Dads Back! participants doing a physical theatre exercise showing Freedom (Photo credit: Susie Tanner)

The California Arts Council recently announced its plans to award $90,000 to Friends Outside in Los Angeles to support the group’s joint effort with the Reentry through the Arts pilot program. The new program aims to help formerly incarcerated men and women gain a foothold back into society through theater. All projects feature the arts as a central component of a holistic and integrated approach to reentry, while also identifying other community-based support services, such as job skills training, job placement, mental health and wellness, drug treatment, and/or case management, says program founder Susan Tanner.

“One of the things, the examples that the men have given us… one of the major values of participating in theater is the ensemble nature of the art form,” Tanner explained in a recent interview.

“ So, being a cello player or a competitive swimmer, being a visual artist, is really about the individual. Theater is a collaboration. So, right from the beginning, what we’re doing is building an ensemble, which requires trust. It requires taking risks.

“It requires working with people in a nontraditional way. The men have told me that this is a welcome and unusual experience for them because during incarceration, they’ve been so separated… particularly separated by ethnicity. Now, they’re being asked to be in a room where they’re working with folks who are a different skin pigmentation, a different culture.

“They’re all together. They remark over and over again, what a relief it is for them to be able to drop those barriers. This gives them an opportunity to ease back into the world, where they can take a moment and actually learn how to trust somebody who’s different than them.”

Tanner has a long history of creating performances with nontraditional populations, like ship builders, meat packers and steel workers with what she calls documentary theater. She has worked in that capacity since 1983. She has for a long time been interested in working with reentry populations, so when the grant opportunity came from the CAC, she seized it.

A friend pointed her toward the Friends Outside in Los Angeles County program’s director Mary Weaver, who in turn put her in touch with the manager of the Dad’s Back Academy.

“One thing led to another. I applied for the grant and I received the grant from the California Arts Council,” Tanner recalled.

“It was a small grant, which funded us for the last 9 months for (company) to bring a small team of teaching artists to work twice a month the dads, (mainly men but because the program is federally funded they are open to women also)

“That’s how the program started. It was so successful that when the new grant opportunity became available, we applied for that. And, we got $90,000. We were one of ten organizations funded. So now we will be able to not only do the twice monthly workshops but we will be able to create evening workshops where small cadres of men who have participated in Dad’s Back Academy afternoon workshops, if they want to deepen their exploration of telling their life story and creating a performance piece and performing it, we will be able to do that. We have the funding…”

Though the program focuses on theater, Tanner  said the participants are not necessarily being trained to be actors.

Dads Back! Academy participants with Theatre Workers Project Director Susie Tanner (far right) and Teaching Artist Marlene McCurtis (far left) (Photo credit: Monique Templeton-Poe)

“We’re there to give them an opportunity to experience themselves in a creative way but also to learn life skills,” she said.

“One of the focuses of Dad’s Back is to train them for jobs and to go on a job interview.

“A lot of these men have been incarcerated for … I think the longest one we have one who has been in for 20 years.

“I think one had been in for 16. A lot of these guys are just now learning how to use a cell phone, a computer. They all have a need to feel self confident when they’re going for a job interview or communicating with their children or their spouses or their parents. Theater is a communication… it builds communication skills.

“We do a lot of visualization, we do movement, relaxation techniques. We incorporate yoga and these are things that can help them to relax and focus on positive thoughts is really welcome.”

They do a lot in the space of two hours, twice a month, to incorporate creativity and positive life skills into the theater experience, Tanner said.  The men are able to tell their story, through writing, through improvisation, through movement.

“[The men have] told us time and again, that when they were incarcerated, nobody cared to listen to who they were,” Tanner said.

“They kind of had the label of who society thought they were. We don’t ask them what they did, or where they were. That sometimes comes out in the work.

“But our workshop is called Moving Forward. Dad’s Back Academy is about moving forward and preparing folks to reenter society.

“So, they want to tell their story but they also want to redefine who they are.”