My sister-in-law, Dawn, is flying the flag against gun violence and is involved in making a difference for our future. However, her activism didn’t just start with the senseless deaths in Connecticut last year. She has been a strong proponent for those in need via…theater. I think Dawn is a wonderful power of example and an awesome mom. And without further ado:
On becoming our best selves…
A number of years ago I spent some time in a shelter for runaway teens. Later on I found myself in a home for battered women and their children. And finally I landed in prison. Now before your imagination races away with you let me tell you that I am in fact not a runaway, or a battered woman or a former criminal. I am a teaching artist who uses theatre as an educational tool in community settings. Or in many cases settings that are removed from the community and from society in general.
For many years I pursued an acting career and found that it did not satisfy the part of me that wanted to make a difference in the world, the part of me that just wanted to do good with my life. In 2006 I was lucky enough to see a play that was written and performed by a group of high school girls from Harlem. It forever changed the way I view theatre. The girls beamed with pride as they took their curtain calls and I later learned that they had been part of a program designed to foster leadership skills in young inner city women using playwriting and performance. I also learned that every single girl in the play had been accepted into college – something that for their school and neighborhood was an unexpected accomplishment. I decided then and there that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to use everything I love about theatre to teach and to help people better their lives. I received my Masters degree in Educational Theatre from NYU and began teaching workshops in schools across New York City, in shelters, in prisons, and even in a rural school on the island of Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa. I’ve used theatre to teach literacy, to teach public speaking and on a more human level, to teach skills we need as humans – discipline, teamwork, critical thinking and empathy. To me, theatre must have meaning, and in an ideal world the viewing and creating of theatre will teach us a valuable lesson about ourselves.
People who oppose my prison work often complain that “prisoners doing plays” sounds like a waste of time. I usually explain that it is so much more than merely doing plays. It’s teaching prisoners skills they will need when they re-enter society. But first I ask these folks a question a very wise woman once asked me: “They will be getting out someday”, she said. “How do you want them?” Do you want them to have sat in prison becoming bitter and angry? Or do you want them to come out having had an experience that made them want to be better people?
I may sound naïve or overly romantic, but I believe that learning through theatre can make us all better people. We expand our worldview, we learn to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we learn what we are capable of and we grow from the experience. I feel blessed to have made this my life’s work. And even more blessed that I can share it with my child, who is my one and only student these days. I am a stay at home mom, but a teacher still, using theatre and the arts to encourage my son to grow into his best self.