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  • Clearie McCarthy

Conversations from Grace House

Still Point operates a theatre apprenticeship inside Grace House Transitional Home on Chicago’s west side. As a part of our Persephone Project, our organization offers part-time employment for women transitioning from the Illinois prison system to write, produce and perform an original play.

In our work with returning citizens, we focus on creative writing and improvisation in hopes that it will allow our participants to feel heard, respected, and empowered to share their stories of what it means to be justice impacted in the United States with the larger community.

As illustrated in this Prison Policy Initiative graph, Incarceration rates for women in Illinois stand out globally:


It is also important to recognize that returning citizens in the U.S. face collateral consequences that can extend far beyond a release date. These consequences of incarceration, also known as permanent punishments, allow for legalized discrimination around housing, employment, and education. A team at Heartland Alliance recently published a special report on the ways in which prison impacts people even after release. The team is quoted as saying:

“This first-of-its-kind study confirms that more than 3.3 million people in Illinois could be impacted by permanent punishments as a result of prior ‘criminal justice system’ involvement, which is more accurately referred to as the ‘criminal legal system’ given the well-documented inequities that bring into question whether the system actually brings justice to people who come into contact with it.”

Still Point Theatre Collective’s Persephone Project at Grace House seeks to address barriers to employment head-on. By offering part-time work through a creative apprenticeship, our program offers a brave space for participants to restore their identity and regain agency over their own stories. As Deasmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition so aptly states: “We must put those closest to the pain closest to the power because they are the ones closest to the solutions!”

Earlier this year, a valued volunteer and friend of Still Point, Ariel Trocino, M.P.H., conducted interviews with members of our Grace House ensemble about what being in the program has meant for them. Please enjoy one such interview:

*Please note this interview has been edited for purposes of brevity and anonymity. None of the original language has been altered.

Ariel: What are you hoping to achieve in working with StillPoint? Like what will make it successful for you?

Interviewee: It’s just getting an opportunity to, to you know, just to be charismatic, to be able to turn it on and off. You know, uh… I watch a lot of tv and they making a lot of money doing it- just saying! You know, I think I could do it too! So it just gives me an opportunity to know that I can act also.

A: Yeah! Is there anything that is difficult about it to you?

I: Um… I wouldn’t say anything is difficult, it’s just um… it’s a process, you know? It’s learning something new and um, and just getting involved.

A: And what about writing, or talking about your feelings, or getting up and doing improv- is any of that difficult?

I: No! No, absolutely not. No, um, actually because, you know that was probably one of my best subjects in school, which was English and writing. So, that is not a problem because I know how to reach inside and talk about things, and so, it, that was the easy part.

A: Something you liked doing before, yeah. Great! Um, so, this is a big shift- do you feel like you experience stigma around having been incarcerated? So, that means like, finding housing, finding employment, or your family or friends, do they treat you differently?

I: So, you know, it’s a shame that people have a tendency to judge a book before they even open up the book and read it. You know? So, I just, me, myself, personally? Certain areas, certain arenas, I don’t even talk about the incarceration piece in my life. I don’t talk about the drug addiction in my life, because it, it does not define who I am today.

A: Right, and you don’t want to give them a chance to …

I: To even know.

A: To make opinions about you before…

I: Nope, nope, nope.

A: Right. Do you have any relationship with your family?

I: Well I have two grandchildren, yeah, my daughter, she passed in 2016.

A: I’m sorry.

I: Yes, she was 34 years old. And that was my only child.

A: Very young.

I: My mom, she passed three weeks after I got home from prison.

A: I’m sorry.

I: Yeah, so you know, that was like the core of my family. My mom, my daughter, and my daughter’s two sons. You know, um, however, I had to… when I suffered the loss of my mom, I started drinking, smoking weed, to just… to just… the most, right? And April the 10th of 2019, I was like, I can’t do this no more, this is too much. You know? Um, I was, my mom’s house was coming up for foreclosure, it was just too much going - lights went out, you know, I was getting no help from my siblings, they, everybody has got something to do, you know. So it was just, you know, it was an opportunity to see I had no one but me and God, pretty much, for me to get my life together. So. I packed up my bag and I went to treatment.

A: Damn, wow.

I: Right, so, I just fell back and said, okay let me go ahead and go into the Grace House. And it’s been like the best decision I ever made.

A: What about the things you write, do you think you can share them with your grandkids?

I: Of course, yeah. I even save some of them, one of them was saying, you know… how much that I love my grandkids, right, and that’s why I be hugging them and kissing all on they cheeks and stuff… and you know, they boys, they be like, the oldest one be like… go on, grandma! But I don’t care, you might as well get used to it!

A: You’re a grandma! You have to kiss him, that’s how it works!

I: Until you too old or I can’t catch you, one or the other.

A: You’re grandma! Grandma’s kiss! That’s what it is.

I: Yes, yes.

A: You do you think, maybe not for your family, but do you think for the audience that comes, that ya’ll sharing your stories can help reduce the stigma around being incarcerated?

I: Absolutely.

A: So what do you think, why do you think that happens? Why do you think that reduction in stigma happens?

I: Because it gives the audience a chance to see that we’re people too. You know? No matter what. We just some people that made mistakes, you know and, if you really think about it, a lot of people do a lot of things that could have went to jail, however they just didn’t get caught- that’s it, that’s all. So, you know, I think it helps to relieve the stigma of, just, bad, bad, bad. That’s what most the time, the first thing a person that doesn’t really understand the concept of made a mistake! You know? So.

A: Right. So you telling your stories gives them an opportunity to see you as a full person, not just this one idea of like, oh incarcerated means this thing.

I: Mhm, mhm, exactly.

A: You’re a person, and not just…

I: Mhm.

A: So, would you recommend working for Still Point to anyone else?

I: Yes I would.

A: Yes, why?

I: Absolutely. I mean it gives you a chance to get in contact with self. The writings and things are really powerful- it just brings up the past good, or bad, and it also lets you know that you’re a survivor. You know, you’re a warrior, you can make it. You know? So.

A: And writing about, you get that feeling because you’re writing and it reminds you what you’ve survived?

I: Exactly. And where you’re at now and where you going. Mhm.

A: Helps you keep in mind… you know, what you survived and what you want for your future.

I: Exactly.

A: So if you were to recruit other people to work for Still Point, is that what you would tell them, or?

I: Absolutely, yeah. Give you an opportunity to do some things that will definitely take you to another level. Especially with the understanding of self and also with the understanding of life.

A: And you do that through the writing process.

I: Exactly, yes.

A: Very introspective figuring out how you really feel. You sound like a poet!

I: Mhm.

A: So you all play a lot of theatre games, why do you think you play those theatre games? What do they give to you, or help you with?

I: Um… so that you can get in sync with each other. That’s what I believe it’s for. Um… to get the motivation or to get the um… you’re working as one, because theatre, acting, you have to be as one, you have to come together. You know, so, that’s what the games are for.

A: What about the writing poetry, why do you think you do all those poetry exercises?

I: I believe that writing poetry exercises are actually just, once again, to get to grips with your inner self. It’s really important that you tap into what’s in your soul. A lot of times, a lot of things happen within your life and you kind of like stuff it, or you forget it, you know? But when you actually have a set, um… goal of what you’re trying to write about, it opens up a lot of layers, just like an onion and it’s like, oh okay. And then when you read it back, it gives - you feel it, even though the audience feels it, but you definitely feel it. Mhm.

A: Do you think that, what I’m curious about its, you talked about losing your family, losing your mom and your daughter, and I can only imagine that kind of grief, but do you think that writing and getting in touch with yourself and getting that self knowledge- does it make it harder that you know you have this pain in your past or that you deal with now? Because I can imagine wanting to not feel that pain any more.

I: You know what, exactly, for me, to be honest with you, for me it’s therapeutic. You know? Um… just realizing that… people… just, as they’re born, they’re gonna die… um… it’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t change it. You know? If I stand on my head for 100 hours, it’s not going to change. Just to, as if I go get a drink or a drug, nothing is going to change, it still is what it is. You know? So it just… yeah. You know, I… in this process, December 22nd, I lost my nephew.

A: Mmm. Gosh. This past December? That’s so recent, I’m so sorry.

I: Yeah, he, um, he had a… he had a set of migraines real bad, ended up going to Rush and they told him he had two growths on each side of his brain. One of them they wanted to operate, the other one, they said they was going to shrink with chemo. They operated on one and within like 30 to 40 days, he was dead because, it was… it was cancerous, and it spread all over his body, you know. So, yea.

A: How old was he?

I: He was 53.

A: Oh my god, so young, I’m so sorry.

I: Yeah, yeah, so you know.

A: Do you ever write about those experiences?

I: Yeah.

A: Does that help you?

I: Mhm.

A: Yeah.

I: Yes it does, talking about it, it helps. You know, uh… just have to just… I don’t know. You have to, just keep going and move on. I mean… [sighs] You know, sometimes it’s easier, it’s easy to get all the pity party- why is everybody that I love dearly is leaving? You know, um… But I have to keep going. I have to stay strong, you know…

A: You sound kind of Buddhist… you know, this acceptance, that life is passing, and there’s nothing I can do to change it, and I hear you talking about sobriety as well, that having alcohol or smoking, isn’t going to…

I: It’s not going to change anything.

A: ...not going to change anything.

I: Sure ain’t. If anything, it’s going to make it worse. So no, can’t do that one!

A: You have a lot to share with people. A lot of people could benefit from that message. I don’t have any more questions, but is there anything that you would like to say about working for Still Point? Or… anything at all?

I: No, I actually enjoyed it, you know, looking forward to the next session. Maybe I can bring some people in that also are from incarceration. You know.

A: What’s fun about it, what makes you… because I’ve seen you in there, and you’re smiling and having a good time. So what are the things that are fun for you?

I: The fun thing is just, is… I don’t know, just being able to be goofy sometimes, and serious in the next moment, and then goofy again! You know? So it’s just, just like an up and down wave of being able to expound on feelings, that’s all.

A: Just getting to be yourself, however that is.

I: Exactly. Absolutely.

A: That’s lovely, thank you for talking to me, we had a really good conversation!

Thank you for reading.

The power of theatre is strongest, in my opinion, when it reframes the narrative of something we thought we knew well. Or, perhaps, I believe, when it makes us consider- to pause- about something we had never recognized before. If you are interested in learning more about Still Point Theatre Collective or our program at Grace House Transitional home, please feel free to contact us at StillPointTheatreCollective@gmail.com

This blog was composed by Still Point Theatre Collective’s Managing Director:

Clearie McCarthy.

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