San Quentin Prison, San Quentin California
written by the members of Artistic Ensemble
Current members include: Sebastian Alvarez, Nate Collins, Emile DeWeaver, Amie Dowling, Ronell Draper, Freddy Gutierrez, Gary Harrell, Lemar Harrison, Chris Marshall, Juan Carlos Meza, Tiersa Nureyev, Anouthinh Pangthong, Steven Pascascio, Ira Perry, Maurice Reed, Edmond Richardson, Selby Schwartz, Antwan Wiliams.
Artistic Ensemble (AE), at San Quentin State Prison, is an ongoing collaboration between inside and outside artists. The ensemble meets weekly inside the prison to create original devised work that is performed annually for an invited audience comprised of other men incarcerated at the prison and outside audience members. We have created four evening length pieces: Waterline, Faultline, Ways to Disappear and Site Unseen.
Our creative process is dialogic. Together we explore social inequalities through language, sound, and movement.
It is through the collaborative effort between outside Artistic Ensemble members and incarcerated Artistic Ensemble members, that we take constraints and boundaries and turn them into tools of liberation: art, dialogues, confrontation. Our stories cannot be properly told without the echoes of our voices, you cannot picture our world unless we are behind the camera.
There are spoken word artists, poets, choreographers, dramaturgs, dancers, musicians, actors, etc. incarcerated at San Quentin. The State does not allow inside artists to form groups without a sanctioned outside facilitator. When people from the outside come in and offer State sanctioned art programs some inside artists choose to participate, while others do not. San Quentin is a very active, programmed place; the work the Artistic Ensemble does is not unique.
Artistic Ensemble started in 2013 when a non-profit restorative justice organization reached out to Amie Dowling to find out if she would be interested in offering a 12 week dance/theater/writing workshop. She invited her colleague Freddy Gutierrez to co- facilitate the workshop. After 12 weeks, members requested that the workshop be expanded into a company. The AE is rooted in questions such as:
How can outside artists not replicate the oppression of the prison system?
How can people on the outside engage with those impacted by prisons as thinkers and makers?
How can artists ask more radical questions about the uses of locking people away in the first place?
There is a voyeurism about jails and prisons that is supported by our culture. The walls between inside and out are built not only to keep people on the inside in and disappeared, but also to keep those of us on the outside, out. Because of this separation, images from popular media are able to create a narrative about who is incarcerated and why, perpetuating a voyeuristic relationship with people inside jails and prisons. Our work frames mass incarceration as more than individual acts of criminality or individual responsibility. Rather, the United States’ punishment system is a much larger problem, at the root of which is institutional and racial inequity (Davis 2003; Nellis 2015; Nixon et. al. 2008). As an example, in the state of California, if you are related to someone in jail or prison it is next to impossible to volunteer inside or to attend an event, such as a performance.
What experiences and political perspectives outside audience members bring when they watch our work is wide ranging; some have been incarcerated, some are activists, while others have never questioned or given much thought to incarceration. For those audience members, the live performance may be the first time their assumptions about people who are incarcerated get interrupted. There can be a dissonance between what they walked in believing about prisons, and people housed in them and what they hear, see and feel during the performance and in the post- show discussion. This is manifested in multiple ways- including a utopian naivete.
“We live in a polarized nation. The hard lines that divide liberal from conservative, believer from non-believer, white male supremacist from incarcerated black female are deep. But art is a bridge that allows us to experience another’s life, which is the foundation of empathy. Art is a medium capable of confronting its consumers with the human condition, and when we’re confronted by a human face that penetrates all the barriers we create to deny our fraternity with the “other”, the hard lines dissolve. Given all this, art can create a space for dialogues that aren’t happening, dialogues that run across the hard lines.”
— Emile DeWeaver
After each of our performances, an audience member usually asks us to talk about how we made the work. Often the process is described by what it is not: it is not a play, it does not have characters or a script, it was not made by one individual, it was not easy. We have been trying to find a way to describe the creative process that clarifies what we do.
Our creative process is not linear; inspiration comes from multiple sources and not always in a timely fashion.
We strive to create an artistic space within a punitive, regimented, linear, hierarchical system. In this system, order, schedules, and a single logic prevail as a means by which rules/placement in the hierarchy/right/wrong are deciphered.
Some ideas are found at the very last minute, even during dress rehearsal. We pay attention, we make room for last minute gems. Ideas and images come from multiple sources: personal stories, writings, current events in the world, and movement metaphors. Performative structures for those ideas are brought to the group by inside and outside members and are developed over months of experimentation.
The four performances we have created are assemblages. Each section in the work is stronger because of the other sections, and each individual is a part of the whole, with the role of each member being different. Not all ideas are fully realized and not everyone is ‘equally’ presented in any performance--however,
There is a hierarchy in our creative process. We have found that it is necessary to have a director. What this title means has differed for each piece. However in each piece, at various points in the making process, the director has held the overall vision of how the sections are connected.
As inside and outside artists, working in an inhumane system, we strive to develop a creative process that supports our humanity - one that considers the way we make, the way we attend to ourselves and each other - one where the day in-ness and day out-ness of the work is given as much weight as the day of the performance. We hope that those who choose to view our work can recognize in it our struggles, imperfections, beauty, hope, and determination.
An incarcerated person's body, its presence or absence, its power and its vulnerability, are all intensely realized in jails and prisons - institutions that emphasize control, segregation, solitude, and physical containment.
2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S., 6.2 million on parole and probations, 64 million people who have criminal records affecting their ability to find housing, receive food stamps, get jobs and vote.
When AE performs in San Quentin, they make their bodies the site of art, rather than the site of disposability. Prisons exists in today’s society to confine, constrict and control the body. Dance, of all the performing art forms, foregrounds the self-expression, self-representation and liberation of the body. By merging these two, seemingly disparate worlds together, by bringing those most affected by mass incarceration into the center of the creative process, performance work in prisons can develop a potent physical aesthetic and political ‘language.’
It’s important that the work interferes the narratives of good/bad, victim/perpetrator, dichotomies that create opposition. The performances are not intended to entertain, numb, or relieve audiences. They are not intended to create a sense of utopia, but to raise questions and doubts about our country’s system of punishment. AE performances draw on personal experiences and analyze mass incarceration as being, in the words of Michelle Alexander, “...a comprehensive and well designed system of social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow” (The New Jim Crow, pg.4). AE strives to develop a creative process that supports humans in an inhumane system, while asking questions about the uses of locking people away in the first place.
The problems that have led to mass incarceration are so complex that the solutions must be equally complex, and thus we must start having complex conversations. The arts can and should play a role in that public discourse, because works of art can make people look at mass-incarceration through a different lens, a lens that encompasses heart and mind. (V. Nixon, Columbia University. Art and the Politics of Mass Incarceration, 2014)
I am always learning, personally and professionally. In my 20’s as a company member in the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, I became interested in using dance as a tool for engaging in social/political issues. In 2000, when my nephew was sentenced to prison, I started offering dance/theater workshops in the local jail; it was through that work that I became conscious of the Prison Industrial Complex. I am learning from Dr. Reggie Daniels, my mentor and colleague. His artistry, patience, and friendship help shape my thinking and art making process. Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, Tara Yosso, Emile DeWeaver, Robin DiAngelo and others teach me through their writing. And I continue to learn from the artists and scholars I meet and work alongside in jails and prisons.
I’ve been working inside jails and prisons for almost 20 years. Part of the reason I’m permitted to enter these spaces, and work with the content that arises, is because, as a white woman, I’m not suspect. Who it is that gets through the prison gate to volunteer in a jail or a prison is political. My university job, financial stability, and my middle age, give me access that is often denied to others.
Today the phrase NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US has developed into an important critique of art and literature that revolves around issues of incarceration. It is within this context, that I, a white woman artist, am grappling with my role at a more nuanced level. Discussions have shifted, as this reflection encounters what equity means in creative projects when its subject concerns communities of color. I have moved from a place where the act of intervention meant simply to shine a light on what I consider to be the most significant social justice issue that we face, to the implications of my own engagement. I continue to be challenged by what my role can/should be.
At this point my commitment is to do what I can to more fully support the artists inside, and to assist artists of color who are interested in this work. The communities that are directly impacted and the women and men who were, or are, incarcerated are the artists and scholars with the insights, information and knowledge to make change, they are the leaders we need.
“As everyone leaned in to hear the conversation, it struck me that the Artistic Ensemble is characterized by this extraordinary capacity to listen deeply, to share, to witness, to make others feel heard and seen. Without the devices and inventions that distract us in our outside lives, the AE seems to cultivate a quality of generous, focused attentiveness that most of us have lost. It is a terrible irony—a blessing born of deprivation—but also something that I feel I am slowly learning back again from the group. We see this in the final scene, when the stones spell out “We Are Here.” It is a resounding call to remember that we as a country have instituted a politics of exclusion and incarceration that locks up people who have so much to give back to the world—their artistry, their humanity, their intellect, their caring, their teaching, their resilience. But it is also a reminder, like the sheet that Maverick stretched out to me as he edged himself forward on the floor, his breath ragged, seeking a hand that would reach back to connect with him, that among the things you have to give us, one is your here-ness, your commitment to being present for each other. You are willing to trust each other: to fall backwards, as Choi does, into an outstretched nest of arms that you know will be there.”
— Selby Schwartz, Audience member