Theatre in Cook County Jail: Poem and Interview with ‘Most Wanted Actors’ Long-Standing Participant, Teresa Lanehart

August 20, 2019

This blog was composed by Still Point Managing Director and program facilitator, Clearie McCarthy:

It’s Thursday at 4 o’ clock and my colleague and I are in the chapel at Cook County Jail. This is the time and location of our weekly theatre class with individuals in the THRIVE program; an internal treatment program for incarcerated persons struggling with substance abuse. Our class consists of Voice and Speech work (Patsy Rodenberg technique and Shakespearean text), Improvisation and original work by participants. At the top of every class we form a circle and conduct our check-in. We encourage the class to be open about how they’re feeling—whether they are particularly excited about something or they are particularly upset, we encourage them to share. It is important for an ensemble to be aware of what each member is facing before we act together in our exercises. Vulnerability is essential on stage and a functional ensemble must be aware of when to push each other and when to give space.

One long-standing member of our theatre class, Teresa Lanehart, is consistently warm and open during our check-in’s. She is always willing to discuss how she’s feeling and why. More often than not, she will also include words of encouragement to new members in our class, which helps to foster a safe atmosphere during our check-in process. On this particular day, Teresa stated her name and said with a chuckle, that she “felt happy”. “I don’t know why, I always feel happy even when things get tough.” As it turned out, this was a particularly challenging day for Teresa. It was the anniversary of her step-fathers passing; a day which brings up many painful memories for her and her mother. In addition, Teresa had just found out that she may be getting transferred to prison, meaning a longer sentence and a new facility. Many of the women we work with are incarcerated at Cook County Jail while they wait for their official sentencing. This indeterminate status- residing in the unknown, can cause anxiety and uncertainty amongst the group. As we explore our craft, we work to harness and utilize this energy, an attempt made to ensure that we are fully present in our scenes and exercises. Despite her ongoing predicaments, Teresa wore a rueful smile and a conducted herself with a positive attitude throughout class. “She’s the class clown”, one woman said.

A portion of our program is reserved for members of our ensemble to present their own original work. This provides a workshop atmosphere for artists and poets in the class and allows for personal stories and values to be explored within a safe space. Fellow ensemble members are given the opportunity to offer the performers encouragement and we as facilitators offer notes on delivery and blocking. Over the past few weeks, Teresa has been performing one of her original poems for the group, titled Vain. Up until this point, there was no written copy of the poem, it was always recited by memory. I asked if she would write it down so we could include it in the Still Point blog. She brought it to me the following week.

Vain
By Teresa Lanehart

I am fly…
I am fly…
Oh am I fly
I’m just like the sunrise when I close my eyes.
From my nose to my lips even when I spit
Wild fruit flavors comes out of it.
From my neck to my shoulders
My breasts are like boulders
My elbows were dipped in Gold.
For I have to apologize
Cause I cannot find a word to define
My perfect waist line.
My thighs were made of diamonds
Although my legs are diamond cut
My feet are a gift from paradise
To help me strut my stuff
Frost, Ice, white gold
That’s my soul.
So ask God.
Because I don’t know why he made me so fly.
But I am fly
I am fly
Oh am I fly
I’m just like the sunset when I close MY EYES

Teresa has performed this piece numerous times in class and once during a show. Every time, it is received with warm applause and sincere encouragement. Teresa has a strong stage presence and embodies her empowering words with delight and pleasure. When asked if she wanted us to keep her name anonymous; she asserted that she would like people to know who wrote it. This is her work, it is a part of her, and it is her dream and desire for people to know about it. She is working on a book as well.

To supplement her original piece, I asked Teresa if she would spend the last ten minutes of class letting me interview her. I explained that she is one of our longest-standing members, that she is a vital presence in our theatre ensemble and that I wished to record some of her thoughts on her experiences thus far in the program. She met my request with the same readiness and enthusiasm as she does with our Improv and Shakespeare work:

“The class is wonderful. We have a lot of groups, this one takes me away. It’s life. No matter what the mood, theatre class is new, it’s fun. This class makes us feel human. There can be a lot of hostility on the tier, but in theatre class everything is left behind. Sometimes you might have two people get into an argument right before class but once we get into our circle you would never even know that there was a problem. This class allows us to let our guard down because we’re in the moment and we realize: what do you have to lose to laugh?! It makes you not feel stupid because it’s spontaneous, and we go back to the tier and teach the other women the games and exercises we learned that day. The guards know we are gonna have a good time when they are bringing us to class. They joke with us and say ‘have fun playing duck-duck-goose’. They’ll also tell us ‘don’t have too much fun, you gotta keep that uniform on’. They don’t want us to forget that we are in jail.”

Teresa is a talented writer and performer. In addition to poetry, she also writes screenplays and songs. Her adeptness and eagerness for new experiences have been a much-appreciated addition to our class. I asked her what her secret was, “How do you stay happy even when things get tough?” She replied with a sense of wonder, “I’m just so grateful, I dunno, I can’t be upset. Even though I might go to prison, I still stay happy. It could be an adventure, I’ve never been to prison before…”.

Clearie and Teresa: thank you for letting all of us have this illuminating view into the heart of Still Point’s work at Cook County Jail!

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by Anita Dacanay