Karen Piemme has been bringing the art of theater to marginalized populations for 30 years.
The director of Red Ladder, which was founded in 1992, Piemme has focused all her efforts on improving the quality of life for disenfranchised populations in the community. From homeless and runaway youth to the incarcerated, Red Ladder works to bring theater workshops to people who have little access to programs like this one: those that allow them to connect with their creativity.
The name “Red Ladder” represents climbing ever higher to reach for a goal. In this case, the goal is to equip people with the skill set necessary to rise above their circumstances and make different choices for themselves. These life skills are acquired through working together as an ensemble to create a play that arises from issues they find relevant to their lives, and by exploring these issues, they can voice their thoughts and feelings, leading to a feeling of empowerment. They go through a process that Piemme terms “playbuilding,” as opposed to “playwriting;” the inmates improvise, experimenting as they try out new ideas. Whatever works well, they keep. Different parts will be shifted and modified, but eventually, the play comes together as a cohesive whole.
Piemme firmly believes that creativity is the most fundamental human impulse. As children, it is through this medium that we explore the world and learn to problem-solve. Piemme said, “Fish swim, birds fly and human beings create.”
However, as Piemme explained, not everyone has equal access to opportunities that foster creativity and for marginalized populations, and when they are cut off from this core value, they are marginalized even further. According to Piemme, many of the inmates she has worked with have internalized society’s prejudices: that they could never amount to anything more than gangbangers and thugs. A common theme among those who participate in Red Ladder workshops is that they have bought into the expectation of who they would be and what they could accomplish — they believe that is all they could be because they have spent their lives in environments where they could not see an alternative. Piemme has made it her life’s work to show them that alternative.
However, there is no lack of obstacles in this line of work. When the inmates first get to the prison, with some potentially serving life sentences, Piemme and her team are met with an initial degree of skepticism. Piemme is not surprised; she says that these people are accustomed to programs that want to get them to do something. Recovery programs aim to eliminate substance abuse. Religious programs aim to help them find God. But unlike those programs, Red Ladder has no agenda; the program is meant to give them back their creativity.
But the inmates are also accustomed to people and organizations giving up on them, especially teens, who can be difficult to work with. For example, Piemme remembers that at the end of one of the first sessions they had held in the juvenile hall, they had just bid them farewell, saying, “We’ll see you next week,” and one of the kids said, “Sure you will.” They insisted, “No, no, we will.” To which the teen responded, “Yeah, that’s what they all say.”
Piemme explained that many people come in wanting to do good, but are so intimidated by them or find them to be so challenging to work with that they simply don’t come back. So when Piemme and her team do show up week after week, the inmates are always surprised to see them again.
“It develops a kind of trust that a lot of these people have not had with anyone in their lives before,” Piemme said. “They’ve been let down by a lot of people. And there have been a lot of people who have betrayed their trust. So we just keep showing up to be there for them.”
These workshops do more than give them the opportunity to be creative, they also help to develop empathy. According to Piemme, prisons are very segregated — housing units are strategically partitioned by race and along gang affiliation lines. People do not interact across racial lines and will stick to their own because they do not feel that it is safe to do otherwise. Thus the workshop setting is particularly refreshing for the inmates, because it is unheard of for a wide range of people from all racial backgrounds to be interacting with one another.
According to one prisoner, the workshops have changed the way that he behaves in the prison yard. Although the social rules in prison are still present, there are instances in which his experiences in the workshops begins to show itself. In one particular instance, he noticed a lone stranger in the yard and decided to approach him and introduce himself.
“It was not someone that was part of his group; it was not someone with whom he was affiliated,” Piemme said. “So it was a real risk for him to reach out to someone who wasn’t from among his posse and introduce himself and strike up a conversation.”
For Piemme, her work in theater has given her perspective, something that is shared with the people she works with. Theater forces people to imagine themselves in the shoes of other people. They grow in their ability to empathize.
“It makes us other-centered people, rather than a self-centered person,” Piemme said.
They have even incorporated some of the workshop activities into their everyday lives. Out in the yard, they might greet each other with a “slap pass”, which came from one of the warm-up activities in the workshops. Piemme said, “It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m with you. I’m with you.'”
The camaraderie in the workshops belies the circumstances under which they take place. Each prison has its own level of security, and some are more stringent than others. For instance, when working in a level four security prison, Piemme and her team are only allowed in if there is a sniper above their heads and they are wearing body alarms.
“There’s a balance between being aware of your safety and security — which you need to be in that type of environment — [and] having the freedom and spontaneity that exists in doing art,” Piemme said.
Despite the hostile environment, the inmates take full advantage of the workshops. Each workshop consists of about thirty people, divided into smaller groups. They learn to collaborate as a team and take on leadership roles. The creative thinking that goes on in these workshops allow them to problem solve. They build self-esteem. However, the workshops do more than that; it offers them an escape from their reality.
“They would talk about feeling childlike, and finding joy again,” Piemme said. “The number of guys that have said to us, that for the two to three hours that they’re working with us, they’re not in prison anymore, is phenomenal. They are themselves, they’re in the moment, and they’re not seeing the walls around them, or the snipers above our heads, or anything — they’re free.”
However, the unpredictability of the prison environment is yet another obstacle. Sometimes members will fail to show up with no explanation. Piemme speculates that it might be due to rehousing or solitary confinement. It has even happened during final performances. People with lead roles will not be present. However, every time that has happened, someone with a smaller role has stepped up and said, “I can do it. I know that part,” despite never having played that part before. Piemme said that it speaks to the skills that they have developed. They have learned to adjust and adapt to situations, stepping in and helping out one another whenever the need arises.
The impacts that these workshops have go beyond the prison walls. Piemme recalls one instance in which one of the member of a play was scheduled to be released two days before the final performance. He came before the judge, and asked if he could stay in jail for those two days. When prompted for a reason, he explained to the judge, “What I have discovered in doing this work, what has become clear to me, is that the greatest downfall of my life has been that I have never completed anything that I started. Not my relationships, not my jobs, nothing. I cut and run. This is the first opportunity I would have to [do] something meaningful and see it through to a successful conclusion. I need to do this for myself.”
For Piemme, ultimately, her dream is to see former participants start their own theater company in prison, taking it upon themselves to spread the work that Red Ladder has done. Furthermore, she would like to see more programs focusing on helping people transition out of prison. By default, people tend to go back to what they are familiar with. For many people, simply returning to the same neighborhood jeopardizes them because although they may have endeavored to change themselves, the environment around them hasn’t changed. Since the draw to return to the life they had known is very strong, sometimes they must choose not to go back to the same neighborhood. However, newly-released inmates may not have the resources to leave their old life behind. Piemme hopes to continue working with other organizations to provide more resources and programs to help these people overcome the many obstacles they face.
Contact Adelaide Chen at [email protected].