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At the state prison in Purdy, creating theater behind bars

Florangela Davila

There’s something about art that has the power to heal, for both those performing it and those watching it.

That is precisely why Seattle’s Freehold Theatre Lab teaches creative writing to the women locked up in the Washington Corrections Center for Women at Purdy. The program helps the inmates weave their past and dreams into stories they perform on stage.

Prison isn’t exactly the most natural space for theater, says inmate Amanda Songer.

"It’s actually something that doesn’t really make sense," she said. "It’s not something you think about: theater being in prison. But for some reason, it fits for the people who do the program because we don’t think of it as theater. We write about things that are our lives, things we’ve been through."

The program invites the women to share their experiences through creative writing exercises. Then the women, with the help of Freehold volunteers, stitch together a play to perform for the prison community, as well as invited family and guests.

"It’s kind of like being brave enough to put it out there and show it. Gives you the feeling of, ‘I made it through this. I made it through this, and I’ve told everybody about it. I’ve shown them how I went through it,’” Songer said.

The theater program, called the Engaged Theatre Program and, includes both touring productions as well as residencies in unique venues.

It was founded by Freehold's artistic director Robin Lynn Smith, who first visited Purdy in the late 1980s with a group of theater students who were researching a play about jail.

"We took scenes in there, and the women inside gave us great coaching. I mean they told us, 'That’s not how a pimp moves!'" she said.

Smith came back with a staged production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” And after the performance, she held a creative writing workshop for the inmates.

"We were blown away: the characters they would create, the stories they would tell, the scenes they would come up with, the poetry they would launch into," she recalled. "And they looked at me at the end of the workshop, some of the women that were there, and they said, 'Can we keep doing this?' And I went, 'Uh, I don’t know. I’ll find out.'"

  That was ten years ago. And now she leads volunteers in a months-long residency program at Purdy each winter.

The theater work takes place in a small stuffy room just off the prison gym. Eleven women, each wearing the standard uniform of gray sweatshirts and sweatpants, rehearsed a scene based on a "hook" poem they each wrote.

All the poems shared the same first line, "which was ‘I put on a cape for.’ Then you kind of fill in the blank," Songer said. "And you repeat that. ‘I put on a cape for fallen warriors. I put on cape for my mom and dad."’

What did Songer write?

"I put on a cape for my mother and daughter so that I can make them proud."

This year's play focused on suicide and bullying and the search for self-esteem. The stories were intimately personal, but the women sometimes end up performing someone else’s story. The reason? It helps teach them empathy, Smith says.

The Engaged Theatre program uses no state funds, and requires that inmates stick to strict rules or get kicked out. It took Songer three tries before she could stick with the program from beginning to end. She says the process is a lot like being in therapy. And it's not just about reflecting back.

"There’s some stories…where sometimes the ending hasn’t happened yet. But that’s what we put into the play. So it’s like putting a closure to something that hasn’t happened yet. Or finding a way to work through it so when we get out of here we can deal with it when we get out,” she said.

After eight years behind bars, Songer is scheduled to be released from prison in October. Freehold will return for its 11th Engaged Theatre residency at Purdy next winter.