can be really easy to forget about the enormous population of humans locked up behind bars, even though Jackson is only 45 minutes away and the juvenile detention center is just one bus stop past Arborland. But with memories of my workshop and PCAP’s more physical presences on campus, like their annual art show, I am continually haunted by the problems of our prison system. Prison can be a terrible phantom presence for people whose loved ones are locked up, but it is important to me that I don’t walk the streets of Ann Arbor blind to the absence of so many wonderful (and talented) people. I am grateful that PCAP keeps me from feeling detached from ongoing problems in our community and lets me learn about myself in the process.