Address: Vancouver, BC Canada

Chalk

2010 William Head on Stage Theatre Production “Chalk”

Acknowledgements to SNAFU Dance Theatre

Artistic Director: Ingrid Hansen
Drama Workshops: Anne Cirillo

 

Personal Impressions of an Inmate Drama with a Universal Message

by Elizabeth Carmack

 

Personal Isolation versus Social Belonging

Overcoming inhibitions is difficult at the best of times let alone on stage, in prison, between inmates. How is it possible that dance can access and transform an individual’s inner world of isolation to an external social experience for the public? How does a life of silence... a life silenced through prison existence... speak so powerfully through the art of movement, gesture and dance? How does the individual actor... prison inmate... move from a place of inner isolation to a sense of social belonging?

 

Childhood is a Universal Experience

An experience I share with all of humankind, despite differences in culture, creed, nationality, language and gender... as well as, religious belief, skin colour, and social status is childhood. An inmate theatre production drawing on the universal experience of child’s play inspires human sympathy, affirms shared identity, and creates sense of community beyond parameters shaped by social differences and innate prejudices. The broader sense of community to which we all belong emerges from the fact that we have all been children with a love to communicate that has created the origins and essence of our very existence and identity. Through ‘Chalk’ I am immediately drawn into a world of childhood experience, in which I hold vague recollections of universal acceptance of everything and unconditional love for everyone. Free from social prejudice... lacking a vocabulary of value judgements... with no need to criticise... I see the latent child within my inner life emerge... silent on the stage... unable to speak... I ask myself, “How long has my child been silenced by the heartless need to conform to social norms in adult life? Can I hear my child speak within me? Or have I lost the ability to listen to a voice silenced by external authority?” Joy, acceptance and trust are the primary emotions that shape children’s lives and experience. As the WHoS inmate theatre production unravels before my eyes – this year’s production ‘Chalk’ – a dance performance accompanied by music, but cast in silence, the mystery of childhood experience, imagination and interaction unfolds before me.

 

A Stronger Subtext than Scripted Text

On the surface ‘Chalk’ explores how loneliness in childhood results in existential dependency that enkindles unconditional friendship/s. We see how children inhabit a world of make-believe equated with and depicted by books literally used on stage as stepping stones and building blocks of discovery that free the imagination. A child rarely, if ever experiences fear except when alone in the dark or caught in direct conflict with an individual of authority. However, we see on stage that when a child’s safety is threatened, it is human nature to be consumed by terror.

 

Despite the absence of a text, I was surprised to discover in conversation after the play that some inmates thought ‘Chalk’ had been scripted. An elaborate drama production drawing on dance techniques ‘Chalk’ was clearly choreographed, but could you say it was scripted? Without being informed... I would not have been able to identify the eight episodes in the plot explored and developed through separate workshops. Children enacting animals and birds of choice in an imaginary landscape... as well as experiencing greater physical freedom through flight pretending to be aeroplanes... must have been the ideas that were clearly scripted. But such imaginations interpreted by each actor in a completely unique way meant HOW the ideas were imbued with the spiritual life and personal experience of each inmate was far more important than WHAT ideas they aspired to present through their performance. For me the value of the plot would have been lost if one interpreted ‘Chalk’ solely in terms of content. The transitory episodes were a rich tableau of childhood experience/s, but came to life because of how they liberated the child within each inmate. Not only WHAT was depicted on the stage, but HOW the pictures came to life wakening a sense of the mystery of childhood... at the heart of everyone’s existence... was for me far more central to this prison production.

 

Human Condition = Prison House

Was it just the context of prison I was burdened by or the overwhelming tragedy we all experience plagued by the human condition? Children are free from any foreknowledge of the burden that awaits each one of us in adult life. We confront the prison house of the human condition with varying degrees of despair. The human condition is a prison house existence we all suffer from and how painful to have such a truth drawn to our awareness through the plight of inmates in prison. Was this really prison I was experiencing while watching ‘Chalk’? Or was it the childhood innocence depicted on the stage that created such a stark contrast for me catalysing a sense of my own predicament? Deprived of all humanity are we not all inmates in the prison house of the human condition?

 

Freedom for Children, Suffering for Adults

The children we see on the stage are completely together. Enrapt in their games and imagination they move in harmony. Their identity emerges from a sense of belonging to the group... existing solely for each other. The self-consciousness that develops in adult life means that one learns to exist primarily for oneself, rarely sensitive enough to consider the needs of others. Emerging from childhood to adolescence we have already created a masked exterior that desensitises us to the core of others. This transition from child’s world to adult perspective was beautifully portrayed in how the pain of punishment seemed somewhat less, when an innocent child took the blame for her guilty friend. Thus ultimately a collective sharing of guilt and pain emerged on the stage that portrayed the inner conflicts, but healthy conscience of any caring parent. Most parents would gladly spare their child the suffering inflicted by others... especially once they have recognised how their own flawed choices and errors of judgement have directly resulted in their child receiving such punishment. The action on the stage moves on quickly... In the absence of conscious concern for others... through carelessness leading to unintentional brutality... an individual dies before our very eyes... reminiscent of gang violence now a common crisis in society... comparable to a scene from William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies.’ Once the crime is witnessed by all the children... the far reaching consequences of their tragedy start to work upon them. The truth slowly closes in upon the children… which seems to wake a parallel narrative in the painful memories of the inmates on stage. From no sense of personal involvement or acknowledgement of accountability... from impartiality and indifference to realisation of personal loss and crisis of remorse... with hope of resurrection and a new life... every moment created out of the collective imagination of the group of actors... inmates... lifers... moves to an epiphany. The external developments on stage visibly impact the imagination of the inmates as their drama about children at play shifts to an awakening to restorative justice, their care free social interaction catalysing an awakening to personal accountability as their physical action transforms into an inner awakening of conscience. The inner lives, past experience, and uncontrollable drives that society so deeply fears and criticises these men for have apparently been overcome. A paralysing act of silence in the past has been transformed through a creative act of silence in the present. The paralysing silence that envelopes the criminal conscience has been communicated... The spell of silence broken... Active conscience voiced... Empathy for the victim experienced... Death now witnessed… All is transformed into new life...

 

Creative Potential

How is it possible to draw on inner private experiences such as crimes of conscience that drive the individual into extreme isolation, but refigure them as successful drama and social harmony? Was it the deeper undercurrent of the inextinguishable child within these inmates that gave them the essential courage to transform themselves before the public eye? How did they inspire our joy, acceptance and trust... if not by working out of their own deeper identity as liberated children? Catching every adult off guard by reuniting us with our own lost voice of innocence and childhood... a reality we all face alienated by social pressures and false authorities. My fractured inner life was able to find new coherence and integrity as I breathed in the life of the drama... reunited with an inner world of lost childhood... which I share with every inmate. The prison performance of ‘Chalk’ affirms that we exist together... held together by a universal truth we all share: childhood, early childhood experience creating our sense of belonging to humanity. Despite our personal differences that isolate us from one another as adults... we were united in our sense of belonging together as children. Deep embedded memories of childhood liberated spiritual resources to transform the present. ‘Chalk’ reunited us... with our innate creative potential as children to forge a sense of greater humanity... inmate and audience alike.