My shoes click as I cross the tiled floor to my drama class; a room of men in international orange jumpsuits awaits me. Each footstep announces my coming. Each of my footsteps is decidedly not rubber-soled and sneakered, not male and incarcerated, and not limited by the restraints of prison. In my theatre work with incarcerated populations I have dealt with making that walk many times. I have crossed over the literal and metaphorical lines of freedom, race, gender, religion, and language. The way that I have crossed all of these lines, and overlapping identities has defined my work as a theatre artist.
I have been teaching drama in Arizona’s prisons since 2013, and have learned a lot about using theatre cross-culturally. I have condensed these lessons in what I think of as the five steps to successfully creating theatre in cross-cultural situations.
The first step is recognizing and labeling my own means of privilege and how power performs for me. Only after this recognition has been made, can I begin the work of understanding and working with others. Even though I identify as a white, middle-class, fully abled (and empowered) female, the theatre and drama work I do with people who are marginalized, means that I work predominately with people who do not look like me or come from the same background as me. Above all, the respectful intention with which I approach the populations I am working with is paramount to success.
More than simply suspending judgment, I have developed the capacity to function effectively within other cultures by valuing and respecting diversity while simultaneously being sensitive to the differences between our cultures. Respecting the diversity in the room is the second step for successful co-creation of theatre. Working with other cultures isn’t about giving up my own, but paying respect to my equal partners in collaboration. I bridge cultures in the attempt to communicate and respect not by mushing together into a muddy mishmash, but through clear articulation of values and beliefs.
The idea of a pure culture is a fallacy. This is why we must approach one another’s individual cultural identity, respecting that what may be true of one, is not necessarily indicative of others. Especially within a prison setting, there is no unified culture. There is no way to say accurately ‘the men are like this, or like that’. Culture, like other facets of identity, can be contradictory and is frequently changing.
Even though each individual is unique, there are shared experiences within a cultural group. Within a prison, there are specific ways that power flows, and there is precise vocabulary and terminology that I don’t always understand as an outsider. Part of the definition of a community is that it excludes, and, sometimes, I am excluded. I don’t need to understand every shared experience in order to be of value to the group with whom I am working. All that is needed is patience.
The third step is to make art about the issues that are important to the community. The best experts on what will work in the community are the community members. Trust is paramount to this creative process. The guys inside trusted me with their stories and thoughts, and because of that trust, they were able to deeply explore issues of importance to them. The last play we created together, a collection of various vignettes entitled How to Be A Man, spoke about issues of hyper-masculinity, and the expectations placed on men to be strong without emotion. The ultimate goal, the men acknowledged in a climactic choral poem, was to be human, authentic and open. Because I had honored the diversity in the room and acknowledged my own privilege and differences, we could arrive at the work of theatre together.
Of all the methodological concerns involved in producing cross-cultural theatre that addresses issues of social inequality, the most important concern is about whether the art is good. Step four is to hold the art to a high standard. It doesn’t matter how well the other steps are followed if it all falls apart in the execution. Of course, there is much ink devoted to what good art is and is not, but ultimately it is about executing the community’s vision in an artistic way that helps the participants and the audience to see the topic in a new way.
Step five, of course, is to repeat steps one through four. Peter Brook writes that a person “can’t transform the whole world, but a small group can go very far in transforming at all levels relationships within itself, and with its immediate audience during a performance.” I truly believe in the power of theatre to transform the world into a better place and will continue to cross cultural lines in the pursuit of that change.