from MasonARC’s Interview Blog Series: The Impact of Covid-19 on Arts Programing, Practice, and Research
Lesley Currier and Dameion Brown were interviewed together to talk about the work they do at Marin Shakespeare Company.
Alenamie Alegrado: Could you tell me about your background in the arts and your current role at Marin Shakespeare Company?
Lesley Currier (Founding Managing Director, Marin Shakespeare Company): I’ve been doing theater since I was a kid, and I’ve been developing this company for 32 years. For 18 years, we have been teaching classes in prisons — we have offered after school and summer camps for much longer than that.
Dameion Brown (Artist in Residence, Marin Shakespeare Company): My background in the arts started when I was a child, but acting in the theater actually came from Lesley. When I entered her class, I didn’t see an acting bone in my body, but she paid attention to things in me that I could not see and was bold enough to challenge me. Someone believing in me brought me to the stage, and since then, I have been able to make connections with other young men who grew up the way that I did.
Alenamie: Could you tell me more about the projects you are working on?
Lesley: When it’s not a pandemic, we put on plays and do classes with mostly youth. We do Shakespeare programs in prisons, which are typically 35 weeks, that culminate in a performance of a Shakespeare play by the actors in our group. We also work with military veterans who are incarcerated to tell their stories through theatre. We also have a program called drama for re-entry, which is a 12-week program that’s designed to give people an opportunity to rehearse how they want to act when they go back home. We hire actors to be part of what we call the return citizens theater troupe, and they tell their stories through theater and engage in community dialogue. During the pandemic we’ve been hiring returned artists for a variety of other creative projects like creating videos and curriculum to take back into prisons. Dameion is one of the lead teachers at our program at Alameda Juvenile Hall.
Dameion: Alameda Juvenile Hall has young children who have a variety of problems. They put on shells for protection until they start to play. When they start to play and sink back into themselves again, that is beautiful to me. Some children wouldn’t choose Shakespeare on their own, but I love watching them lose their fear of it by putting Shakespeare in their own language.
Alenamie: How has that work you do changed in response to the pandemic?
Dameion: It changed. Before, we would go in and could feel the energy of the children. When you’re in the room, you can feel the energy, you can get this timing. We can’t do that now. It takes more time and feeling to get them to understand William Shakespeare’s expression.
Alenamie: What does your program look like virtually?
Lesley: We email the materials in advance, then the staff makes copies and hands it out to the young men in advance, so they have an idea of what’s coming.
Dameion: There are Zoom tiles for Lesley and myself or myself and Tony. We work with a few individuals who are in a room together with a guard or a counselor present. We give them a moment to express themselves to see where everyone is so we land in a safe and healthy place. The packages have helped, but you have to find different ways to greet the mind now.
Alenamie: Has the number of people you work with changed since you went virtual?
Lesley: I think the numbers are about the same. We don’t seem to stop locking up troubled young people. We work in the reception unit for the institution, so the young men aren’t there long-term. We have been creating programming that works if they’re here for one week or two weeks.
Dameion: Group size varies with the misfortunes of the children. If the children had a hard week, more children choose to attend group. If it has been a good week for the children, fewer children choose to attend group. We want the number of children in group to be zero.
Alenamie: How do you create and maintain connections in groups through masks and virtual attendance?
Dameion: The mask is a real teaching barrier. Not being able to see the lips. Not being able to see the expression on the face. We invite the use of more hand gestures. Hand gestures are a language all by themselves. You notice hand gestures when they’re upset and hand gestures when they’re having fun. When I can’t see their face, hand gestures become a guide.
Alenamie: Are there any new practices you’ve created in response to the pandemic that you intend on keeping?
Lesley: There’s a lot of silver linings with Covid-19, but not being able to teach in-person isn’t one of them. There’s a lot of exercises that we do when we’re in person that are impossible or very challenging to do by Zoom like getting people to do physical exercises in a space. It’s hard when you’re not there to encourage and model.
Alenamie: Do you feel there’s been a change in attention and/or support for the arts, artists, and teachers?
Lesley: Not nearly enough. Within the last six or seven years in California, there has been an increase in funding for arts programs in prisons, but what we really need is to get rid of our prisons, send people home, and invest in arts programming for people before they go to prison.
Alenamie: Do you use arts research or bring people in to conduct arts research?
Lesley: Research is fabulous, but theatre administrators are so busy trying to find funding for our programs, create programs, hire the right teachers, and get everybody paid that doing the actual research to show the impact of these programs is a little beyond us. Beyond us in terms of our skill sets but also in terms of the time and resources to put into it. It’s particularly difficult if you’re in a carceral setting because there’s so many rules that you must follow to do any kind of research.
Alenamie: Do you have any research question of interest for your program?
Lesley: Does this program have an impact? If so, what is the impact? Do the participants find value in this work? What would they change if they could change anything about the program?
Dameion: Where is art present in your life? Have you returned to our program? If you are an artist, what is the likelihood of you being incarcerated? If you discovered art in the program and then brought it out with you, is the likelihood of you returning to the system similar to those who have never been to prison?
Alenamie: How do you view the arts ecosystem – the connection between artists, practitioners, consumers, researchers, and policymakers?
Dameion: For the most part, I feel like we are not connected the way we should be. The pieces are there in earnest, but we have not been able to make the time to cross the bridge so that we’re all one breathing organism. We should have more forums, whereby all artists are encouraged to come. I believe that there has been enough money and access to arts that someone could fund this grand affair where every artist is around the table and discussions start to happen. If we made art a priority, imagine what problems we could solve.