Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Conspire Theatre, Austin: Interviews with Artists Working with Incarcerated Women

Discussions with the co-founders of Conspire Theatre, Austin, TX: Katherine Craft in a KLRU interview from February, 2013, and Michelle Dahlenburg speaking with on October 11:
Conspire Theatre Austin TX

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Michelle Dahlenburg is the co-Artistic Director of the Austin, TX-based Conspire Theatre, a company that provides theatre programs for women during and post-incarceration. I recently talked with Michelle about her work.

So to begin, could you talk a little bit about Conspire? Your mission, your work, how you got involved.

Sure. So the mission of Conspire Theatre is “to offer incarcerated women and their allies a healing and empowering experience through theatre and creative writing. Our vision is that every woman realizes her potential as a creative, worthy being.” We’re working on shifting some of the language with our mission statement, actually. We don’t like the label of “incarcerated women,” and are trying to shift more towards “Theatre with Women During and Post-Incarceration” as our tagline, especially as our projects grow and change.

Oh interesting. So has that become part of your focus as well, working with women post-incarceration?

Yes, just recently! Before I get into that, though, I’ll give you a quick background of conspire and how I got involved, if that’s okay?

Yes, that’s perfect.

In 2009 my friend Katherine Craft had just finished her MA in Applied Theatre. She founded Conspire Theatre in Austin as a 10-week theatre/writing workshop for women incarcerated at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle, TX (near Austin). Meanwhile, in 2008, I was in Chicago preparing to go to graduate school in Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities)at UT. I found out about Still Point Theatre Collective in Chicago, who do many great projects, one of which is working with women during and post-incarceration. I saw their show “Strong Women” with released women and got really interested in working with women currently incarcerated. I met with the artistic director there and we talked about a possible internship with them. So in summer 2009 after my first year of school, I went back to Chicago and did an internship with Still Point. I got to co-teach a class at the Cook County Jail with another teaching artist. It was really hard, and intense at times, but the work was incredibly rewarding. I loved it.

So then I went back to Austin and happened to meet Kat. We both had a similar interest in using joy and play as a way of connecting with women in jail, as opposed to having the women just talk about why they were in jail/prison (also important, but sometimes tends to
[. . . ]. In summer 2011, I was finishing my thesis, and Kat asked if I would be interested in teaching at the TCCC with her. I said yes, and we had a fantastic 10-week workshop. At the end of the summer we decided to take the next step and move Conspire Theatre from an occasional 10-week project to becoming an organization.

Here’s how the programming stands now: the whole project is called “The Possibilities Project.” It has two parts: “Rehearsing Possibilities” and “Performing Possibilities” RP is the in-jail program. We have two weekly classes, one in minimum security and one in max. They last about 1.5 hours each and are pretty self-contained each week because the participant turnover is so high. So it’s very difficult to do something like a play. So we structure it so there’s a small sharing of some kind at the end of each class, because we might never see some of them again. So that’s challenging. It’s taught me a lot about how to create space and connections REALLY quickly.

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