The Healing Power of Performance Art with Judy Dworin Performance Project

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Trust in the journey and the unfolding of our lives no matter where we are planted. Walk a mile in my shoes.

We’ve explored the ways that visual art can improve memory, reduce depression and loneliness, and increase cognitive functioning. But what about the benefits of performance art? The Arts Council provides support to over 100 arts organizations that produce inspiring works of theater, music, and dance. One grantee, Judy Dworin Performance Project, a nonprofit that harnesses the arts in schools and prisons to create positive change, has had empowering affects on artists. I had the fortune of attending the Judy Dworin Performance Project’s annual production of In My Shoes, which tells the story of women currently or previously incarcerated in a creative collaborative performance combining song, dance, and poetry slam. As someone who binge watches Orange is the New Black (Piper Kiernan gave a lecture at the 2013 performance of In My Shoes), I knew In My Shoes was a rare opportunity to hear the challenges women face in prison and when reentering society.  After the emotionally provocative performance, I sat down with Robin Cullen, one of the performers of In My Shoes, as well as Kathy Borteck Gersten, Associate Artistic Director of JDPP, to learn more about the purpose of show and the healing power of performance art for women both in and outside of prison.

What is the goal of In My Shoes? 

Kathy: We don’t want to criticize the system in place and be violent, because we want to find a nonviolent solution. It’s about working together and finding a solution with the community. To understand the value of the arts, the importance of the arts in bringing information and value within our lives, and the continuation of the conversation. We want people to feel pride but in the most humble way. Having been a performer and not performing, it was joyous seeing the commitment, the presence, the power, love and humility. The performance is when the authenticity comes through with humility and honesty.

How has the performance affected the performers and the audience? 

Robin: Performance tells who these people are and give them a sense it’s not an us versus them situation. People who commit crimes aren’t well. We don’t treat them for being sick, we punish them. Over the years they’ve closed down mental hospitals, so people who should be treated in mental hospitals are punished in prison. These are real women in our state who are part of that system, here’s who they really are. Is it working?

The purpose of In My Shoes is for the audience to relate and understand, not pity the performer. We’re sharing stories to show we’re just about being human and being born into circumstance plays a part in how it all works out. When people understand that then they are less likely to judge. It breaks down barriers.

You’re listening to the need and the fact that we are all feeling beings that have a lot of to offer one another. The pieces take people out of their heads. Moves people to heart and soul, hard thinking goes away, listening with heart and soul. That’s when the aha moment hits. The audience walks away a little less judgmental.Why the piece is important? Its this reminder of humanity. The more information we have, information you perceived to be true, may not be true.  Good women making bad choices. Does that make them bad people? No. So how can we be more aware, thoughtful? Maybe when we have the opportunity to give someone a chance?

This type of work enriches life for the audience and performers. It opens a door in someone’s mind – the audience  – that had not been opened before. The process, the way in which Judy and Kathy operate from a place of love and kindness and give direction to people in a way they haven’t experience before – no yelling or screaming – that’s foreign to some people. The general energy that we work that the piece comes out of, it’s a nonviolent space and for many the process has been to come from that place and let go of old ways and behaviors. And to have this entire thing happen without violence or negative energy or bullying, helps people see there’s another way.”

How has performance art helped women reentering society after years of incarceration? 

Kathy:  The arts allow you to define yourself.  A lot of women we’ve worked with – their crime have defined who they are. The arts define yourself. It’s not about catharsis or victimization. It’s about the hard questions. In prison you cant let down your guard. But here, you can be vulnerable. We create a safe space that allows you to be vulnerable, take ownership, and gain support. The arts allow you to take risks and meet other women where they are. Getting out is tough there’s not a lot of support. For [JDPP] to be in a place to continue a relationship with these women and helping them get back on their feet is important to our company.

Robin: The feeling of not being alone. Women sometimes ruminate and think ‘No one’s ever been through this, no one would understand’ and then someone else shares something similar. So they know they’re not alone. The sense of being able to find that camaraderie and support by talking to each other and showing support to other women is valuable. During In My Shoes, people are pulled out of themselves to realize not only is it their voice that’s being heard, but we’re honoring women who couldn’t be on stage for the greater good and that’s motivating. It’s about helping each other get to the next place.

Learn more about the progressive work by the Judy Dworin Performance Project.

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[Photos by Christine Breslin from ‘In My Shoes’ 2014]

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