Monday, December 13, 2010

My Story of My Work by Taryn Collis

“What do you do?”
“I teach theater at the women’s prison.”
“Oh. That must be… interesting.”

When you tell people you volunteer at a prison, they instantly know what you do. Or, they know what they think you do. Last year was my first year volunteering at WCCW, and I too thought I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.

Since graduating from college I’ve spent the majority of my artistic life making art with people who didn’t spend outrageous amounts of money on an arts education, didn’t have any semblance of ‘advanced training,’ or who straight up thought theater was for rich white people wearing pearls. I’ve sung and danced with underprivileged teens, I’ve paraded through the streets with farmers and homeless populations, I’ve even moved to the West Bank of Palestine to make puppets with refugee children.
“Prison?” I thought. “I got this.”

I love being proved wrong.

My favorite thing about working with the women at WCCW is their ability to surprise me each and every week. More so than most ‘trained artists,’ they are willing to jump right in and risk and try new things and be messy. They are brave, they are generous, and I don’t think they have any idea that they are some of the most talented artists I have ever had the pleasure of working with. It’s easy to title someone as a “prisoner,” an “offender,” a “criminal” and think you know everything about them. But when you walk into a room full of “women” and give them the space and the freedom to tell their stories, you never know what might come up. You look around the room at a sea of grey sweatpants; everyone equal, everyone the same. But within a few hours you begin to notice that, in fact, this one is a poet, and this one a master at improv. This one can tug your heart strings, and this one can make you laugh till you cry. Within moments everything you knew flies right out the window and over the sparkling barbed wire fence.

When I talk someone through a typical Sunday afternoon out at WCCW they usually prep themselves for a story filled with crying women lamenting over their crimes and the ordeals of incarceration. It’s not that those things don’t happen, it’s just that within the same three hours you’ll also see a room full of grown women throwing a “ball” of gibberish at each other, transforming into a dog or an elf or a surfer, or harmonizing in a haunting wordless song. As we kick off the residency this week, my only goal is to remain ever present and open. We head in with a book full of exercises and writing prompts, but there’s no telling what they’ll bring to the table each week. More so than getting up in front of the women to teach, we’re there to listen. Each and every one of these women has been through things I can’t even imagine, and I feel blessed that they’re willing to share even some part of themselves with me and with us.

We all have stories. We’re just waiting around for someone to listen.

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