Theses Doctoral

Performing a Social Movement: Theater for Social Change’s Collective Storytelling

Arnstein, Tammy

There is widespread agreement among researchers, policy experts, and community advocates that the United States’ mass incarceration system is a policy failure. Despite bipartisan consensus and sporadic reform attempts, the policies and systems ravaging low-income families and communities of color remain largely intact. Formerly incarcerated people have been driving the social movement to dismantle mass incarceration since the movement’s inception, yet their advocacy efforts and creation of alternative programmatic and policy approaches have only recently been acknowledged and documented and have yet to be implemented widely.

Through this study, I aimed to fill these gaps in knowledge about the advocacy work of women impacted by the justice system by documenting the ethos, practices, and strategies of Theater for Social Change (TSC), a performance arts-based advocacy group composed of formerly incarcerated women in service of justice system transformation.

Using action research methodology, I employed dialogic and iterative processes, in partnership with TSC, to develop interview and focus group protocols and analyze data. I also undertook a thematic analysis of post-performance audience discussions, as well as the scenes and monologues created by the ensemble over the years.

This research project found that the ensemble way of working—defined by Radosavljević (2013) as “collective, creative, and collaborative”—enabled TSC to develop and model the type of caring and self-organized community and capacity development, per Nixon et al. (2008), that they envision for currently and formerly incarcerated women and their families and communities to create conditions for a just and equitable society. The ensemble way of working nurtured a sisterhood and enabled the exploration of individual and shared experiences of the trauma of incarceration, as well as overcoming systemic inequalities through higher education and career success in a safe and supportive space. Performing scenes and monologues developed from personal stories allows TSC to control its advocacy messages, challenge stereotypes, and create new narratives about the worth of formerly incarcerated people. Theater and post-performance discussions also enable ensemble members to model and employ their multilevel expertise: personal experience navigating the justice system; professional expertise in reentry, mental health and human services; and advocacy leadership.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
International and Transcultural Studies
Thesis Advisors
Leichter, Hope
Sturm, Susan P.
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
July 31, 2020