Tim Robbins’ Improv Classes Transform Prisoners’ Lives & Lower Recidivism Rates

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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