THE BLOG

Staging Buddha

03/29/2012 05:24 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2012

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters, compared to what lies within us." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Adam Gopnik's powerfully compelling piece "The Caging of America" that appeared recently in The New Yorker on January 30, lays out the rampant injustices of the criminal justice system in the United States. The physical and metaphorical structures that comprise the criminal justice system, for many of us, remain remote -- allowing us to maintain the illusion that not only is it possible, it is right and effective to isolate members of our community in order to keep us safe. Yet, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Correctional Surveys, there are more than seven million people who are in prison or jail, on parole, or probation. Ninety-five percent of prisoners return to their communities, and four in ten will return to prison.

With the criminal-justice-involved population having tripled in the past 25 years, legislators, activists, and community leaders are turning their attention to what will keep former offenders from re-offending. Two of the major factors that prevent this are employment and using one's leisure time productively.

Enter the unlikeliest of players and places. In 2007, The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, located in St. Louis, Missouri, partnered with the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis with the goal of redefining museum-based community engagement through the appointment of a full-time social worker. By 2009, a flagship program of this partnership emerged with Staging, an innovative project designed by then director Matthias Waschek, PhD, and me, Lisa Harper Chang, MSW, to build the employment and life skills of two "populations" -- former prisoners and veterans.

In its original context, Staging took place within an exhibition of master paintings as Staging Old Masters (the kind of paintings that you think of when you think of "museums"). A group of clients from Employment Connection, a local social service agency specializing in employment, came together for six weeks of intensive team-building, theater training, skills building, and art exploration. Led by Agnes Wilcox, Artistic Director of Prison Performing Arts, and guest instructors. The participants, hence forth referred to as actors, became a company within six weeks. The actors were united by their profound life experiences, exploring art on view, acquiring theater and performance skills, and, most importantly, learning to trust each other and themselves. Core employment training was provided by the long-standing social service agency Employment Connection. The workshops culminated at the Pulitzer with powerful in-gallery performances of an original work, created by Agnes Wilcox, featuring the words and experiences of the actors.

Fueled by the success of the first Staging project, the Pulitzer embarked on a second iteration, Staging Reflections of the Buddha, which included a series of performances that culminated on March 10. During the most recent incarnation of Staging, the company formed over five months and included clients from the social service agency St. Patrick Center and alumni from the first Staging project, as well as alumni from Prison Performing Arts. Agnes Wilcox repeated her roles as director, lead instructor for the theater training, and scriptwriter, weaving together the stories and reactions of the actors to the artwork on display for the Reflections of the Buddha exhibition -- all ritual Buddhist artworks ranging from the 2nd century to present.

It is important to note that an entire team supported both Staging projects, including Rosemary Watts, who served as the stage manager to both productions, Maggie Ginestra, assistant scriptwriter, case managers from St. Patrick Center and Employment Connection, and, two full-time social workers, Emily Augsburger and myself.

Rather than using words to impress upon you the power of the performances, the interaction of the actors, the way the experiences with the company continue to impact all who come into contact with them, instead I direct you to this video clip of a rap, written and performed by two of our Staging Old Masters actors, and a gallery of photographs reflecting our most recent experiences in Staging Reflections of the Buddha.

The Pulitzer's Staging initiative continues with the actors beyond the performances in a number of ways. On the performance side, each member of the Staging Reflections of the Buddha company has been invited to join the Alumni company of Prison Performing Arts. Concurrently, actors whose goals include obtaining employment are enrolling at Employment Connection. Social workers from both the Pulitzer and St. Patrick Center continue to lead weekly sessions to support the actors as they transition to their next endeavors. Last but not least, a rigorous evaluation of the program and its impact on all individuals involved, from program and partnering institution staff to actors and audience, will be completed in the coming months and available to anyone interested in the results. In truth, how Staging continues is a very real, truly challenging question with seemingly endless possibilities. As you learn more, we welcome the opportunity to hear from you about the process, outcomes, and future of this initiative and others like it.

From its inception, Staging was founded on the belief that each one of us has limitless potential within and that the arts, when coupled with respect and uncompromising commitment to excellence, have a unique ability to help us fulfill our potential. This project is also about deconstructing stereotypes and preconceived notions we have about each other while encouraging us to remember to allow room and provide support for all people to evolve into their best selves.

I frequently hear people talk about the transformative power of art, and I think it's easy to only think of transformation happening to the people with whom we are working, in this case, the actors. But, with Staging, the transformation happens in so many ways. I think it's safe to say that every person who interacted with both companies, either as an audience member, staff member, or guest instructor, has left changed in profound, subtle ways, and that is to the credit of the actors, who embraced both the challenges and opportunities inherent to a new endeavor. Finally, last but not least, the lives of all 30-plus former prisoners, veterans and fellow community members changed the art by breathing new life and meaning into the works and showing once again that art has true social relevance in its ability to teach, inspire, and connect.

To learn more about Staging Old Masters and Staging Reflections of the Buddha, please visit http://stagingoldmasters.pulitzerarts.org and http://stagingbuddha.pulitzerarts.org, or contact Lisa Harper Chang, lharperchang@pulitzerarts.org, one of the founders of the Staging model and Community Projects Director at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.