Cal Shakes is thrilled to announce that Tatiana Chaterji is a 2017-2018 Cal Shakes Artist-Investigator and a recipient of the Artists Activating Communities grant from the California Arts Council. We are proud to join with the administration of the Federal Correctional Institution at Dublin in offering a year-long program in theater-based healing.
A longtime collaborator with Cal Shakes Artistic Engagement – as a moderator for our Actualizing Women’s Empowerment Civic Dialogue, a youth trainer and facilitator for our Community Network Project with BAY-Peace, and a facilitator and performer with Love Balm for My SpiritChild – Tatiana’s project will further investigate theater as a vehicle for expression, freedom, and healing within and beyond prison walls. She integrates methods of dramatic expression with principles and practices of restorative justice. Her workshops invite self-reflection on social power, societal structures, personal choice/agency, and accountability. As a survivor of violent crime, public safety advocate, peacebuilder, and arts educator, she facilitates groups and speaks at criminal facilities across the state. Tatiana is committed to bridging the human stories across the force-fields of violence, incarceration, and trauma.
When Cal Shakes visited FCI Dublin with our community tours of The Tempest and Othello, women told us they wanted an opportunity to move from audience member to theatermaker. This feedback inspired a six-week pilot residency, led by Tatiana last December/January, which laid the foundation for the year-long program inside the prison. Read her process, challenges, and learnings from those first six weeks below:
Mirrors of Each Other: Reflections on Theater-Based Healing with Incarcerated Women
“Honestly, I’m coming here for therapy.”
“I want to try something different and get out of my comfort zone.”
“I’m shy and awkward. I think this will help so I can be more personable.”
“I used to do a lot of theatre in New York – I want to get back into acting!”
“This isn’t like anything else that’s offered here.”
“I just want to have fun! This can be a safe space to be silly and creative, which is the opposite of how we’re supposed to be, the rules of being an inmate.”
“I want to find my voice, to gain confidence, to be able to tell my story.”
I take notes on the first day of the residency at FCI Dublin. The parameters of this project are wide enough for me to accommodate prisoners’ interests and needs, and I build the class flow in response to what they’ve told me. I notice the group is rigidly divided by friend-cliques, and one of my goals becomes to connect across these divisions. We slowly enter a juicy, creative zone that floats above concrete and steel walls. It takes a few sessions to find our rhythm and begin to think about ourselves as an “ensemble,” with interpersonal and spatial awareness, where we anticipate the artistic choices of our fellow actors, attuned to the group as a whole, one body that moves together.
It is a large group, 30 students in total, and I am eager to maximize the opportunity made available to all of us. At my core, I am committed to making the arts accessible and relevant to those most impacted by systemic oppression. Art borne of struggle – grounded in my own struggle – is the fuel that keeps me moving. In the most sacred way, I know how pain can be translated into power, and that the performance, embodiment, and abstraction of it can both heal and catalyze wider social change.
I center the practice of empathy in my curriculum. I have found that theater presents a profound opportunity to recognize our common humanity, where I can reflect another’s life/truth/values through that of my own. As such, I am able to infuse the creative exercises with principles of restorative justice. To establish our group norms, I place colorful placards with the following concepts in different areas of the room:
Take responsibility – Build relationships – Respect all – Heal harm
Everyone gets a turn to speak – Involve everyone affected
I invite the women to wander, consider each of them, and cluster around the one that resonates the most for a small group discussion. This is difficult, an uneasy task – everyone is a survivor (domestic violence, childhood neglect, drug addiction, rape, assault, police brutality) – and no one has experienced anything close to the dignity afforded by restorative justice, which is inherently healing-based, trauma-informed, peaceful. Human. Capable of recognizing humanity, something that we too often fail to do.
I assert that this is our laboratory to envision the relational dynamics that we want, sharing also that I feel great urgency around providing alternative frameworks for women/girls directly impacted by criminalization. The contemporary restorative justice movement has prioritized the needs of men to heal from and account for socialized masculinity and violence. This is due to our dominant culture of male supremacy, and because the majority of incarcerated people in our society are male. There are troubling gaps. We have not adequately addressed the layers of harm in gender-based oppression against women and marginalized gender identities.
To this end, I assign a prompt: to write about the treatment of women in the criminal-legal system – the stuff that’s invisible to the mainstream, the hypocrisies, anything that feels important to tell. They come back with rich tapestries, threads of hope and sorrow – these are the seeds for our performance explorations.
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Three weeks in, Katherine announces that she has been granted parole. She will be leaving soon! The room erupts with cheer. I decide this is the perfect moment to introduce Playback Theatre, specifically what’s known as a “Fluid Sculpture” – an outward manifestation or externalization of another’s thoughts, dreams and worries. One woman steps in and pretends to be waiting for her brother-in-law, tapping her foot with anxiety and nervousness. Another woman enters the scene, making frantic phone calls to employers: “Yes, I can start tomorrow! Oh, have I been convicted of a felony? I can’t answer that…” Yet another woman offers a picture of resilience: bent in prayer, whispering self-affirmations.
All the components put together, the sculpture drips with love, optimism, and determination. It both reflects and honors Katherine’s needs for the future, and the assets already in her possession. In tears, we hold her.
We use sound and movement to warm up. We flex our improvisational muscles in order to unlock our inner child, to channel our playful spirit. Joy is actually the backbone of the work, an undercurrent that bubbles up frequently and holds everything together. We go from shape and image to role, character, and story. We are immersed in the question of Self versus Society, breaking down labels, considering all the ways we are, identities, power.
The women ask for homework to be able to string the weekly classes more closely together. After warming up, I ask if anyone has a piece they’d like to read aloud. Writing can reveal forgotten aspects of ourselves, and the material that surfaces is what guided the next activity. I select exercises from Drama Therapy, Psychodrama and related forms, matching them to the content, and am careful to periodically check the pulse and debrief. No matter how tender or traumatic, I always ask, “how was that for you?” and “how are you feeling now?” or “is there anything else you need us to know, or want to share?” It is essential to give participants the chance to speak about what they have just experienced, often the first time they have exposed a part of themselves, shining a light on something that sparks insight, closure, or a fresh sense of settledness. In verbalizing what they have gone through, they can tie the concepts together. Perspectives from the surrounding circle, from those who bear witness, also deepen the healing.
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The night of the show, we are all jittery. I gather everyone in a huddle and remind them of the ways we’ve harnessed our strength, together, and how we have each others’ backs. I am absorbed into a culture of loyalty; it vibrates through the pre-performance panic.
The audience begins to enter the gym – 200 prisoners from the facility, 10 outside guests. Before the warden arrives, we start with a “Pre-Show” – playful, lighthearted short-form improv to loosen everyone up, get them laughing.
The performance unfolds, a mixed lineup of monologue, Image and Tableaux, Playback Theatre, and poetry. We conclude with a piece of Forum Theatre from Augusto Boal’s tradition of Theatre of the Oppressed. Theatre of the Oppressed breaks the 4th wall that usually separates the audience from the actors. The philosophy is that everyone is an actor, everyone has a story, everyone has ideas for changing the world around us. Actors portray a worst-case scenario with a Protagonist with whom we can identify. After running it once, the audience members (who are now considered “spect-actors”) can clap and yell “freeze!” thus stopping the action in order to take the place of the Protagonist. They offer their own strategies for an alternative, liberatory outcome.
My original plan had been to translate Shakespeare’s Othello into this format, since the women have recently seen the play from Cal Shakes’ tour. But it becomes too complicated; instead, we are able to present Mari’s story – entirely in Spanish – of her husband’s violence and manipulation, where he forced her to make the drug deal. He escaped; she was caught.
The circumstances are familiar to many, and each intervention brings a new twist. Humor and absurdity, and also the brazen possibilities of retroactive imagination – what could have happened differently, with the wisdom/foresight we have since acquired. It’s a delicate thing, to revisit the point in time when you made the wrong choice – too much damage and disempowerment blinding you to the better, smarter decision. Looking back, then, is also a declaration of how far we have come.
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We host a talk-back for the performers to share and comment on their experience in the class.
“It was cathartic. For my part, I had dealt with the issue, but it felt good to speak out loud. I hope it could help someone else who has gone through the same thing.”
“We bonded together. Tatiana helped me bring out things I didn’t know where there.”
“It was like a quilt: take a bunch of patches, sew it up, and it comes out this beautiful piece.”
“It was very emotional, touching, and real. Also therapeutic.”
Their words are humbling, and paint the picture that I helped them to shift or bring clarity. It’s more nuanced, and for me, my freedom and privilege come with a heavy responsibility. I see myself as a bridge – one of many bridges – between my community on the outside, my family, friends, the children I teach – and those who have been discarded, on whom society has given up, the disposable ones. As the prisoners transfer knowledge to me, my duty is to carry the message further, into ripples and waves that extend beyond myself.
In this process, I have received innumerable gifts. Gifts such as: being truly seen and heard, the universality of dehumanization-guilt-shame, spiritual logics of confronting violence head-on. I give credit to the collective wisdom among us, the ancestors looking down and pushing us forward, and our intrinsic capacity to love.
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Tatiana Chaterji is a restorative justice practitioner, youth organizer, artist and educator. She uses liberation arts to heal and activate young people and community members, particularly relating to the criminal system, structural violence, and historical trauma. She currently works as an RJ Coordinator within Oakland Unified School District, also leading circles and theater classes in Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center. A 2016 recipient of the Bay Area Inspire Awards, she guides workshops in arts-based leadership for a group of young women at the intersections of criminalization, social neglect, and commercial-sexual exploitation. On the team at Partners for Collaborative Change, Tatiana coaches social justice institutions in equity, diversity, and inclusion, and provides trainings in Theatre of the Oppressed. She proudly supported in building curriculum as part of the 2015-17 Program Team of Essie Justice Group, an advocacy network of women with incarcerated loved ones.
Artists Activating Communities (AAC) supports sustained artistic residencies in community settings, demonstrating the arts to be a central component of civic life, and artists to be vital in shaping society. AAC Projects are artist-driven, engage community members as active participants, and activate participants to develop and express their own creativity. Learn more at http://arts.ca.gov/programs/pdc.php.