Formerly imprisoned women seek change through theater

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Shelby Tauber

Lauren Johnson, member of “Performing Possibilities,” a four-member theater ensemble for formerly imprisoned women, has narrated her story to more than 400 audience members so far and uses the theater performance as a way to speak about her time in prison. 

Lauren Johnson, an Austin native, has tried hard to escape from the shadows surrounding her past. According to her, she continues to change her life and others’ each day by reaching out to the community through “Performing Possibilities,” a four-member theater ensemble for formerly imprisoned women.

“Performing Possibilities” was created in July 2013 by Conspire Theatre, an Austin-based theater group for women during and after their incarcerations. 

The ensemble will stage its 45-minute theater piece Saturday at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin.

Through the theater performance, Johnson and the other women speak about the time when they were in prison. The only props used during the show are four chairs.

“They are telling really deep, serious things about their lives, and it’s a very vulnerable place to be in,” said Michelle Dahlenburg, master of fine arts graduate and artistic director at Conspire Theatre. “Audience reactions have boosted their confidence, and they’ve realized how important it is to tell these stories.”

Johnson initially began participating in the prison’s creative writing classes to secure contact visits with her children. She soon realized she liked to write about things she observed around her.

“One of the things I’ve learned while being with Conspire is my story is what makes me who I am,” Johnson said. “Lots of people have jobs and kids and extra-curricular activities. It’s not that big of a deal. But when you factor in where I came from — that’s what makes who I am now a big deal.”

“Performing Possibilities” has performed four times, and Johnson has narrated her story to more than 400 audience members so far.

Johnson said she’s no longer emotional about her own story because it’s just a bunch of facts.

“But, when they put it all together in the script, then all of our stories makes us emotional,” Johnson said. “Now, even though we’ve performed it a couple of times, it still shuts us up a little bit.”

None of the women had much experience with theater before joining the cast. To help them get familiar with each other, Dahlenburg and Conspire Theatre founder Katherine Craft created team-building exercises for the women and encouraged them to share their personal stories with each other.

“Michelle asked us to write little paragraphs of the day we were born and about a memory that we had before, during and after incarceration,” Johnson said. “They circled a couple of the things that they would have liked to hear more about and then they handed the notebook back to us. We picked one of those stories and we told that story about our life. Finally Michelle and Kat wove all our stories into one performance.”

Johnson said the nerves never go away, but she tries to remind herself before each show that nobody other than herself is the expert on her life. Five years ago, Johnson tried getting a business communication associate degree from the University of Phoenix.

“I anticipate that my criminal history is going to get in the way at various points in my journey,” Johnson said. “So I thought having a degree in business might assist me towards the path of entrepreneurship.”

Johnson seeks to remove the stigma associated with incarceration because she said she stands up for what she believes in.

“My motto is ‘If you don’t like your life, then change it,’” Johnson said.