Nov. 1 – 3, 2012
Charter Oak Cultural Center, 21 Charter Oak Avenue, Hartford
www.charteroakcenter.org or (860) 249-1207
For Judy Dworin, choreographer, human rights activist, Trinity professor, and 2012 ‘Voice and Vision Honoree’ of the CT Women’s Hall of Fame, arts are a way to engage with the world, and to understand it more fully. Then arts can become a catalyst for change toward a more just society. Thus it is that for eight years now she’s taken teaching artists from her dance company into York Correctional Facility in Niantic, Connecticut’s only prison for women, to lead writing, movement, and music workshops. “These residencies are transformative experiences for me, for the team of teaching artists, and for the women who live at York themselves,” says Dworin.
Each year, they start with a theme, and develop a dance/theater piece with the inmates over 10 months. Eventually, the work culminates in two performances: one for some 500 prisoners (half the population of the prison), and another for about 100 family members. After the first year of the project, they toured the resulting piece, called In Time, widely — including to the Kennedy Center in DC.
This week, another piece that began in the prison is open to public viewing at Charter Oak Cultural Center. Derived from the 2011 workshops, though now much altered, it’s titled Meditations From a Garden Seat. This 50-minute intermissionless dance/theater piece features eight dancers working against texts from Harriet Beecher Stowe (as spoken by Trinity historian Joan Hedrick, Stowe’s biographer), writing by current and former prison inmates voiced by Kathy Wyatt, and recorded music. Sound design is by Martiza Ubides and lighting design by Blu. The dancers manipulate moveable set units designed by Marcela Oteiza, design professor from Wesleyan. These transform from bare, isolating platforms into botanic islands of dandelions, grasses, and birch branches. Kathy Borteck Gersten is Associate Artistic Director of the JDPP and one of the teaching artists who worked with prisoners at York; she worked closely with Dworin to conceive and develop this piece.
Dworin says: “The garden is a metaphor for what happens to the women at the prison: it can be a place of regeneration and growth. Out of the darkness, and the muck of life experience, can come something else — something beautiful.“
While the prison work on gardens was underway, Dworin visited the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, and saw a button for sale that said “Gardens are a healing place to the soul,” which came from an article Stowe had published titled “Meditations from a Garden Seat.” Awake now to this theme, Dworin was struck by how many paintings Stowe had done of flowers in touring the house.
She returned to reading Stowe, and found garden imagery everywhere. Dworin was particularly struck by the book Stowe published after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, called Dread, in which the swamp is an important setting: a place where escaping slaves could hide on their way to a new life. “The psychic world of prison is like a swamp: a dangerous, mucky place where some people manage to make a new beginning.”
“Often women in prison think of themselves as weeds: everyone outside wants to get rid of them. It’s important for society at large to think about what we want prison to be. We should remember: those we incarcerate are, for the most part, coming back into our midst.”
For Dworin, arts work can provide an “emancipation of spirit” that supports women as they come to terms with their pasts — often laden with abuse, addiction, and domestic violence — and with their own crimes. Stowe spoke of her garden seat as a place that “brought comfort to the heart blistered by the sultry suns of life.” Increasingly, according to Dworin, women in the arts workshops face up to who they have been and begin to form new commitments and new identities.
Women incarcerated at York are from 16 to 70 years old, and the age range of inmates who choose to take part in the workshops is similarly broad. Since York is Connecticut’s only prison for women, it includes all sentencing levels, from minimum to maximum security, from short to life terms. Some of the inmates work in an organic garden there that supplies food to the kitchen; talk of establishing a meditation garden has yet to bear fruit.
Women participate in the workshops by choice, and are encouraged to try more than one arts modality. The teachers encourage crossover. This is also the prison where Wally Lamb has long run writing workshops. Support from prison wardens and staff has been crucial. Joe Lea, media specialist at the library there, is a self-appointed arts coordinator and a particularly valuable ally.
The York Residencies by JDPP have been funded over the years by Community Foundation of South Eastern CT, the Kitchings Foundation, and the Common Sense Fund. Meditations From a Garden Seat has received additional support from the Roberts Foundation, the Long Foundation, the Gerold Lestz Memorial Fund, a Greater Hartford Arts Council Community Events Grant, and the State of Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) Office of the Arts. Free daytime performances for school groups are offered during the day; evening performances start at 7:30pm.