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  • Prison Performing Arts


We sat down with Corina to talk about their experience moving to St. Louis from Dallas, Texas, how they felt seeing a prison performance for the first time, and why they've been pulled to theatre and performance art since they were a kid.

How were you first introduced to PPA? I was introduced through the XPLOR program, which is a 10 month residency for young adults age 21-30 sponsored by the National Benevolent Association (NBA) through the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I first learned about it from a couple friends who had been a part of the program in years past, one of whom had been assigned to St. Louis. I applied at the very last minute back in July, and I got it!   It so happened that PPA needed a spot filled. It was very kismet, since my major was in theatre at the University of Texas at Arlington.  How long has theatre been a part of your life?

I really got into it in 7th grade in speech class, which was essentially the equivalent of a theatre class at my school. It brought me out of my shell, and I realized this was something I wanted to keep doing long-term. In 8th grade, my mom enrolled me in classes at a community theatre. Ever since then, I’ve been involved in one way or another.  Once you landed in St. Louis, what were your first impressions of PPA? I started working with PPA about 2 or 3 days before the Annual Bash. Everyone was super welcoming, but I sure hit the ground running! My first assignment was just helping out everywhere I could. Since then, it’s been great. Shannon, Chris and I work closely together. Chris and I are in choir together at Union Avenue Christian Church, actually, which is really cool. And even though Rachel was out of the office for a few weeks on maternity leave, she has always been so helpful and welcoming. We all get along very well and everyone is so open and communicative. Have you seen a PPA show yet?

I got to see The Tempest at Vandalia, MO. It was technically the second time I’d been in prison. About 3-4 weeks before, I went through my official volunteer-in-corrections training there. But walking in for the first time to see a performance was certainly an experience. I was excited to see everyone interacting with each other, and I remembered what it felt like being in a show myself...the anticipation and excitement builds up, and you can feel the energy in the room where everyone is rushing around getting final things squared away. It’s the big day, something you’ve been looking forward to for weeks. Everyone that I met was super nice. I had been transcribing some of their written works from their spoken word classes, so it was cool to put names to faces.  What projects have you been working on, in addition to transcribing?

I’ve been transcribing and typing up assignments from the Joan of Arc workshop at the women’s prison in Vandalia. The workshop was actually a collaboration with SLU — a theatre professor co-facilitated the workshop with Rachel, and I got to sit in on a Monday night class. I listened to everyone share what they’d written the week before. Everyone was collaborating and uplifting each other.  For the warm up exercise, the prompt was, “If I could tell you one thing about myself, it would be...” as if they were someone from Joan of Arc’s time, such as a soldier or the executioner. Everyone wrote for 10-15 minutes, then shared what they’d written with the group. Then, they shared what they were assigned last at the last workshop—either a sonnet or a scene from the show, Dateline. They were really funny. From what I could tell, they had a whole host of different characters, and the plot was centered around Joan of Arc’s trial or death. The stories were told from the perspective of other people involved, like other soldiers. Some scripts had random celebrities pop in, like Kanye West and Paris HIlton. Some of them even wrote commercial breaks into their script, as if they had television in the 1400s. Super creative and funny. It was awesome to see everyone laughing and clapping.  I’ve also been doing some dramaturgy work for both A Memory of Two Mondays and Hag-Seed, the two upcoming shows happening at the mens’ prison at Bowling Green in 2020. I always like learning about the context and history of shows, so it’s been a pretty cool experience so far. What has been a defining moment so far? Has anything changed (or reinforced) how you understand performance art?

During rehearsal with the Alumni Company, Chris led the group in a warm-up, a theatre game focusing on specific skills. It was a throwback to classes I’ve taken before. For me, that moment just reinforced that as a performer, you have to be continuously training and keeping in mind all the variables that could change—how you carry your body, how your voice sounds and projects, the tone of your voice, having an objective when you’re speaking to another character on stage. It was going back to the basics, like I was in audition-mode again. It was cool to do that with a group of people from such different walks of life, because it really brought us together and allowed us to share in the exercises that all actors and performing artists practice in one way or another.  The XPLOR program does more than expose you to potential career or vocational paths; what other life lessons have you learned, moving to St. Louis from Arlington?

It’s been really fun to live in a new environment, getting to know a new city. I always like to travel to new and different places, but this is my first time living in a new place long-term. I love living with people in and around my own age in an apartment as opposed to a house. Here in St. Louis specifically, our host church is also where our apartment is—it’s our own space, but it’s right there, connected to the church. We can just walk downstairs for worship on Sundays or Bible study. I’ve learned a lot about communal living, like how to share different chores like cooking and cleaning. Game nights are a regular occurrence!  But coming up here, I left my car at home. So I had to get used to using public transportation and relying on other means when necessary. I do take the bus to and from work—or I’ll ask my roommates for rides. They’re super accommodating.  How has your perception of life inside prison changed since working so directly with PPA?

It’s helped me dispel the mindset that you get from TV or film that being in prison is just day in, day out, no meaningful activities other than being in the yard and getting into fights. It’s a shallow narrative. At least from what I’ve seen in Missouri prisons, there are tons of programs like PPA that gives everyone who is currently incarcerated a way to express their personality, speak and articulate what they feel.  Being a part of PPA has humanized incarcerated people, giving a face to a population that is typically underrepresented or not shown in the best light. In these programs, they get to put their best foot forward. I’ve loved interacting with them because they’re just normal people. They’re not complete monsters with no feelings.  How do you see this experience shaping your future?

This experience, with both PPA and XPLOR, has been really good to show me how it can be to live independently as an adult, full stop, and be very open about who I am. Here at the workplace and at Union Avenue Church, I use “they/them” pronouns. Coming out in that sense, and being received openly, and having the privilege to be myself in this environment, has very affirming. I love knowing that queer identities are an established idea, that I can be open about my entire life and not worrying about being judged for it. This experience has proven to me that oh, yeah, it really is possible to having that comfort in both my work life and social & personal life.  What are you looking most forward to in your final months of work with PPA?

Honestly, I’m really just excited to see more of the different PPA shows and performances. I’ll be going to the mens’ prisons for a workshop and to see A Memory of Two Mondays in March at Bowling Green. I’m looking forward to interacting with that population and seeing how the culture may be different at different prisons. In general, I’m continuously looking forward to seeing how all the other PPA programming, with the alumni, incarcerated adults and justice-involved youth, unfolds. 


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