Reflections on “Restorative Theatre”

By Maya Osterman VanGrack

We are so proud that “Restorative Theatre” is now a part of Mirror Image Arts’ program offerings. The following story provides a sneak peak into the five years it has taken to build this program and the impact it has on the social-emotional well being of both staff and participants.

From My Journal, June 10th, 2014:

The sweat dripping down my arms is not an indication of the sweltering heat outside, it is the recurring bodily indication that I have made it here, another week. Although it has now been months the journey always feels foreign, unknown, precarious. I pass the Polk Correctional Institution, a reminder of what is next.  Following the windy path shaded by trees that whisper tales of the past as the breeze goes by, I am led to the stop sign at the end of the road. I take a right and then an immediate left, I travel up the path, “C.A. Dillon Youth Development Center” is proudly displayed at the entrance in a deserted kind of way. I pull into the same spot every week, put the car in park and take a deep breath. I leave everything in my car except my keys and my materials for the day.  I follow the electric gate up to the front door. Opening the phone box and dialing zero I read the same three signs everytime; the laundry list of articles not allowed inside the facility. I go through the familiar pattern of saying my name, asking for the Chaplain and repeating multiple times that I am here as a volunteer to teach Theatre. Each week I must repeat myself “Theatre…yes Theatre as in acting”. I wait ten minutes taking in the budding flowers that make the landscape quite serene from the outside.

The students constantly ask me to perform something. I push it off as long as I can. I do this because mainly the only work I had been doing as an actor is performing a one-woman show I wrote about sex trafficking in America…I’m not sure how that will go over with these young men). But they keep asking and so I give them a choice. I let them know the subject matter of my work and they all agree they wanted to see one of the monologues from the show. So, with that the group lines up a row of chairs facing me and I take center stage.  I finish and the young men excitedly call out different theatrical techniques they noticed and ask questions about the difference between theatre and film. The process of theatre, the power of live theatre, the ability to transform yourself into someone so different from yourself and the power to transport an audience to a totally different place and time. They then ask to see more from the play and I end up explaining a decent amount about the play and perform little bits of the other monologues. “So, what are you sitting with?” I ask.  Deep heartfelt questions about sex trafficking are asked by every young person. “Where does it happen the most? Why does it happen there a lot? How did you hear these stories? Are they really all true? Why don’t the girls just run away?” I ask the group back, “Why do you think they don’t run away?” they respond, “Maybe because it’s all they know, or they don’t have anywhere to go. Why don’t they go to the cops?”. Again, I ask back, “Why do you think they don’t go to the cops?”. “Because they probably don’t trust the cops or have been too brainwashed by their pimp that they are too scared”.

The reflection continues for a while until one young person, Reinz says he wants to try and perform a monologue. I choose a Theatre for the Oppressed activity called “Hot Seating” which uses a structure that allows for performance without memorization being required. Reinz jumps up and takes a seat, I ask him for the setting of this “monologue”. He responds prison, and steps into role as a character.  And with that the questions started. Are you a convict? Yes. What did you do? I trafficked girls. The boys asked good questions taking a lot from my play and the conversation we just had.

Then, in character, Reinz shared a story about “a friend who told him that he started pimping because he had no father figure.  He and his little brother rarely had clean clothes to wear or food to eat. His mom was a drug addict and as a young kid his friend would see all sorts of men come in and out of his house using his mom so she could get her next fix. He hated her for that and he thought that if she didn’t care about her body and was okay using it to get things that he could to.  So he would stand in front of the bedroom not letting these men in to see his mom until they paid him first. And just like that he started pimping out his mom, when he realized how easy it was he started pimping out other women. The loss of respect for his mom translated to all women.” Reinz’s story began as a character talking about a friend, but soon he started using the pronouns, me and I. It was the first time he had shared that part of his story.

It was from that moment on I knew this was this work I wanted to do.

I started a journal documenting my weekly class teaching theatre to incarcerated youth while living in North Carolina. I spent eight months at a residential facility there trying out different theatre activities and techniques until I built a program, “Restorative Theatre”. This program focuses on exploring choice, confidence, resilience, problem solving, collaboration, value, worthiness, community and trust through Theatre of the Oppressed, storytelling and devising original theatre. When I moved to Colorado, I was determined to continue this work. I have slowly and quietly continued this program in Golden, Colorado for the last four years on my own, in my spare time. There are so many stories that need to be told from voices that are desperate to be heard. I have now been at Lookout Mountain Youth Services in Golden, CO for four years. I have learned more about myself, theatre, humanity, compassion and empathy from the boys at Lookout than any other space I work in. It doesn’t matter how hard my week has been Wednesday nights from 6:00pm-8:30pm restore and rejuvenate me. I have the privilege of spending 12 weeks with a group of 8 to 10 young men devising an original piece of theatre based on a topic/theme they are interested in exploring. The last group wanted to explore the idea of being an outsider, their play The Misfits pushed us week after week to dig deep and share stories around pain, loneliness, judgement, self-preservation, and choice.

From My Journal, August 20 2018:

“I come from a place I wish I wasn’t born”

The opening line of the play is delivered by a participant named Enrique. I have known him for four years, he has been in every group I have run at Lookout. He has spent almost his entire teen years locked up.

Enrique and other Restorative Theatre participants rehearse for The Misfits

“I am the calm before the storm.”

I have watched him grow and change both physically and emotionally. He has recently been released and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified about his future. Terrified of his future because society has failed him. Enrique is smart, passionate, funny, creative, and kind. But those qualities can’t help him get a job because he cannot get an ID, and he has no references or past work experience.  He lives far away from anything he knows, no family close by. He tries to stay positive but I can tell it is getting to him.

“I look at myself and the journey I have been on.”

I am lucky enough to be a part of his state assigned transition team so I can stay in touch with him. I am asked if there is more theatre work for him to do now that he is out…currently there is not. So Enrique and I meet once a month and we are dreaming, planning of a reentry program for him and his fellow actors. At some point they all get out. All 144 young men who currently reside at Lookout Mountain will one day be released. And although these young men may seem complexly different than you or me at the end of the day we are all simply human just wanting to be heard and seen.


Enrique and me planning the reentry program            “This is how I feel when I can’t go to theatre group…” – Enrique

As of August of 2018, “Restorative Theatre” became an official program of Mirror Image Arts.  I cannot express my gratitude and excitement of this merger. “Restorative Theatre” will finally get the time and support it needs to flourish into the dream I have envisioned for so long.