Jessica has volunteered as a teaching artist in a residency for our Engaged Theatre program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) for the last six years. Freehold facilitates an annual residency at three separate Washington Corrections facilities, in which we enable the participants to write, direct, rehearse, and perform their own show in a five-month period. Residencies guide participants through the creation of an original performance based on an exploration of the archetypal hero’s journey. Participants invite their peers, friends and family to watch their performance at the culmination of the residency. The residency performances at the Washington Corrections Center for Women will be on April 8th. *******************************************************************
If you ask me about the one thing I remember most from my college years, it would have to be the words,
“I can’t chat right now, I have to go to prison.”
These words are those of Robin Lynn Smith, my then professor of classical text, at Cornish College of the Arts here in Seattle. As a student, I remember hearing stories from Robin about her experiences at the Washington Correction Center for Women (WCCW), and thinking,
Shortly after graduating, I contacted Robin, inquiring about the program at WCCW, and learned the program was part of Freehold’s Engaged Theatre program . As luck would have it, Robin was excited to hear my interest in the project and was quick to add how, “... I was going to love it.”
Having no idea what to expect, I signed up as a volunteer for the residency at WCCW. I remember my first day clearly. Yes, there was razor wire, lots of it. Yes, there were prison guards, lots of them, everywhere. Yes, I was very, very scared. Why shouldn't I be? I was inside a REAL life prison. A place I have only seen portrayed in movies and on T.V., both of which glorify and exploit prison to be unpredictable, hard, and a place of mystery.
By the end of my first three hour session with the women, I felt a sense of peace. All the stereotypes, preconceived notions, and fears I had about going into WCCW melted away. The women at WCCW were just that, women. Mothers. Daughters. People. That sense of peace stayed with me throughout my future visits to WCCW.
Towards the end of the residency, when the women were getting ready to perform the work they had written in front of invited guests, one of them turned to me, looked me directly in the eyes, and said, "Thank you for making this the best year of my life." I instantly started crying. Nowhere in my adult life, not even arts school, have I had the pleasure of working with grown adults so willing to jump up and make complete fools of themselves one moment and share their deepest secrets to complete strangers the next. It's what keeps me coming back year after year. Now in my sixth year as a volunteer with Freehold, it's hard to imagine a year away from the residency, so I don't. I keep coming back because the women do. If the women at WCCW, some of whom have violent pasts, can stay on good behavior year round, for the sole purpose of participating in Freehold in the fall, we are going to be there for them.
Sometimes I feel the women teach me more then I teach them. They have taught me how to be courageous and look inside myself for the answer instead of looking to someone else for it, because you are all you have. They have taught me how to speak even when I feel as though my voice will not be heard, because sometimes it won't, but speak anyway. They have taught me what it is to be human, because we all are, and we all make mistakes, it's part of life, and it's okay.
Jessica Robinson was born in Liverpool, England, raised in Stellenbosch, South Africa and is happy to call Seattle, Washington home. In 2002, Jessica was accepted into the theater department at Cornish College of the Arts and graduated with honors in 2006. Promptly after graduating Cornish, she started to volunteer with the Engaged Theatre program at Freehold. Jessica quickly fell in love with the creation of original theatrical work Freehold was doing within the prison systems, and today she is proud to be in her sixth year as one of the main teaching artist on Freehold’s residency at the Washington Correction Center for Women. Past performance credits include Clit Notes and November both with New City Theater. Look for Jessica this spring at On the Boards where her new collaboration, AJA will be performing in the Northwest New Works festival.