Written by Cornish College of the Arts student Hannah Cavallaro, this essay is a thoughtful, personal response to the article Baring and Bearing Life Behind Bars by Jessica Berson. Berson arrives at the Washington Corrections center for Women to see the performance created and performed by the inmates, who had worked with Pat Graney for three months. She describes Graney’s “Keeping the Faith” Prison Project from a fresh perspective, explaining the therapeutic and liberating purpose of the workshops and performance.
Pat Graney premiered the beginning of a new work called “Attic” for the Strictly Seattle 2017 Performance. She is a prominent choreographer in Seattle, and won two Bessie Awards for her work Girl Gods, which got its start at Velocity’s Strictly Seattle Festival in 2015.
Cavallaro’s essay is as follows:
The article “Baring and Bearing Life Behind Bars” resonated deeply with me, as I find the general population very wary of incarcerated individuals. There is a social stigma that follows you as a prisoner, even when you are released as a free member of the community. I think that the work Pat Graney has done and continues to do within the prison system is inspiring, necessary, and eye-opening. A lot can be learned from a project like this about the world we live in and the prejudiced way in which American society operates. Ultimately, we all have the power to do good in the world and must stay open to learning in the most unexpected of places. I admire the effort and compassion Graney has poured into these women’s lives.
“When I finally enter the prison itself, I am surprised by its striking resemblance to a middle school” (Berson, 79). There is an energy within a prison, a feeling that chaos could erupt at any moment. When I was younger, my older brother was in and out of jail and prison for about a decade. He fell in with the wrong crowd, was too susceptible to the drug culture, and made some really dumb choices, but was always one of my favorite people. No matter how crazy my brother got; I always knew how deeply he loved me and how genuine of a man he was and is. However, now as a straightened family man and father, he cannot vote, he cannot coach for his daughter’s soccer games; he is followed by the choices of his past. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be repercussions for committing crimes, but I am sad when it feels like members of a prison community are treated as less than human. Graney works to help women develop a deeper sense of identity in a space where they are otherwise stripped of their individuality.
“Both the workshops and the performance must negotiate the paradox of working in a medium that strives for kinesthetic freedom in an institutional setting that wields power over the inmates’ bodies and movements (Berson, 80.)” Graney is able to make inmates feel that their voice is not only important, but a necessary part of the art they create together. She provides a platform for vulnerability to be celebrated by their peers, that would otherwise be looked down upon. Graney states, “you have to feel like a person before you can take on anything bigger.” The need to feel accepted and loved is human nature; we seek human connection, even when we try to reject it. In the prison’s you cannot touch another inmate, unless an immediate member of their family has died, and then you are only allowed a thirty second embrace. This is not an environment that harbors emotional health. That is why bringing dance to these prisoners and allowing them to engage in collaborative work with each other is so important. Graney has the inmates share their stories with one another and teaches them how to express themselves through both movement and writing. This experience can be life changing to these women.
I think it is particularly sweet how deeply the relationships she forms with these women become, going so far as to adopt one as her own. The prison system in America is in need of reform. Unfortunately, the majority of people who find themselves in prisons are there because they cannot afford the price of bail. A large part of this project is to interact with a community that you normally wouldn’t, “to interface with what we consider the other. To interface with a population that is segregated, hated, feared (Graney, 83.)” Graney uses questions to stir the conversation between her dancers and the audience. She puts the audience in a place of discomfort by making the performance in the prison itself; striving to help even the playing field. This experience is very rewarding for the inmates as well, as they are given a chance to let their guard down for a moment and work on their emotional well being.
The arts can change the way people handle decision making and disappointments. Sharing some of the skills and coping mechanisms associated with art making with women who have never been exposed to them can change the way a person views the world. Expressing yourself creatively provides an outlet for your emotions. Everyone needs their own vice, and the arts are an incredibly healthy way to handle life’s transgressions. In fact, sometimes the best work comes out of times of hardship. There are even artists such as Ai Weiwei, who despite being locked up behind bars at the time are able to release their art out into the world. There is an innate sense of rebellion in being an artist, as it is to challenge the status quo. I have a friend who works with the Prison Arts Project at Central California Women’s Facility and she said it was the most humbling experience of her life. I hope to use my craft to touch the lives of others, and in turn soften my own heart. This type of work is about the process more than the product; and is a way to build relationships with people whose stories will stick with you forever.