Being Seen

The rusty cracking sound of the gate opening to reveal the sinuous desolation of prison territory was not a new endeavor. Only a small amount of time has elapsed since I last left these women laughing and witnessing each other in the imaginal realm of the theatre. The scene is the same as before, as if I never left. We, as free agents in the world change, but the landscape of prison remains, suspended like many of its inhabitants’ hopes and dreams.

One of the greatest challenges for me as a theatre arts facilitator, whether in the context of conflict transformation, peacebuilding, community restoration, or healing,  is the necessary task of creating a safe space for participants to feel validated and heard, while navigating the field with a limited knowledge of past narratives, many of which include extensive trauma histories. Rather than seeing this as a limiting deficit, or a way to remain in the role of victim, theatre offers the tools to illuminate the body as a living library of strengths and resources.

One of the highlights of this day including an exercise which I refer as the “Specto-gram.” It is a way to examine social similarities and differences within a group without using words. The women were asked to write answers to the following questions  on three separate sheets of paper, omitting any identifying information: “What is one goal or intention you have for yourself today”, “Name one negative thought you had as you came to class today”, and “What would you like to be different at the end of class today.” I identified a solid black line, outlining the basketball court on the gym floor and told them that this would be our spectrum. I informed them that I would proceed to read all of the answers and depending on how they felt in response, they could place themselves accordingly on the line. The farthest stage right would be “definitely”, center would be “neutral”, and stage left would be “not at all.” Of course they could place themselves in between for “maybe” and a “a little.” The permission to be anonymous created a sense of safety and significantly decreased any perceived threats. The atmosphere was lighthearted and eventually escalated to strong outbursts of laughter as the women began to feel more comfortable claiming their answers and admitting who wrote what. The unity created through anonymity was a powerful tool to establish  the collective consciousness and overall temperature of the of the group, in addition to encouraging participants to take the risk of “being seen.”

As I left the premises that day and the lingering breeze of summer blew my hair across my face, the echo of the women’s laughter rings joyfully in my ear. The scene has changed as the gate musically swings shut. The light reflects off the pavement like glitter against the desolate landscape. Knowing that we are not alone in our suffering is a measure of comfort that transcends time and space.