If a 20-something, Yale-educated New Yorker reporter feels nervous stepping in to her first ever improv class, imagine the stakes for your average inmate, whose survival depends on a successfully monolithic projection of toughness and control.

Control is actually something the Actors’ Gang Prison Project seeks to cultivate in its incarcerated participants. The Actors’ Gang’s Artistic Director, Tim Robbins, who founded the radically experimental ensemble fresh out of college, notes a well-documented connection between an inability to control one’s emotions and criminal activity.

Unchecked rage may have put these players behind bars, but exploring a wide variety of emotions behind the safety of the Actors’ Gang’s mask-like white pancake make-up has proven liberating.

The dull prison routine leaves prisoners favorably inclined toward any diverting activity, particularly those that allow for creative expression. Shakespeare has made an impact on this population. Why not commedia dell’arte-influenced improv?

It’s a truly therapeutic fit, as Actors Gang ensemble member Sabra Williams, the founder of the Prison Project, explains in her TED Talk, below.

Participants are subjected and held to the rigorous physicality and emotional honesty at the core of this group’s aesthetic. Personal connection to the visitors is limited to whatever may transpire in-the-moment, but within the prison population, relationships blossom. Both guards and prisoners speak of newfound empathy.

The emotional insights arising from these spontaneous explorations teach participants how to diffuse aggressive situations, present a more positive face to the world, and interact generously with others. In between classes, participants write in journals, with a goal of sharing aloud.

Gang signs, mimed weapons, and bodily contact are out of bounds. Wild invention often carries the day.

Participants have zero recidivism, and a waiting list in the hundreds attests to the program’s popularity.

You can learn more about the Actors’ Gang ten-year-old Prison Project here.

Related Content:

B.B. King Plays Live at Sing Sing Prison in One of His Greatest Performances (1972)

Inmates in New York Prison Defeat Harvard’s Debate Team: A Look Inside the Bard Prison Initiative

What Prisoners Ate at Alcatraz in 1946: A Vintage Prison Menu

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.


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