Robin Casarjian, Founder and Director of the Lionheart Foundation, sponsor of the National Emotional Literacy Project for Prisoners, writes and publishes the book, Houses of Healing: A Prisoner’s Guide to Inner Power and Freedom, based on an emotional awareness/emotional healing course she has developed and facilitated as a volunteer in the Massachusetts prison system. The Lionheart Foundation continues to this day to distribute the book, along with a facilitator’s manual, mostly for free to prisons all around the US and beyond, where prison staff, volunteers, and sometimes inmates themselves run weekly courses based on the book.
Robin Casarjian, Bob David, and another colleague develop and pilot the first daily intensive program based on Houses of Healing, called the Houses of Healing Therapeutic Community, at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston, MA. Bob David coordinates a team of volunteers with expertise in various modalities to run the program. Nat Warren-White brings several colleagues in from the Ariel Group, an international leadership training organization whose facilitators are all trained in theater arts, to conduct periodic special workshops in presentation and leadership skills.
Highly impressed with the dramatic presentation and story-telling skills of many of the inmates in the Houses of Healing Therapeutic Community, Bob David and Nat Warren-White begin discussions of how to establish a post-incarceration program for engaging and training current program participants for theatrical productions once they are released. It becomes evident that such a program would be too difficult to establish at this time based on the varying release dates of the inmates, the challenge of maintaining sufficient contact with them, and the uncertainty of their desire to continue with an activity begun in prison.
Dr. Marrey Embers becomes head of Criminal Justice Programs at City Mission Society in Boston (the nation’s second oldest multi-service agency). She develops the Public Voice Project for the purpose of involving formerly incarcerated men and women in educating the public in the need for criminal justice reform.
As part of the Public Voice Project, Dr. Marrey Embers creates the Speaking Circles, which offer 4-session trainings for selected participants to receive coaching and encouragement to tell their stories effectively in public. Each training period culminates in a public presentation.
The first Men’s Speaking Circle and the first Women’s Speaking Circle have run very successfully. Dr. Embers, Nat Warren-White, and Bob David are all participants in the Side-by-Side Community Circle, a weekly support group for the formerly incarcerated, their friends and family, people in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, people who work or volunteer with the above, and anyone else from the greater community who is interested. (Bob David co-founded this group under a different name in 2001 and continues to coordinate it.) These three begin brainstorming about a ‘next step’ after the Speaking Circles. Other personnel from the previous Houses of Healing Therapeutic Community, the Ariel Group, City Mission Society, and the Side-by-Side Community Circle are invited in to begin strategy meetings. The Ariel Group agrees to donate $9,000 to the project and City Mission Society donates Dr. Embers’ time and other in kind services; the “Public Voice Theater Project” is born.
A series of planning meetings are held. Lani Peterson, lead coach from the Speaking Circles, and Dev Luthra are selected as artistic co-directors for the project at a meager stipend. All production, managerial, and coaching staff are strictly on a volunteer basis. A recruitment process is devised and implemented and the first group of participants is selected.
The first round of 10 intensive training/rehearsal sessions is undertaken. Nine of the original group of 14 participants completes these sessions (7 ex-prisoners and 2 people who have had loved ones incarcerated). Participants choose “And Still We Rise!” as the title of their performance piece. Three public performances are held at the Actors Workshop in South Boston, MA, in mid-November and a fourth at the Boston YMCA Central Branch in mid-December. Each performance is followed by a talkback with the audience moderated by a prominent figure well versed in criminal justice issues (including former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger and Massachusetts State Senator Jarrett Barrios). All performances are extremely well received and enthusiasm amongst the participants is high. Participants are paid a small stipend for their participation throughout.
Staff and performers agree that all decision-making is to be done jointly. Dr. Marrey Embers leaves her position at City Mission Society, and City Mission Society ends its direct involvement with the project. The Ariel Group commits $2,500 for the project’s continuance. “And Still We Rise Productions” is chosen as the new name for the project. Irregular planning meetings are held through the year. Available staff decrease in numbers. Dev Luthra continues on as artistic director. Nat Warren-White departs the country on extended leave in October. Bob David continues as managing director. Rehearsal space is procured and recruitment is done, much in part from the graduates of the latest Women’s Speaking Circle.
The second cycle of trainings/rehearsals is undertaken. The number of sessions is increased to 18. A group of 6 performers, including 2 from the first cycle, completes the sessions.
2007, Spring & Summer
The second version of “And Still We Rise!” premiers on April 26th at Roxbury Community College on the opening night of the “Hope and Inspiration! Festival” sponsored by St. Francis House, the largest provider of services to the homeless in New England. Four more performances follow, each in a different month in a different church or community setting. As of this writing (November 4th), there are four upcoming scheduled performances and two more prospective ones. Of the upcoming performances, two are sponsored by a college or university and one by the Dorchester Court Probation Department. Some performances are given for free or for whatever the sponsoring organization can afford. The performers are compensated accordingly.
The third cycle of training/rehearsals is currently underway. Dev Luthra and Bob David remain as volunteer artistic and managing directors. Five of the six participants from the previous cycle are continuing on, along with new recruits. Version three of And Still We Rise! will be ready for public rendition in the spring of 2008.
The third cycle of training/rehearsals completed in March, 2008. By September, 2008, the group will have performed its eighth show. Venues have included the Annual Men’s Health Summit sponsored by the Whittier Street Health Center, Rosie’s Place (women’s shelter and services), Suffolk County House of Correction, and Northeastern University. In early 2008, And Still We Rise Productions officially joined in a collaboration with the Arts Therapy Department of the Whittier Street Health Center (1125 Tremont St., Boston, MA 02120).
A fourth cycle of And Still We Rise takes shape. Rehearsals take place at the Factory Theatre in the Piano Factory/ We open the show at Boston College sponsored by 4Boston, a student social service organization, losing only one actor. This is our lowest attrition rate ever. Dev recruits a fine team of interns to provide logistical help at rehearsals. Regular production meetings are held every week. Whittier Street Health Center provides office space and facilities.
2009, Spring & Summer
We submit our 501 C 3 application to the IRS and plan our first Invitational Showcase with a view to recruiting supporters and potential members of a Board of Trustees. Touring shows include Eliot Church, Haley House and Harriet Tubman House. Invitational Showcase a success. As a result, Project Place offers And Still We Rise free rehearsal space. ASWR have a home. Meetings held to plan governance and shape future plans for the company. ASWR continues a fall touring season of our Cycle IV show. Whole cast can participate in Forum Theatre Master class thanks to Board initiated fundraising efforts.
Board organizes ASWR’s first fundraising gathering focusing on the development of a youth show. The show opens as part of the Anti-violence Forum at Blackstone Community Center in Boston (see below).
Managing Director Bob David resigns after years of committed work, but not before spearheading the effort to design and publish our beautiful and fully functional website. The tour includes a collaboration with the Nigerian American Community Organization and Youth and Police in Partnership in the annual Anti Violence Forum at the Blackstone Community Center in the South End, Boston. The touring season ends with a powerful show and talkback at the Perkins Community Center in Dorchester, organized by Thelda Abenafaye, parole officer and long time ASWR supporter.
The big event for this, our tenth cycle is our participation as presenter in the North American Drama Therapy Association’s national conference. Nat Warren White, one of our founders, donors and long time supporters, initiated the application. The company ran a full day workshop modelling our process.
Our Eleventh year in existence is shaping into a terrific touring season. After two years work we are now contracted with the Department of Youth Services and have presented twice at their local Boston facility. We have also returned to Bridging the Gap, a mandated personal growth/community service program housed at the Kroc Center in Dorchester. We have networked with Arts Emerson and the IDream Boston, a youth focused writing and performing arts program developed by renowned solo performer Daniel Beaty.