I work in an arts program with women who are incarcerated in the only maximum security prison in New York state. I feel free when I’m behind bars with the women. Our classes are a combination of profound and sometimes heartbreaking moments and absolutely hilarious silliness. It’s three hours each week when nobody is judged on past actions, and all of us are witness to the innocent, radiant creativity that binds us together.
We open each session with meditation and yoga stretches, which can help provide tools for living in an environment as highly stressed as the facility in which our students live.
Currently, we’re exploring myths. We frequently discuss how these stories can be recognized in our own lives.
Just this morning, one of our students wrote a monologue from Ariadne’s point of view at being abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos after he promised to marry her. She wrote about Ariadne’s shock and anger at being left there as Theseus sailed off. When she read her work to us in class, Ariadne became a sorrowful, heartbroken woman sitting right in front of us. Talk about bringing a myth to life.
We meet in a huge gym inside the prison, and my workshop partner, Kim, is choreographing a dance piece telling the story of a Hawaiian myth. We work to CD recordings of beautiful, evocative, modern music that refreshes the cavernous gym’s humid, stale air.
We are beginning to create a performance piece on myths, collecting and polishing the best of our weekly work. We’ll present it using the stage in our gym to fellow inmates and prison teachers and administrators.
Kim and I say good bye to our students and exchange wishes with all to have a good week. We come out of class energized, exclaiming about the acting of one very shy woman, or the writing and surprising wit of another. We move on to the rest of our lives, keenly aware that we get to come out of the prison. As we pass through endless heavy gates slowly sliding open and then closed behind us, past fences of barbed wire, we know that some of the closeness and commonality we share with our students is left behind the walls.