Grace House is a transitional home in Chicago for women exiting the Illinois prison system. The facility provides interim housing, emotional and spiritual support, and professional counseling to the residents. On February 23, Still Point launched a new performance program at Grace House designed to foster an emotional support system while also building important communication skills. Almost all of the women currently living at Grace House are participating, and the group numbers about 16 at the moment. The women are being paid to participate in the project and create a shareable work of art. The end goal is that the ensemble will craft an original performance which can be toured around the community. The plan is to have a debut presentation at Grace House, inviting donors and friends in the community, followed by a local tour.
Grace House Program Director Holly Christian said that she receives an enthusiastic report from the women every Friday morning on what is happening in the sessions on Thursdays. She hears about comaraderie, creativity and joy. The group is clearly feeling a deep connection to Facilitator Mars Caulton (pictured) and to the project. Holly has played a pivotal role in bringing this project to fruition, and affirmed to me her belief in the power of art as being motivation for her commitment. Holly remarked that some of the more valuable aspects of this program center around the sense of unity created in the process. Mars is relating to the women in a collaborative way, imbuing each group member with a sense of responsibility and investment in co-creating the piece they are working on. Holly remarked that the women are so focused and engrossed in what they are doing that she can walk into the room when they are working and not even be noticed. She has observed a sense of flowing, spontaneous communication, free from tension. She sees the women already reaping the benefits of feeling a sense of teamwork and accomplishment as they learn to rely on each other – and on their own inner resources.
I exchanged emails recently with Mars Caulton, the gifted spoken word artist, educator, musician, and activist who is facilitating this collaboration with Grace House. Her words were so eloquent that I have decided to quote her here. Her reflections communicate the essence of what these women are weaving together when they gather each Thursday afternoon:
According to the women, the group is known as “The Power of Grace”. We have started writing a “signature piece” based on the phrase because each of the members has a strong, unique connection to these words. They have shared much about the grace they see bestowed upon each of them. They call it forgiveness and another chance and opportunity for a new direction in life. They share a lot of gratitude for a higher power giving them love, acceptance, some new skills, other blessings – and in many ways, each other. As they wrote, they find that “God’s grace is all over the place.”
There are things about these women that are familiar, unique, reverent, clever, confused, open, skeptical: the range of a dozen and a half mature women. But above all, they share gratitude for a chance to refresh their lives, and they are serious about working hard to achieve their goals. There are more personalities in that one room than I can keep track of! But my job is to preserve each voice and weave them together like colors on canvas.
We are doing Spoken Word poetry, which only a few are familiar with. There are tools that we are developing through the creation of original pieces, and many of these tools are great life skills. For example, we talked about Persona Poems, and you cannot write one without an ability to see events through someone else’s eyes.
We warm up each week doing a children’s song, rhyme or game. I tweak each of those to focus on a particular skill. So by chanting Peas Porridge Hot in five different voices to reflect different emotions, we are stretching our acting range and experimenting with how to make our voices more flexible as storytellers.
The life-long pay-off is that having a wider ability to express oneself allows better sharing among family, friends, and co-workers. And by using children’s songs etc. as the basis for this growth, we free up our willingness to try new ways, without worrying about being silly. It is okay to be silly in these activities, which lessens the fear of mistakes or being less than cool. And any competitiveness is diminished when the participants are pretend crying. This breath of fresh air is a gift for women who have often had to be very serious about important choices, and consequences, in their lives.
- Mars Caulton, Facilitator
We will be sharing more about “The Power of Grace” as the women get closer to finalizing and touring their work.
The ensemble members went on an outing together on Thursday 3/30 to see Mars perform at the Volumes Book Cafe. The evening was yet another chance for the women of “The Power of Grace” to inter-weave their minds, hearts and souls in a creative community that will undoubtedly bring great gifts to bear.
by Anita Dacanay