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Empowerment through performance

Rena Fried '08 wanted to do an independent study project for a variety of reasons. First, her interests in women's prisons and reform couldn't really be satisfied in any of the scheduled courses, and second, by pursuing an independent study, she could focus on an unusual means of reform: performance.

"I believe very strongly in the arts as a productive medium of expression and as a way to channel energy and emotions that often just build up inside of people, especially people who have been stripped of forms of communication and expression," she says.

Rena Fried '08 and Ivy Schweitzer
Rena Fried '08 (left), working under the guidance of Associate Professor of English Ivy Schweitzer (right). (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

A few months ago, Fried learned that Ivy Schweitzer, associate professor of English, is involved in a pilot program that integrates performance and creativity at the Southeast State Correctional Facility, a minimum security prison for women in Windsor, Vt. Last fall Schweitzer was awarded a faculty fellowship from the Tucker Foundation. She and eight Dartmouth students worked with inmates, and with actor and activist Pati Hernandez, the director of the Windsor Women's Prison Performance Project, on a production of a play called Telling My Story. As part of her ongoing connection with Hernandez, Schweitzer wanted someone to dedicate an independent study to the topic of women's prisons, and Fried's interests fit the bill.

Throughout spring term, Fried has been poring over books concerned with the history of women in prison, feminist theory, trends in America's penal system, and the role of art in reform. One goal is to see how performance programs affect an inmate's life, both during incarceration and after.

"Doing an independent study seemed to be a great way to look at prisons not through the media, but through an academic lens," she says.

The topic has opened up new avenues of thinking for Fried. She has been able to explore the intersections between race and poverty, and she's developed a better understanding of how the current drug laws and sentencing policies have contributed to the dramatic increase in female prisoners over the last two decades.
"I have really come to understand the many strengths of performance projects in prison and how empowering it can be for the inmates to write and perform their own production," says Fried. "These programs can give women several tools—such as self-confidence, motivation, autonomy, ability to trust others and themselves—that are unavailable to most prisoners."

Schweitzer, impressed by Fried's ambitious syllabus, reports that Fried is pursuing some original research on 19th-century ideas about prisons and gender, and how some reformers thought of punishment as the correct performance of traditionally conceived gender roles.

"Rena has been motivated to educate herself about the history and current status of prisons in general and women's prisons in particular," says Schweitzer. "She is also thinking about how current theories of performance can intervene in the massive, and largely invisible, incarceration industry in this country that is threatening to spiral out of control in the next few decades."

Fried's independent study project coincided with a reprise of Schweitzer's theater project at the Windsor facility during spring term. Schweitzer continues to work with Hernandez, who has extensive experience using performance in a variety of prisons. Fried has had the chance to interview Hernandez and learn first-hand about the impact of performance programs on inmates, which has added a personal element to her independent study project, making the topic all the more relevant.

By SUSAN KNAPP

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Last Updated: 12/17/08