When I arrived in Talca, Chile, two weeks ago, I was dropped off on the side of the highway to be greeted by Nell, a close friend and former collaborator from Safe Passage, waving her arms and jumping in excitement. She led me to the house where we are staying, which is owned by a family that rents out rooms to university students. Right now the students are on summer vacation, so we have most of the second floor to ourselves to cook dinner, unwind and reflect on the day’s work.
A few hours later, I met Pati, the founder of Telling My Story, and Katie, a talented young woman and friend of Nell’s who, like myself, jumped on board after hearing about this project. The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of building relationships with these inspiring women, and finding my place within the workshops they started a month before.
Telling My Story has been a refreshing and powerful experience. I have been attempting to take in as much as possible from Pati, Nell, and Katie, appreciating their different strengths and methods. This has been a blessing in many ways, as I know so clearly my own method of teaching and leading workshops from my work in Guatemala, but have not really had the opportunity to observe the work of other’s who share my passion and vision of the power of artistic self-expression.
One of the strongest characteristics I have noticed working with Telling My Story in the women’s prison in Talca is that we have time. The pace within the prison is quite relaxed. The women have chores throughout the day that they must complete, but generally they are available to participate in the workshops for multiple hours a day. This time allows for the work to be very organic and move at the pace of the women. Generally, the women wander into the space around 10 in the morning, and sip mate (a loose leaf tea) as we wait to get started. We start with a short warm up, and then run through the dance the women have choreographed before working on their skits. We break at noon, when the women disperse to eat lunch. We eat our lunch in a small room with the guards. The meals are prepared by inmates who have been given jobs in the kitchen for having good behavior. They are paid for their work and it helps them gain special privileges like short visits to the outside. We go back in the afternoon for art classes where Nell has been leading the women through several self-portrait projects. The results so far are stunning. The women seem to really appreciate the art space because it is calm and relaxed and one of the few moments where they can concentrate. Outside are the sounds of people yelling and reggaeton; inside they choose between jazz or soft meditation music. They often wander in and out when they feel the need or when something or someone else grabs their attention. Depending on the moment, the art space can bring peace or anxiety to the participants as they look inside and reflect on themselves as individuals.
With the theater and dance workshops, there is not the chaos or hectic anxiety I have experienced in other moments to complete a project or rush something to meet a deadline. The chaos is a different sort, as the women navigate their relationships with each other and the space. Pati shrugs her shoulders when we have low attendance or when the group is distracted, “If we don’t have a show we don’t have a show.” She stands strongly to the position that Telling My Story and the final skits and artwork created by the women must come from a place of them working together and motivating themselves as a group, not by her leading or pulling the women towards completion. She is firm and does give them a push and encouragement when needed, but the focus is on the process not the product. The show, however, is an important culmination for them to present their work on stage in front of an audience.
The process I have witnessed so far has been remarkable. Prison, as I can imagine it, is not an easy place to collaborate, make friends, or share your opinions. And yet the women have come together to discuss and debate things like patience, commitment, tolerance and freedom – both why these qualities are necessary to survive in the prison, and why they need these in return from the outside to succeed when they are released. Using these themes and their ideas, they have begun to create skits and dialogue that portray their own personal and collective experiences. This is a long way from where they started, considering that as Pati told me, the women froze in fear simply saying their name in front of their peers on the first day. The first couple times we ran through the dance, every woman looked as though they had learned different steps. They ran into each other, some stopped in confusion, and others kept going at their own pace. Those doing percussion, using wooden sticks on empty paint buckets, pounded on them whenever they felt like it. After a few days, they organized themselves, found their places (taught me when I messed up!) and everything slowly fell into place to the unified beat of the drums.
This week we will begin to work on the women’s monologues, or personal testimonials. I have been moved by the creativity the women have shown, and how open they have been towards sharing and talking about their experiences, and open to me joining them at this mid point of the workshops. A few have shown a bit of shyness at the idea of sharing their artwork or stories with the greater public, but most have voiced that they think it is very important. Their skits and artwork will be presented inside the prison in two weeks, to their fellow inmates and to visitors from the outside community. Their artwork will then travel to the US for an exhibit at Dartmouth, and be incorporated into an anthology of their written poems and monologues along with work from my next workshops.
Before leaving Guatemala, I encountered the surprise of having our house broken into and lost my computer, camera and many other items of real and sentimental value. This has presented me with the feat of practicing un-attachment to material things, and a great deal of improvising how to continue with these next projects that rely quite heavily on photography and design. Thanks to friends and family who have graciously loaned me a camera and time borrowing their computers here and there, I will still attempt to create a final product to share the results of these workshops. The situation has challenged me to be even more flexible and creative with what the next few months hold in store for me, and I look forward to spreading the women’s words and their creations with all of you, as well as sharing the inspiring work of organizations like Telling My Story and educators like Pati, Nell and Katie.
Thank you to everyone who has reached out through donations and kind words to make it possible for me to collaborate with these projects. There are 10 days left to donate to support my work with Telling My Story and the workshops to follow! Read about my projects or donate at http://www.indiegogo.com/VisionsandVoices. You can learn more about Telling My Story at www.tellingmystory.org or to read more about the insights and experiences of this workshop check out the Telling My Story blog at http://tmschile.wordpress.com/.
A warm hug from Chile,