Moment by Moment at the Altamont Inn

Sewanee theater students and Grundy County inmates explore the realities of incarceration in a civic-engaged class project that helps transcend barriers and foster connections between classroom and cell block.

Theatre Professor Jennifer Matthews with Theatre 261 students in Altamont.

Theatre Professor Jennifer Matthews with Theatre 261 students in Altamont.

“I begin.” Sewanee Theatre Professor Jennifer Matthews rises augustly from her seat in the Frank Herbert Study in Gailor Hall and walks to the bookshelf. She selects a book, flips through the pages, shrugs her shoulders, and places it back on the shelf. “I end."

This brief performance is a bare-bones demonstration of “moment work,” a technique described in a book by that name by Moisés Kaufmann and Barbara Pitts McAdams. This semester, Matthews has been teaching the concept to a class with two distinct populations: Sewanee students enrolled in Theatre 261: Community Engaged Theatre and a group of incarcerated individuals, eager to tell their stories, who are residents of the Grundy County Detention Center, a facility directly across the street from the Grundy County Courthouse in Altamont. 

“The beauty of teaching moment work is that it is readily accessible to students who have little to no experience in theater,” says Matthews. “It’s a vehicle for giving any student an introduction to theater arts that results in original, collaborative work.”

The authors of Moment Work claimed national attention through the work of Tectonic Theater, which most notably created the “Laramie Project,” a play centering on a community’s response to the murder of a gay University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, in Laramie, Wyoming.

“The idea of the Laramie Project is that the murder of Matthew Shepard represents a moment when everyone in a community is paying attention,” explains Matthews. “Tectonic Theater spent a lot of time in Laramie talking with people, collecting stories and opinions and commentary—from people across the spectrum.”  Not everyone in Laramie shared the same opinion about the murder, but everyone was paying attention. The raw material in the form of interviews and reflections and even diatribes were the ‘moments’ that made up the play. The job of Tectonic Theater was to put these moments together in a coherent way to produce a collaborative, participatory piece of theater art.

“The beauty of teaching moment work is that it is readily accessible to students who have little to no experience in theater,” says Matthews. “It’s a vehicle for giving any student an introduction to theater arts that results in original, collaborative work.”

Replicating that process with Sewanee students and incarcerated Altamont students helped Matthews create a meaningful and inclusive class, giving all the participants a way to understand the role theater can play in revealing important stories, especially stories about vulnerable populations. The class included a two-week residency by one of the Moment Work creators, Pitts McAdams, whose presence was made possible by funding from the University's Lectures Committee; the Office of Civic Engagement; the departments of English and Creative Writing, Art and Art History, and Theatre; and others. “I begged for support from wherever I could get it,” says Matthews.

We Begin

Whatever way you go, it’s a good 45 minutes from Sewanee to Altamont. The van to Altamont rolls up with Matthews and five students on board and we take off, heading for the Grundy County Detention Center. We’re heading to Altamont to stage the play that has been in the making since the beginning of class. All semester long, students—from both Sewanee and Altamont—have been batting writing prompts back and forth, capturing the moments that will make up the play. Two plays, actually, have been created: The men will perform on Friday, and the women on Saturday. 

“The men and women really approached the task differently,” Matthews says. “At one point, the men said, ‘Put the play together the way you think; it will be good.’ The women reached a different kind of place. ‘We’ve got this,’ they said.  Our task in Sewanee was to suggest material they didn’t include in that first draft—work they had produced that we thought was really outstanding, such as original and very moving poetry.”

“I’ve never known anyone who was in jail before, so I didn’t really have knowledge of their stories,” says Chloe Wright, C’27. “I learned a lot about jail culture with names for things, like ‘honey bun hit’ or ‘snug in a turtle suit.’” (These terms will have significance in the resulting play.) While other students chime in with their own admission that they have gained new perspectives on incarceration, Delana Turner, C’24, reveals that she has known people who’ve been in jail. “I think this is a really important class for us to take,” she says. “It’s especially important to learn about people’s lives who are having experiences that are outside your own set of experiences, outside your comfort zone.” 

The detention center gleams, a testament to its newness and to the thoughtful way Sheriff Heath Gunter’s department attends to upkeep. We drop our belongings in a locker behind a set of locked doors, entering another locked set to a hall with an entrance to the kitchen and a classroom. The cell blocks are past a third set of locked doors, and the cyclone-fenced yard where the play will take place is behind yet another locked door.

One of the Sewanee theater students is hoping to go to law school. “This is the kind of person who needs to know about what life is like for the incarcerated” says Vaughan. “She’ll be in a position to make change because she has firsthand experience with the corrections experience.”

Across from the classroom is a mural of a dove flying away, trailing affirmations—Recovery, Faith, Hope, Empathy, Wisdom—with appropriate textual references, Matthew 5:9 and John 15:13. That classroom is the site of wonderful work that has been done by Hilda Vaughan, who manages reentry programs. Vaughan’s other job—her labor of love—is Arts Inside, a nonprofit organization that she launched while serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA member. Arts Inside has a long history of service in Grundy County, where it originated, and in other locations in Tennessee. It is surely a contributing factor in the exemplary recidivism rate that the Grundy County Detention Center has experienced in the past. 

Vaughan is really making a difference, and it is a difference captured in the play the class has produced together, “Our Extended Stay at the Altamont Inn.”

“We start off every morning with breakfast at 7 o’clock, then lunch at 11, then supper at 5,” says the character P. (played by P.—we’ll use only first initials to refer to the Altamont students)  “Mostly we sit all day and read. We don’t have TVs to watch. The best and only help we have in the jail is Hilda, and everybody loves her.” Vaughan waves in the audience.

“I am very happy with the class,” says Vaughan. “I was really pleased with how the Altamont students were so willing to jump outside their comfort zone and do what they might have thought of as silly theater exercises. They learned a lot by jumping in and doing it.”

Working with the incarcerated students presented several logistical challenges for Matthews, even beyond the 90-minute round-trip drive time. “For one thing, it really is a transient population,” she says. “Altamont students were released or transferred, and other students came in. The other factor was that the male and female populations could not commingle, so two plays were produced using moment work.” 

“You really should have seen the play on Saturday,” says Vaughan, referring to the women’s play entitled “My Vacation at the Grundy County Jail.” “The male trustees and two female corrections officers came to see it and stood outside the fence, and it was a moving experience. They really get in to some of the difficulties of incarceration—access to supplies such as sanitary napkins, for example. After the play, one of the women corrections officers came out with sanitary napkins for everyone, and Jennifer shouted, ‘Yay, the transformative power of theater!’”

Afterwards, according to Vaughan, the corrections officers who brought the supplies met with the women in the cell block to talk about the issues that had come up in the play—meaningful dialogue to better understand one another’s realities. 

Civic-engaged theater is just one way that Sewanee students are making a difference at the detention center. A group of five students came all year to be tutors for inmates preparing for the high school equivalency test. One of them, Eli Bastiaansen, a freshman, also taught a poetry class to the men, which Vaughan says was really well received. 

Vaughan thinks all these contacts are going to have lasting positive impact. One of the Sewanee theater students, Ella Reynolds, C’27, is hoping to go to law school. “This is the kind of person who needs to know about what life is like for the incarcerated” says Vaughan. “She’ll be in a position to make change because she has firsthand experience with the corrections experience.” Vaughan is also grateful to Sheriff Gunter for encouraging all these activities, which lead to more successful reentry for the inmates.

P. and S. are the Altamont actors in “My Extended Stay at the Altamont Inn.” P. is gregarious and popular, a natural-born theatrical talent Matthews would not be surprised to see in standup comedy after his extended stay is over. Both shake our hands and we walk to the yard. Sewanee students, faculty, and onlookers in street clothes and Altamont students in prison-issue clothing and orange Crocs make up both audience and actors. 

The short play gets two run-throughs in the warm sun, and Matthews, the director, has notes. The actors work on their comedic timing, the delivery of their jokes about honey bun hits, which in fact get a good laugh in the performance. (If a person has been wronged or bullied by another inmate and they do not want to risk a physical altercation for any reason, they can give a honey bun to another inmate to take the physical retribution.) Everyone is learning. Everyone is fully engaged. And soon the play begins. 

The men in P. and S.’s cell block file out and take their seats. The cast has very quickly learned to hit their marks, with P. and S. delivering most of the dialogue with help from Ella Reynolds stepping in to play the part of another Altamont contributor who was released during the semester. The other Sewanee students do stage business, miming action that cannot actually take place in a prison yard.

As the play ends, audience and cast sit together. The Sewanee students pass out honey buns they have brought from a convenience store. A few of the Altamont audience members take more than one.

We End, but at the Beginning

Civic-engaged theater has been in Matthews’ plans for several years, with a couple of forays into the space working with students in the Finding Your Place program, an immersive place-based course enjoyed by many entering Sewanee students. She had also had a first run at the current course in 2021, doing listening sessions in Sewanee and producing a short play in Sewanee’s Angel Park in the fall. For a professor like Matthews, teaching is an iterative process—working on technique and processes over time, making improvements each time. For this academic year, civic-engaged theater took a big step forward, as Matthews was named a faculty fellow of the Office of Civic Engagement (OCE).

“This time I had a lot more resources on the front end,” says Matthews. “Katie Goforth [director of community development] gave me great contacts in the community, and I was able to meet with and plan with Hilda early on.” In the fall, Matthews attended a cookout and jail tour and plans for the course began to resolve. 

Matthews is one of four faculty fellows this year. They form a learning community that provides mutual support. “We meet once a month and we generally work together to elevate civic-engaged instruction among the faculty and the departments,” says Amy Patterson, director of the Office of Civic Engagement. In addition to developing a course, each fellow works on a special project, and Matthews is working with Patterson to help educate decision-makers in how to evaluate civic-engaged instruction in the promotion and tenure process.

“Professors are evaluated for their teaching, research, and service,” says Matthews. “Civic-engaged instruction is really a hybrid of all three of those activities, so it’s not always clear how to evaluate it.” Coincidentally, the staging of “Our Extended Stay at the Altamont Inn” took place on the afternoon of Scholarship Sewanee, and the performance served as a kind of satellite of the annual celebration of faculty-student collaborative scholarship. 

“I think this work is enormously important,” says Patterson. “The vast majority of our students have no idea of how the criminal justice system works, nor do they understand the complexity of incarcerated people’s lives—the effect on their health, the boredom, the uncertainty.”

Patterson is convinced that Matthews’ work has an important if not central role in the work of the College to foster citizenship. “Citizens need to understand policy—how it works and how it doesn’t, how to make inhumane systems more humane.” 

At the End

As the men of the cell block file back into “the Altamont Inn,” P. and S. remain outside with the Sewanee students for a final conversation. They talk about their life’s trajectory, with P. having always lived within a few miles of Altamont and S. having traveled around the country. “I lived all over the place in my life, and then I came home and got in trouble,” he admits.  At its heart, moment work reveals these nuggets of self-reflection, of empathy, of camaraderie, where everyone involved finds comfort just outside their comfort zone and participates in building community through the co-creation of a work of art.