DURHAM — Lynden Harris recently spoke to two groups of students about a mile apart on the same day, one from Duke University, the other a group studying to earn high school diploma equivalencies. She asked both the same question: What percentage of U.S. children have had a family member in prison?
The Duke students tapped away at their phones, searching for answers, then shouted statistics. The other group answered immediately: All of them.
Everyone they knew had some family member who had been in prison, Harris says. It was really a powerful contrast. We were in two different worlds, miles apart.
It was one of many illuminating moments in a nearly three-year production process for None of the Above: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline, the latest project by the Orange County-based nonprofit theater Hidden Voices.
Harris is the founding director of Hidden Voices, which creates plays and interactive exhibits that highlight a social problem by elevating the voices of those who live it. Over 11 years, the group has worked with prison inmates, victims of domestic violence, and immigrants who came to this country illegally, among others.
Each project begins with dozens of interviews; for the latest project, Duke students interviewed public school students, teachers, administrators and juvenile justice workers. Harris then takes transcripts of the interviews and distills them into a play that is performed by the interviewees.
Last week, the group staged a preview of None of the Above at the Nasher Museum, with Duke students reading a series of monologues. The final piece is due out this fall.
The performance offered a powerful mix of perspectives: a girl suspended for bringing a knife to school that she intended to use to commit suicide; a prisoner who regrets adopting local drug dealers as role models; the teachers, social workers and lawyers who fight to keep children on track despite a stunning array of obstacles.
Harris passion is to make these voices heard clearly and honestly not to gloss over their faults or offer easy solutions to their problems, but to help people who live vastly different lives understand their daily struggles.
Her gift is to humanize people who live on the margins, says Peter Kramer, a semi-retired counselor and friend who has followed the work of Hidden Voices. Her plays arent designed to make people look attractive necessarily, but they do make them look human and worthy of attention.
Harris, 52, is a playwright, actor and essayist based in rural Orange County. She was working as the artistic director at Carrboros ArtsCenter when she conceived of Hidden Voices, inspired by a production that took root from a writing workshop in a womens prison.
Being here in the flesh with the people who are sharing their stories is profoundly transformative, she says. I just thought there had to be a way to use that power to bring folks together. Its a natural way to connect people.
She adds, with characteristic humor: I thought Why wasnt anyone else doing this? Well, now I know.
The logistical challenges are immense. A continuing hurdle is finding people who are willing to tell their stories in public and are reliable enough to show up to performances.
Harris writes the grants that fund each project, forms partnerships with universities and local artists, and writes the plays. She often serves as a guest instructor in interviewing and writing and works with a variety of venues to stage the works.
In writing the plays, she must boil thousands of pages of interviews down to a cohesive narrative that is performed in concert with other exhibits. One project, on African-American communities in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, involved creating a walking and text message tour as well as the performance.
The plays highlight social problems but are not overtly political or focused on policies.
We try to include as many voices that are pertinent to the issue as possible and let people figure it out, Harris says. You have to understand the reality on the ground before you can make good policy, and that gap is that people dont know a lot about other peoples lives.
The final form of the current project is still under works; Harris would like to hold several different consecutive events in different locations to mimic the separate but overlapping roles of the schools, courts and communities.
There are no salaried employees with Hidden Voices; Harris and Kathy Williams, the groups performance director, are paid a per-project stipend, as are other artists who work on them.
In recent years, the group has also been running summer arts camps for at-risk youth.
Duke senior Kim Welch met Harris while working at a camp and also worked on the Prison to Pipeline project.
She has this amazing way of working with all types of people, Welch says. She values everyones input on an equal level.
Spotlight on real life
Harris grew up in the Atlanta area, but her family had deep ties in North Carolina, where she spent summers on her grandparents farm.
She went to college at Agnes Scott, a private womens school in the Atlanta area, where she studied theater and creative writing. Her family wasnt concerned about her choice to pursue a career in the theater, she says.
I went to a good school, and I could marry who I wanted, she says. The idea then was you didnt need to work so you can major in whatever you want.
She spent several years after school acting, mainly in commercials. She worked in London and New York, and helped to found several Atlanta-area theater groups.
She moved to Chapel Hill with her husband and two children in the early 1990s, and settled into the local theater scene.
One of her more popular productions was 10 by 10, an event made up of 10, 10-minute plays, performed by 10 men and women. Admission was $10.
She also worked with youth theater groups, including Theater Orange, which aimed to connect children with traditional Southern stories, and Youth Repertory Ensemble.
Shes written a variety of plays outside Hidden Voices but says she cherishes the idea of dramatizing real-life struggles.
The effect, she says, is to move some of the burden from the people living with social ills to the ones who are in a better position to solve those problems.
Once, she recalls, she summed that up for a group of women, survivors of domestic violence, about to go on stage: I told them, When you go out there tonight to tell your stories, you will feel so much lighter afterward, and the audience will feel so much heavier, and thats the way it should be.
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