Conspire Theatre

Out of prison, women find a stage for telling their stories

Conspire's lead conspirators: co-artistic directors Michelle Dahlenburg and Kat Craft
Conspire's lead conspirators: co-artistic directors Michelle Dahlenburg and Kat Craft (Photo courtesy of Leslie boorheim-stephenson)

Conspire Theatre's next performance is kind of a jailbreak. Hard to say if they're breaking these women out of prison or breaking us in. One way or another, they're breaking down the walls between us this Sunday at the Off Center.

For four years, Conspire has led weekly theatre and creative writing workshops with incarcerated women, helping them find ways to tell their stories and experience the essential joys of flow and play.

But, says Conspire co-artistic director Kat Craft, "What happens when they get out? ... Some of them may already have positive communities and positive outlets once they get out, but a lot of people don't."

To support that re-entry, Conspire, with the help of a small grant from the city of Austin and support from local businesses, is now bringing its work into the broader community with its first-ever public performance, Performing Possibilities, at 5pm, July 14.

After the event, the audience will be welcomed to join the performers at a free dinner catered by Central Market through the support of Bridget Dunlap, owner of numerous popular East Austin bars.

The seven to nine performers will be women who have served time in jail or prison. Some will have worked with Conspire while incarcerated; some will not. This performance will be built during two and a half intensive, eight-hour days, using techniques learned by co-artistic director Michelle Dahlenburg when she worked with New York City's Ping Chong + Company's "Undesirable Elements" series last summer.

What emerges will be "less what you would think of as a traditional play and more of a performance piece that involves working with people's personal stories ... a collage would be a good word for it. It's a very simple and powerful performance method."

Sensitive to the women's practical needs, Conspire will provide them with free child care and meals during the development sessions and performance. Each will also receive a $50 gift card donated by H-E-B.

The long-term goal? "A year-round ensemble, where we can meet once a week, rehearse once a week, create a long-term project, a show that we can tour and take to conferences and perform in the community. What we'd really like is for this to be a part-time job for the women who are in the ensemble," Craft continues.

But at least this first performance – and in particular, that shared post-performance meal, where not just the prison walls but the theatrical fourth wall come down – is a strong statement that the performers and audience, the formerly incarcerated women and the rest of us, are now one community.

Craft's goal for the women she works with is "self-advocacy ... being able to stand up and speak for yourself." And a big part of being able to to speak for yourself is to "have people who are willing to listen, and a supportive audience."

That's where you come in. Stick around for dinner, and don't lock the door behind you.

Conspire Theatre presents Performing Possibilities Sunday, July 14, 5pm, at the Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo. For more information, visit

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Conspire Theatre, Austin theatre, Kat Craft, Michelle Dahlenburg, Performing Possibilities, Bridget Dunlap

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