Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Sisu by Rebecca Tourino
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.
The Finns have something they call sisu. It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win.
- Time, January 8, 1940
Robin Lynn Smith taught me that word. It’s Finnish, and it has no direct English translation. It has been used to describe the Finnish spirit – what makes the Finns the Finns. I don’t actually know any Finns, but I think “sisu” relates to what my grandparent’s generation might have called “character.” It means possessing the determination to persevere in the face of near-impossible odds. Say that it’s stormy, dark, and freezing. Say you have no shoes and the ground is covered with jagged rocks. Say you’re carrying a vial of medicine for someone who needs it but you’ve already fallen six times and you’re eight miles from your destination. If you’re the stubborn sonavabitch who keeps on walking, you’ve got “sisu.” As I mentioned, Robin taught me the word; the Engaged Theatre Residency at the Washington Corrections Center for Women has taught me what the word means.
This is the first year I’ve been a part of the WCCW Residency. When I agreed to participate, I had only a small idea of what I was getting into. I’d never created a play from scratch with a group of other people before. In fact, writing a play “by committee” has always sounded, to me, like a version of torture. Add that I would be collaborating with a group of incarcerated women, and I could see that the whole enterprise had the potential to go south quickly. And yet when Robin asked me to participate, I didn’t hesitate. I have often referred to theatre as a form of medicine; I reasoned that surely a prison would be full of people in need of it.
But that’s only one-half of the transaction, actually, because I forgot that I was in need, too. In fact, this process has given me loads more than I’ve given it. I’ve been taking my artistic medicine for five months now. I feel much better, thanks.
In prison, I’ve met some of the most powerful writers I’ve ever encountered. These are women who have been to hell and back and are actually willing to tell you about it – a phenomenal feat when you consider how many times they’ve been shut down; how many ways they’ve been told they’re stupid, worthless, and wrong. Women who grapple with violence, addiction, PTSD. Hilarious, heartbreaking women. Thoughtful, patient women.
Theatre under regular circumstances isn’t glamorous; theatre in a prison, much less so. Our play will take place in a gymnasium under fluorescent lights. Our actors will wear their prison grays under costumes from Value Village. An actor-playwright (that’s me) will be running the soundboard. It’s not exactly the West End! And the whole shebang could be yanked out from under us at any moment.
Still, my colleagues return week after week for our medicine, because it's clear that the women inside have a lot left to share with us. They're just getting started. How can I possibly describe what I'm writing about here -- what these women have to offer? These are women who can make lasagna out of the contents of a vending machine. Women who adopt courtyard slugs as pets. Women who hold a puppet like a baby.
Resourcefulness. Generosity. Courage.
Photo above: Monument to the Finnish Sisu. Photo by Aleksi Ollikainen ja Juho Heikkinen.