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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

East Coast 'In the Belly' tour report!

We just got back from a two week tour talkin' bout prison abolition along the East Coast. Here's our report-back, including where we went, who we met, and what we learned:


Played a performance art space in a converted church. It's an art center, subsidized by the city to encourage culture in Athens. Our audience consisted of maybe 30-40 people, students, artists, local eccentrics, old hippies. Athens is a college town, and it seems like most people in the audience were involved or associated with the university in some way. The audience was mostly white, but there was a pretty wide array of ages present.
It was interesting performing in a "real" theatre space, even though we had the audience come up on the stage with us. Having black outs and control of our lighting was nice. We felt good about our performances, and crashed with an old geography friend of Wes'. Stayed up into the night taking about Colorado and artificial arrangements of public space.

The discussion involved one of the most beautiful descriptions of the nudity in the play we've ever heard. There seemed to be a range of familiarity with the issues we were raising. From some folks who knew about restorative justice and are starting a Books-To-Prisoners program, to others who had pretty basic questions and talked about how the play made them think about things they hadn't. There was also a question of who our target audience is, and what we are doing to expand the types of people who see the show.

We brought in $104, which we split halfsies with Arts West. Next day we stopped at little Beaver Lake state park, walked around the lake, dodged bees, got sick on the not-so-merry-go-round, and tried to save a goose that was tangled in some of the large amount of trash floating in the water.


We played a radical used bookstore called Random Row. The walls that weren't covered with bookshelves were painted with murals of native american resistance and other paintings. It took a while for everyone to trickle in, but it ended up being a good small audience, about 10 people. Half young white people, an older black man, and a few middle aged folks. We crashed in the venue on a pile of couch cusions, listening to the rain, and large warehouse-style fan.

Discussion after the show included interesting questions about private prisons, immigration, and different ways inmates are economically exploited (seizing assets, charging for incareration costs, etc). People also asked about organizations and things they could get invovled in to support prison abolition. Random Row donates books to a local books to prisoners project, and shares space with a guy who does a hip hop and poetry re-entry project.

We made $95, got some super cheap soup and walked around the weird outdoor mall, talk about artificial public space!


The Wingnut! We played the Wingnut, it was fun. On the jounrey from Cville to Richmond, we stopped and visited our friend Sean at Acorn, got a tour, lunch, and encouraged a car full of people to come out to Richmond to see our show. Acorn is a pretty amazing place, they grow tons of stuff to make seeds and have a room called the cuddle collective, where no sex is allowed, just cuddlin, just sharing space in an awkward messy room. The Wingnut is an infoshop / collective house that’s painted black with huge murals of people fighting pigs on the front and dedications to "those who have been killed by the state". They are outwardly oppositional and fight against gentrification in their neighborhood. They make connections with their neighbors by doing things like Copwatch, opening their space to community events, and letting the neighborhood children paint murals on their house. Whatever you do, do not fuck with their dogs. No drugs or alcohol are allowed in the house, and it is amazingly clean. Some of the housemates were unable to attend the show because they were doing a Copwatch, first friday is an art walk type event, which the police have recently been cracking down on and even cancelled because too many "young people" started showing up. "Young people" is clearly a euphamism for black folks in this instance.
We performed in the living room, crowded about 15 people in with us, and had a solid performance. Most of the audience was white radicals of one type or another, about half from acorn, and half friends of the Wingnut. It was interesting to see different kinds of radicals come together. We talked with people about the stuff they were doing, accountability processes, and time spent in a Corrections Corporation of America facility in Youngstown. We've noticed that discussions are quieter and shorter with radical and active audiences. We want to work on this, make the discussion not be limited to introducing people to prisons, but also be open to deeper understanding with other radicals about the work their doing and teaching each other how to better resist.

We made $59, and after the show, one of the copwatchers got arrested! It's a long story, you can read here: and here:, we stayed up into the night talking about that and eating oatmeal with stale cereal.

The next day we went to this really cool place called belle isle. It's a huge island in the middle of the James river. Lots of flat rocks with little water pools. It has also served many functions over the years. It's been a civil war POW camp, an iron factory, and hydro-electric plant. American Indians also lived there. The ruins of all these things are there, accessible, to explore. Which we did, with joy and amazement that the city of Richmond does not block off or tear down these ruins, and that the water is clean enough to swim in (or maybe VA has lower standards of cleanliness than OH).  


I like to call it baldy more. Baldy more is a crazy town where the government is heavily subsidizing and encouraging artists, one estimate was that 700-1000 artists live in one block of warehouses. We performed in one of these warehouse called the Whole Gallery for about 15 people. Our friend Isa opened with a solo improv dance peice, and put us up and showed us around town!

The discussion was lively and exciting. We talked about capitalism and target audiences. One person talked about how exciting it was to see something that is very artistic and very political. There was even some talk of baldymoreians adapting and producing their own version of In the Belly. The show generated about $65, we took home $45 of it. On target audiences, there was some discussion of taking the play to "more powerful" people who can actually influence how prison works in our society. The discussion kind of went on this tangent and we never got to fully answer this question. Upon reflection, we wish we'd said something like "we don't think of rich people as more powerful. We would rather empower ourselves and others who are effected by the prison system than influence or tap into the power of rich people who are supporting and served by the prison system."

Our audience was mostly artists, mostly young, and pretty racially diverse. We had a great time hanging out on Isa's porch and playing 3am basketball. We toured the city and started an interesting conversation about artists and government money. Maybe some day soon we'll be able to continue these conversations!


We played Danger Danger Gallery, a punk rock showspace in West Philly. Eleven people came out, Gepetta performed a puppet fable about giant squids and dark holes.

The discussion was good, people in the audience had lots of experiences with things like accountability processes, teaching theatre in a juvenile detention center, packing books, and writing letters. One person talked about resisting police in your daily life, situations where you can avoid letting the cops take someone away. It was a small but supportive crowd and we ended up with $73.

The next day we had breakfast with one of Weslie's old friends, visited Fairmount Park, ate a tofu hoagie, and saw a couple interesting theatre shows on our day off. Smiley and Overseers. Overseers was especially good.

We performed at ABC No Rio for a collection of old friends, new friends, prison activists and artists. There were about 30 people in attendance. Wide variety of ages, races and other demographic indicators. Like the wignut, discussion was sort of slow and quiet. There's lots of stuff going on in New York, so it was nice getting peoples to talk about their projects with each other. The show brought in $190, which was split three ways: ABC No Rio and NY Books Through Bars each got a third.
We stayed with our friends Rick and Sok, where we enjoyed so much delicious food, saw a goofy play about frogs and airline layovers. We also went to MOMA with friends from Ohio and wandered around in the rain.


We got stuck in traffic on our way to the show, and arrived late! When we got there a dozen people came down from the U CONN drama classroom we were performing in to help us bring in the set. Most went back empty handed, because our set is so small, and awesome.
The show started shortly after unpacking. Someone sang a song about birds, someone performed a puppet show about pineapples and unrequited love. Then we did the play.
The discussion was enthusiastic, people asked a lot of questions about our artistic process, and about alternatives to prison. A few people shared some interesting experiences working with at-risk youth and formerly incererated people.
We stayed with our puppeteer friend Tom, had adventures with chairs and slept well. Most people there were students or former students of UCONN. All young white people, far as we could tell. We made $110 and shared the play with maybe 35 folks.  


We rode slowly into the small mountain town of Ithaca, played a show at Silent City Distro, a zine publisher and distro on the 2nd floor of a bookstore. We had a small but good crowd in the quaint town, stayed in a communal house and met some great people we would like to re-connect with in the future. The slow riding was due to floods, the low turn out was due to multiple conflicts: activist youth summit, herb school field trip and massive concert. All great things, but unfortunately happening at the same time.
Our youngest audience member yet appreciated the show and so did her mother. The discussion included topics like prisons in India, experiments in confining oneself to solitary, women in prison, and the Attica Uprising, which happened forty years ago on this day.
We made $44, from about 6 people. One Indian, one 15 year old, 4 others. After the show we hung out with Ryan and talked about activist burn out, communal living, life transformations, self-defense strategies for cats and other heavy shit.


Again, we were competing with a large music festival, dozens of bands, one of the biggest local events of the year. Our contact realized this near the beginning of the tour and last minute shifted the start time to 5PM. This circumstance is unfortunate, because we had a pretty great show last time we were in Jamestown. This one ended up alright in spite of the difficulties.
About 10 people watched, mostly young people, all white people. The discussion was precipitated by a disconcerting exit of most of the audience as soon as the show ended. While Wes and Kate started fielding questions, Ben went outside to investigate and saw that people were just smoking, they had enjoyed the show but liked nicotine more than discussion of prison abolition. So be it. We walked away with $38, bellies full of excellent food, and no complaints.


After the show in Jamestown we headed for the border. I’m not talking about shitty americanized tacos, i’m talking about shitty americanized waterfalls. We made arrangements to crash with Thor in Hamilton and when we hit Buffalo we decided we might as well stop in Niagara Falls instead of crossing the peace bridge into Canada. Well, Niagara Falls is mostly Casinos, no parking signs and motorcycle conventions. We tried to table-dive some shitty beer, but thought better of it. Bikers like their beer. Instead, we took romantic photos by the falls!
Our show in Hamilton was excellent. The venue is a bar owned by former DIY theatre performers from Toronto. They were super stoked to be hosting a traveling theatre troupe and made sure we had everything we needed. When we set up backwards on the floor and had the last row of audience up on the stage, they seemed a little skeptical, but were trusting, and the arrangement worked out wonderfully. Sterling Stutz spoke about the G20 legal defense situation, in a carefully-prepared-so-as-not-to-violate-her-bail-conditions way. She and the co-accused started court the next day, and it seems to be going pretty well. After that, we did the play for one of the largest and most supportive audiences ever. There were 30-40 people there, mostly but not entirely white people, and we ended up with $290 Canadian (that’s $284 American).
A couple funny things happened, 1st, a petty officer of the Canadian Navy showed up and talked about bringing a dozen or so of his boys to the show, which may have been interesting, but they never showed up. Second, a drunk Portuguese man looking for someone named Joey tried to force his way into the front door, which was closed so that people wouldn’t walk in on the backside of the performance (cuz we were set up backwards on the floor). This was at exactly the moment when Wes was doing the control chair bit, so he would have walked in on her naked and spread eagle right at the top of the stairs and undoubtedly disrupted the show if Judith from the venue hadn’t intercepted him.  
The discussion was really great as well, lots of critical responses and lots of back and forth between audience members, rather than just questions for us. Someone questioned us about what we’re doing to avoid stealing the voices of inmates and affected communities, this is the first time we’ve been asked this so directly, and I’m not sure our response was fully satisfying. We are doing our best. Some people debated about how different the Canadian system is from America’s. The two sides of the debate were “we need to stop Canada’s system from becoming more like America’s” and “Canada’s system is already no different from America’s”. I don’t know a lot about Canada’s system, so I just listened. Sounds like the racism against first nations people is pretty severe in Canada. But, people were debating the merits of state supported restorative justice programs. Someone angrily said “24 years [the Canadian max sentence for homicide] is a life sentence”. I agree, a 24 year sentence is atrocious. I’m still mostly uninformed about the Canadian system, and don’t want to say anything to diminish the importance of prison resistance there, but in America there are repeat offenders getting 99 year sentences for selling drugs. Our incarceration rate is about 7 times Canada’s. So, it seems like the rhetorical tactic of “it’s no different than America’s system” is probably not a very effective one.


Cleveland was a great basement show, about thirty people there, some coming in and out and peeking through the basement windows. Dianna, who’d been involved with Bread and Puppet Theatre, and her house hosted us.  They also made some great food before the show and encouraged their friends and people on their block to come out. There were also some biker people, the Solidago Riders, staying at the house, road bikes, not motorcycles. They informed us about their trip focused on the Great Lakes, the documentary they’re making and about people’s connection to the lakes and some of the challenges they’ve had biking. The audience consisted of about 50 / 50 black and white folks, which, having more people in the audience that are affected by police and repression, made the discussion more focused on action in comparison to other shows we’ve had.  There were some formerly incarcerated people, who were skeptical about the show and us being white people talking about prison, who asked us about ourselves and how we became interested in prison issues. The discussion was active and had perspectives from people who talked about legislative reform- how it can work and also doesn’t work, how folks should take action on small freedoms that are constantly being taken away from specifically black people at a faster and faster rate.  People also talked about how far racial oppression has reached into black communities and has torn them apart. We wrote a letter to Bomani, cuz he’s from Cleveland and thought that would be nice.

Moneywise we made 74 dollars and there about 35-40 people who came in and out during the show.


We played a show at The Lemon Grove who hosted Prisoner Awareness Day on Oct 13th, the day we were there. Siddique Hasan from Ohio State Pen. called in to talk and answer questions from a crowd who frustratingly seemed more interested in dining.  We had to make multiple calls of attention.  D. Jones’ movie about mass incarceration was shown followed strangely by a movie about bees.  It didn’t seem likely for a while that we’d end up doing the play due to lack of audience but sure enough, people were rounded up and got their butts in some seats. The person who set up the show was enthusiastic about seeing it and getting others to see it too. We made a good choice to perform.

Audience swayed from about 9 to 15, some people coming in and going out. Age varied from mid-20’s to Middle aged. Mostly white folks, some black folks came in a ways through. Three people stuck around for discussion, two of them producers of the Lucasville play we’ve become somewhat familiar with since working with the Lucasville Uprising folks.

Moneywise we made $145 which is quite good for that small of an audience and mostly thanks to Jacob who booked the show. Then we jumped in the volvroooomm and headed to many hotels.


Hurns. Double booked. Oh well. Last show of the tour and something like this had been chasing us for a while. Instead we had a confounding experience with a wine vending machine in Giant Eagle. This is the future folks. Videos telling you how to give them all of your personal information and then how to blow into them so they can see if you’ve already had some wine. It’s like kissing an FBI agent. Anywhoo, we got to meet Wes’ sister and then started the drive back to C-bus.

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