Faculty Spotlight: Theatre and Incarceration
University of Michigan students in The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) had the opportunity to experience UMS performance, “Us/Them” in the Winter of 2018. Allison Taylor interviewed Ashley Lucas, the current director of PCAP and Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, to learn about the incorporation of “Us/Them” in the curriculum.
The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) began in 1990 when Buzz Alexander, an English professor at the University of Michigan, had been doing work that incorporated theater and social change in his classes. He was approached by a student who wanted to do a theater workshop in a prison, and asked Alexander to accompany him. Alexander was so deeply moved and inspired by the experience in the prison that he began building a curriculum that essentially grew into what the Prison Creative Arts Project is today.
“This is our 28th year,” said Ashley Lucas, the current director of PCAP, and an Associate Professor of Theatre & Drama at SMTD and the Residential College. “We are now a curricular program and a student organization at the University of Michigan, so I, along with three or four other people, teach PCAP classes which train our students to facilitate arts workshops in prisons.”
Lucas has spent the last five years traveling the world and visiting prisons to see how other people approach theater in prison. Currently, she is working on an academic text entitled Prison Theatre in a Global Context that delves into the “why” behind theater in prison — what makes it so powerful? From where does this phenomenon stem?
“I’m trying to discover why people go through so much trouble to do theater in prison, because they absolutely do — it is happening all over the world, and has been for hundreds of years,” Lucas said. “Why is it so important to people? Why do people go to such extraordinary lengths to make this happen? What is it that people in prison get out of doing this kind of work?”
This semester, Lucas is teaching a PCAP class, “Theatre and Incarceration,” that has teamed up with UMS to incorporate two UMS productions, Us/Them and Nederlands Dance Theater. The class, which includes weekly visits to a number of prisons within the Michigan Department of Corrections, used their experiences with Us/Them and NDT to enhance and inspire the workshops and activities that are brought in to the visited prisons.
“When Us/Them came up, and the gracious folks at UMS were kind enough to offer us tickets [through a Course Development Grant], I got really excited because Us/Them is a play with a very small cast, making an incredibly complex world out of very little, scenically,” Lucas explained.
When Lucas and her students visit the prisons, it is often difficult to find materials to use for their workshops; they must find ways to get maximal use and results out of whatever supplies they may have.
“They did some really cool stuff [in Us/Them], with the string and chalk on stage. We often have to use the same kinds of techniques and ideas in order to make a whole world out of improv when we’re performing in the prisons with incarcerated folks. For the most part, we can’t have props or costumes. I think Us/Them helped the students to conceptualize how to use things to create sentiment that becomes profoundly real. That was really mind-blowing for a lot of the students, particularly those who were not theater people. And even those who were theater people, I think, took a lot from seeing how much of a world you could create with such few people.”
“When I started talking to the folks at UMS about how my class could interact with the work that they were doing, NDT came up because they are a dance-theater company and they really create a whole world out of their bodies. We make a whole lot out of very little, and we do that with people who aren’t professionals, people who might be trying theater for the very first time, people who might never have seen a formal play in their lives, people who are wrapping their heads around the fact that live theater is not the same thing as television performed outside of the box. So to be able to contrast the experience we have in prison with a really highly professional performance that is created by people whose whole job it is to make this art form, is a very interesting contrast for me as a professor, for my students, and for people who are learning what theater is and can be in the world. I think things like Underground Railroad Game, Us/Them, and the edgier works that UMS presents help us learn, as we do in the prison, that there are many different ways in which the arts can be political and can convey something about social change.”
In addition to the arts workshops in the prisons, PCAP hosts one of the largest annual exhibitions of prisoner art in the world. Every year in March or April, the exhibition takes place in the Duderstadt Gallery on north campus for two weeks. This year, it ran from March 21st through April 4th.
“That’s part of how we came to have this engagement with UMS,” Lucas explained. “ Part of what’s happening with our connection with UMS is an exchange program. For the last 5 years, I have taken students from the PCAP programs who have done theater workshops in US prisons to Brazil. Our students go into the prisons in Brazil and do theater with folks in prisons, favelas, and hospitals, with patients and staff. That program runs for three weeks every summer, and as part of the exchange, we invite the Brazilians here as well. While you all are having this wonderful event with the NDT, we are hosting guests that are coming here to perform in connection with that art exhibition. We will have four faculty and 10 students from two universities in Brazil here as well for a week — March 20-27.”
This year’s show is the largest show PCAP has ever done. “We’re displaying something like 658 works of art by over 500 artists, and we saw upwards of 3,000 pieces of art. The quality of the work being created is extraordinary, and you will never see an exhibition with a broader range of artistic media, or subject matter. You very seldom see a show with 500 artists in it who are all thinking about the world from very different perspectives. Because when you lock up as many thousands and thousands of people as the state of Michigan does, you’re bound to have a huge diversity of opinions and of viewpoints on the world, and that’s very much reflected in the work that we have in the exhibition.”
“This year, my heart is very full because one of my favorite artists is a man named Martin Vargas, who is one of only 5 people to have been in the show for all 23 years that we’ve had the exhibition, and he just came home a few weeks ago. He did 45 years in prison. And was in our art show for 23 of those years, and he’s going to get to see the show for the first time. It’s really, really exciting, and I’m so grateful he’s able, finally, to see the thing that he helped to make for more than two decades. That’s a profound gift for those of us who work in PCAP.”
Are you a U-M faculty member who would be interested in bringing your students to a UMS performance? $15 Classroom Tickets are available for students and faculty in courses that require attendance at a UMS performance. To learn more about how to work with UMS, email Campus Engagement Specialist at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out our new guide How to Integrate a UMS Performance into Your Course.
Interview: Jillian Walker, UMS Research Residency Artist
For the 2017-18 season, we are excited to welcome Jillian Walker as our Education and Community Engagement Research Residency Artist. The UMS ECE Research Residency provides time and resources for an artist to spend an extended period of time in Ann Arbor developing a new performance work. A graduate of University of Michigan (B.A.) and Columbia University (MFA), Jillian is an established and accomplished artist, dramaturg, playwright, writer, and activist.
During her time with UMS, Jillian will be developing her latest project, a play called Tignon, inspired by a late 18th century law in New Orleans that required women of color to wear a covering—called a tignon—on their heads to hide their hair. Through this project, Jillian hopes to use “this fascinating slice of legal truth as an intersectional site to explore sex, power, policy, religious practice, gender roles, race, and economy in one of the most interesting and still misunderstood American cities our complicated country has to offer.”
We chatted with Jillian about her writing process, decolonizing history, and returning to Ann Arbor.
AT: How did you first come to hear about El Bando du Bierno, the law that required women to wear a Tignon?
JW: It was actually on a blog. I think it was Black Girl with Long Hair, which is a really popular blog. I got an article in my inbox about the law, and I was like: “This can’t be real.” So, I clicked on it and kept reading. I was so fascinated by the fact that this was actually a mandated law. So, I filed it away in my mind and didn’t do anything with it at first. But I held onto it and knew that I would return to it at some point.
AT: Do you feel that the act of coercing non-white women into covering their in 1786 hair instilled a sense of humiliation that women of color still feel today about their hair and overall appearance?
JT: I think that it definitely proves the point that hair has always been political for black women. If we can go all the way back to 1786 for evidence of that, I think that speaks very loudly to relevant cases today. But what I’m finding in my research and what I’m excited to investigate more with UMS, is that black women made the most of that law at the time. They made their wraps really elaborate and they said, “Okay, fine. If we have to cover our hair then it’s going to be in a fabulous way.” But I do think that even with that, it’s sort of impossible to not feel “less than,” and to not internalize the negative side of what happens when we mandate people’s bodies.
AT: You are already quite an accomplished artist and playwright! How do you think this work compares to your other works in terms of your writing process, inspiration, and goals?
JW: I think the main question that I ask in pretty much everything I make is, “How do we heal?” But, I think it will manifest very differently in Tignon. I’m basically constructing a language. I’m trying to see what women in the 1700’s sounded like. They’re living under Spanish rule at this time, so there is Spanish woven into a broken sort of English that is also very directly related to West Africa, because we’re talking about women who have just come from Africa 20 or 30 years before this. I’ve never tried to make a language before. But the thing that’s going to be the same is the deep investigation of whatever world I’m creating, and it usually happens through and in tandem with my own life.
AT: Can you tell me a little bit about the “Speculative Histories” workshop you’re offering in Ann Arbor on MLK day?
JW: The idea for the workshop really came out of this sense that as I was doing research about the edict of the government, and trying to learn more about New Orleans from the perspective of women of color. I had a lot of trouble, and one of the big reasons is that many of these women were illiterate and weren’t writing their stories down. So far, everything I’ve found is written by colonialists–white men at the time who were surveying New Orleans basically to see how viable it was to make money. Every once in a while they mention a black person, and that’s sort of how I’ve been finding information.
So, Speculative Histories is really about the importance of filling in the holes that are left in the narratives not constructed by people of color. This is a revolutionary act that we can all participate in, to imagine those histories, and bring those histories forward, and not just stop at, “Oh, well we don’t know. There’s nothing we can do.” I think this idea that you only get to tell the truth when you win (and in this case winning means access to language and the ability to tell your story in print) is a racist idea or at least a colonialist one. So how do we decolonize this idea of history? I think we do this by valuing imagination as much as we value fact, and by valuing art making and creation as much as we value the census, or whatever. I feel it’s always a really healing thing to go into an imagined space where I can just place myself into those circumstances and construct the truth out of it. So the workshop will be about that.
AT: What does it mean to you to be developing this piece with UMS and at your Alma Mater?
JW: *Does a happy dance* Woo! It means a lot! It feels full circle. The University of Michigan has one of the best libraries in the world that I didn’t take advantage of as an undergrad. Since leaving U-M, I’ve really fallen in love with research. The irony is not lost on me, that I ended up at Michigan, one of the best research institutions in the world, and then came to New York and went to Columbia, which is also a really incredible research institution. So I’m really excited about being back in Ann Arbor. I’m a proud Wolverine, always have been!
AT: What are you looking forward to most about the residency?
JW: I’m looking forward to what will be uncovered; what voices will be speaking. I think part of how I write is by listening, so I’m excited to have my ears open and all of my pores open and hear whatever strikes me.
Jillian Walker is the 2017-18 Education and Community Engagement Research Residency Artist. Her workshop Speculative Histories takes place on Monday, January 15 at 7 pm and is free and open to the public.