Change Story, Change Life
by Larissa Lury
Service and Solace Where Arts Meet Need
Those of us who have chosen to make a life in the arts most likely know their value. If we didn’t, it might be impossible to face the wild fluxes that make up any artistic journey. The personal, economic, social, and cultural value of the arts that we as artists experience collides with a minimizing engine of doubt brought to the surface when arts education programs are pulled and as arts funding continually falls away. Add to that the various personal states of lack and it’s easy to fall into uncertainty ourselves. In those moments, it is reassuring to witness the impact of organizations like Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP) and Voices Inside/Out. This month, I spoke with artists and participants involved in both programs and got to see the unambiguous value of what they’re doing, as well as some of the unexpected rewards on all sides.
Less than a month into ASTEP’s Director of Domestic Programs Mauricio Salgado’s first year as a student at Juilliard, 9/11 came. In response, he and his classmates set out to take the skills they were garnering in one of the nation’s top arts programs to give, as Mauricio puts it, “evidence of the power of art.” By the time he and his classmates had graduated and begun conceiving their organization, their professor, Broadway musical director and ASTEP Founder/Executive Director Mary Mitchell-Campbell, had already begun laying the groundwork for her own non-profit with a similar mission. The students and their teacher joined forces and created ASTEP.
ASTEP operates out of a beautiful but tiny office in the Actors’ Equity Building, the size of which betrays the scope and reach of the organization. Their programs utilize visual and performing arts to serve communities across the globe: in New York; Miami; Bangalore, India; Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg, South Africa; and newly, Quito, Ecuador. Two “secrets” make the breadth of ASTEP’s programming possible: first, partnerships with like-minded locally-based organizations, which serve a vast array of populations in need—from children living with H.I.V./AIDS to immigrant, migrant, and farmworker families—and second, a network of exceptionally invested and committed volunteer artists.
The word “empowerment” appears all over the ASTEP website, so I ask Mauricio what it means to him. He gives me one of the most striking definitions I’ve encountered: “It means giving people the power to manage their story, to dictate what happens next in their lives, and to learn the skills to apply that vision.” He elaborates, “The arts help begin to identify the story and to see that taking control of it is possible.”
One among many glowing examples of ASTEP’s emphasis on arts as a means to empowerment is current law student Karthika, a former student at Shanti Bhavan; ASTEP’s partner institution just outside Bangalore. In an interview transcribed on the ASTEP website, she credits her arts education with giving her attention to depth and detail and expresses the will to emulate her ASTEP teachers (specifically Mauricio and his wife, Cindy) in the dedication and appreciation they exemplify for their work and for one another. “There is a constant conflict between the standards society has built for me and the standards I wish to set for myself,” she says. This strongly echoes the confidence and vision to take control of one’s life that Mauricio places at the core of the organization’s mission.
Mauricio admits the difficulty of facing situations that ASTEP’s volunteers cannot change, but sees the strength of the program even in those moments. Recalling one particular instance, tears form in his eyes. He tells of how some community members approached him after he performed with a twelve-year-old girl, expressing how remarkable and important it was that the girl had lit up and shown so much life onstage. They explained that just a year ago, at age eleven, she had attempted suicide, feeling overwhelmed by the burden placed on her to take care of her entire family, since both of her parents had lost their lives to AIDS.
Dancer and ASTEP Volunteer Caroline Fermin describes her year of teaching through ASTEP at Brooklyn International High School as the hardest thing she has ever done. “No matter where you’re from or where you’re teaching, teaching dance in high school is hard. This was particularly challenging. Kids would yell at me,” she says, “They told me they hated me.” She also had to win the trust of some of her conservative Muslim female students who feared that moving their bodies in dance would be perceived as sexual. She credits ASTEP’s group check-ins with helping her to turn the experience around. She ran with an idea generated by the group: to create a music video with her students. The project focused her students on a common goal and even allowed the students who could not move due to fasting for Ramadan the opportunity to participate through location scouting, etc.
ASTEP’s emphasis on group dynamics has filtered into her work as a dancer, particularly with her own company, Gallim Dance, and has also dramatically improved her teaching. Fermin says, “I don’t think I could be teaching at the level that I am without ASTEP. Anyone who volunteers is dramatically changed as an artist, a teacher, a person, a politically aware citizen. ASTEP becomes a type of family, with shared values. We are changed forever.”
Like ASTEP, Voices Inside/Out emerged from artists’ emotional and intellectual response to a need, and the strength of a partnership to support that response. In 2010, actor/director Synge Maher had been asked by the Pioneer Playhouse to visit the all-male Northpoint Prison to read the female roles in plays written by prisoners in the Voices Inside program. She left stunned by the quality of the writing and deeply moved by what the program meant to the prisoners. She looked to producer and PR consultant Lanie Zipoy and writer Montserrat Mendez to help her found an organization that would build on the work of the one she had experienced.
Voices Inside was founded in 2010 by Curt L. Tofteland, the Producing Director of Shakespeare Behind Bars, in collaboration with producer/playwright Robby Henson and his sister Holly Henson (Artistic Director of Pioneer Playhouse), as well as Kentucky-based playwright Elizabeth Orndorff. Together, Lanie and Synge conceived of a residency for playwrights to take place in collaboration with Voices Inside. Professional playwrights would receive $2,000 for an eight-day stint in Kentucky, conducting playwriting workshops with the Voices Inside playwriting class. The plays would subsequently receive readings performed by professional actors in New York. The result is Voices Inside/Out.
Rickie, who was released from prison in March, credits Voices Inside/Out with completely altering the trajectory of his life. “Before, I would have gotten out and run to the nearest dope house, the nearest (excuse my language) whore house—you get the picture. After Voices Inside/Out, I ran to the nearest library, the nearest church, the nearest AA meeting.” When he describes the individuals involved with the program, it comes out as poetry: “We were sitting in the darkness, and they came down through those doors full of light. Those of us with a little light left in us were drawn to their light.”
I ask him what it is about the program that creates the impact he attributes to it. He quotes advice given to him by Voices Inside founder Robby Henson: “True art is when you peel back layer after layer until there’s nothing but the truth.” During his second year in the program, the facilitators challenged him to “bring it like it is, to tell it from [his] heart.” His play told the true story of glancing up at a TV screen and catching sight of his son, dying before his eyes, burned in a fire at his home. He watched strangers carry his son out of the house. Still incarcerated, he could not be there to try to save his son or to have prevented the fire in the first place. He describes writing about it as “cathartic.” He explains, “I was able to get the guilt and the grief on paper.” He observed in the others in the group as well that in “getting a pen to paper, the men started to look at and understand who and what they are as human beings.”
“They need Voices Inside/Out in every prison in America. Truly,” Rickie stresses. “I want to make sure that people understand the power and the majesty of the program.”
At a diner in Long Island City, I sit down with Lanie, as well as the two past resident playwrights, Mac Rogers and Holly Hepp-Galván, and the 2013 Resident Playwright Mel Nieves, who will head down to Northpoint in July. Teaching was entirely new to Mac. “I didn’t know what it would be like to go into a prison, but I was more scared about the teaching aspect of it. I didn’t even have any experience in writing a lesson plan. My wife said, ‘when we’re coming home from a play that you don’t like, you start complaining about it; what if you took all of those things that you complain about to me on the subway, flip them over, and teach the opposite, and that can be your lesson plan?’” So that’s what he did. He emailed Robby Henson with three ideas. “[Robby] picked out the one that he thought I should start with. It was writing a scene in which a dramatic turning point happens in a moment of silence, rather than in a moment of dialogue.” Mac describes the day the men brought in those scenes as “one of the top five best days of my life.” He expounds, “Everybody got it, first of all. It wasn’t a thing that I taught them how to do; it was simply a thing that they already knew very well from their lives, that they just hadn’t transposed into the playwriting part of their brains yet. The fact that I helped to add that tool to their toolbox was one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done.” Watching how engaged the participants were with their plays reminded Mac of the importance of writing in his own life. “Playwriting is a pain in the ass a lot of the time, but I’m so grateful that I’ve got this thing that no matter what’s going on in my life, there’s this solace. More than that, it’s a way of engaging with the most upsetting parts of your life. The fact that these guys showed up and participated in the midst of what was going on in their lives is a good lesson to be grateful that we get to do this. I was pretty appreciative of that.”
Holly unlocked something in her own writing as a result of working with the Voices Inside/Out circle. “I am embarrassed to admit that I went in with a lot of prejudice that I didn’t know I had. I don’t know why, I just assumed that every scene that these men wrote would be, ‘I got a knife on your throat.’ I just assumed that it would be one explosive conflict after another. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This was not what these men wanted to write about. They were more introspective. They wanted to share decisions they had to make, things they were unsure of, questions they had about things they’d done, things they wanted to do, relationships they had had or wanted to have. It was very interesting to me how slowly and beautifully their scenes would unfold. That was really powerful for me, and I found myself going back and looking at my own playwriting. I saw that I had been going from boom moment to ‘ooh when do I get to the next boom moment,’ and I was like, ‘wow, I don’t need to write that way.’ I started to take things slower, allowing things to develop more, and trying to do what I felt a lot of the men did, which is to try to keep that tension simmering in the background, but realizing that not every moment had to be the big explosive, ‘I’m going to get you now’ moment.”
Lanie reveals, “before this program started in 2009, there was a huge riot at Northpoint, where buildings were burned to the ground, and so we’re very lucky to operate as an artistic program in this prison. There are not a whole lot of other avenues or outlets, even for schooling or whatnot; it’s a tenuous situation in some ways.” Hearing about those tensions makes the way Rickie, Lanie, Mac, and Holly describe the atmosphere in the room during the writing workshops all the more remarkable. “I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much in a class as I laugh there,” Lanie says, “It’s one of the funniest places I’ve ever been, and I always say to my playwriting friends, that I wish they could experience a circle like this.”
Mel Nieves, the 2013 Resident Playwright, will head to Northpoint in July. He expects to learn from the participants as much as they learn from him. He says, “What they write, I can’t write, and vice versa.” His expectation hits on the theme present in my conversations with all of those involved in both Voices Inside/Out and ASTEP. It’s a tremendous comfort to behold the extensive generosity of the artists involved in these programs, and inspiring to see the impact and learning that happens on both sides. To call it life-changing, what occurs for both the facilitators and those in the communities they serve, is not an exaggeration.
ASTEP’s Refugee Youth Summer Academy will run from July 8 – August 16, with a performance on August 16. If you are interested in visiting the program or attending the performance, please contact Davinia Troughton at 212-921- 1227. Guests to the performance must be registered with either ASTEP or IRC. More information about ASTEP can be found at asteponline.org.
This fall, Voices Inside/Out will host a post-residency presentation at Theaterlab (357 W. 36th St, 3rd Floor) with Playwright Mel Nieves. Visit their website, www.voicesinsideout.com, later this summer for the date and other details.
LARISSA LURY is a director, teaching artist, and sometimes an actor and an acrobat.