Starting the Prison Project 10 years ago, we came to understand that part of the problem with over-incarceration was that there was not enough rehabilitative programs to fit the needs of the prisoners And I’ve been inside prisons shooting a couple different movies, “Shawshank Redemption” and “Dead Man Walking.” And I’d been aware of that, the feeling of like, “You know, they got a weight room and they’ve got cable TV and why are they living in the lap of luxury?” And that’s always been, for me, just such a ridiculous notion, because there is no luxury in prison and it’s, in fact, very, very difficult and in fact very difficult to survive in prison. And even more difficult when you consider the fact there’s no rehabilitation programs or very little that are helping the inmate change their path. And so for me, our work in prison became connected to a public safety issue. That, you know, with the realization knowing that 95 percent of the people that we work with in prison are going to get out soon, you know. Within 10 years. Wouldn’t you want these people coming back to your neighborhood with better tools on how to deal with disappointment and negativity and aggression? Wouldn’t you want them with better tools to deal with these things than when they went in? And it seemed like we were just, it seemed like society had just kind of thrown up its hands and said, “You know what? They’re just going to come back to prison,” you know? And that’s incredibly expensive, unnecessary. And as far as the moral issue goes, it’s kind of contemptable that we would treat fellow human beings with such disregard and disrespect because they had made a mistake.
We work with the inmates the same way we work with our actors in our workshops. And so what we came to understand was, well, there’s something about the way we work at The Actors’ Gang--the combination of a physical discipline and a rigorous demand for emotional honesty. Those two combined somehow was providing a transformative experience for the inmates that were attending the class.
One of the first things we tell our actors, and also the inmates when we’re training them, is that what we’re seeking is a intense reality. And for that reason, the number one rule is you cannot touch the other actor. In any way. You can’t shove, you can’t caress. You can’t touch in any way. So physical space is very important.
We do group work so that these guys have to create and these women have to create together. It doesn’t work without all of them doing it. And in other words, no leaders and no followers. We tell them at the start, “What we’re building here is an ensemble, a group of people that work together well.” And in order for that to happen, in order for that collectivity to happen, there has to be a certain generosity and a humility. And so this is what we work on getting first is how do we build a team here? And all of them, or most of them, have been on sports teams at some point. And they understand that concept. But it’s the concept of how do we truly make ourselves better as a group with all of the individuals in this group rising up, but not one, not relying on one person, to lead us there? We will lead ourselves, in other words.
But this is the first step. And then once we get into improvisation and into expressing emotion, you have to understand that they are expressing this emotion from, as, characters from the Commedia dell’arte. The scenarios of the Commedia dell’arte are pretty simple, and the characters are stock characters. It’s trying to free up the mind to not have to create everything out of whole cloth. It’s basically giving them a format. There’s a rich, old man. There’s a young man who’s in love with woman named Isabella. There’s the servant named Arlecchino. There’s a servant named Max. There’s a relationship between Arlecchino and Columbina. There’s the rich suitor that wants to marry the Isabella, and the old, rich miser Pantalone wants that because he wants the money. He doesn’t care that she’s in love with the young man. All this kind of stuff. We’ve seen this story again and again. Again and again in every culture throughout the world. It’s a story that is told in every culture. And so it’s in the simplicity of that that we can find the depth of emotion, because they’re not trying to create something out of whole cloth. . And so it’s really interesting what happens if you put one of these, you know, if you put someone that has been through the gang life in Los Angeles and you put him into the character of Pantalone, the old, rich miser. It’s interesting what comes out of his mouth.
There’s a buffer between their own emotional life and the life that they’re expressing on stage. They are playing characters. It is a safe zone for them to be able to kind of rip open layers that might have been suppressing emotions for years. And what happens is they find it. They do it. They find deep levels of sadness and elation, happiness. And they find fear. They express these things on stage. All three emotions, which, by the way, you don’t show on the yard. There’s one yard expression, one yard emotion, and that’s anger. “I am tougher than you. I will kick your ass.” That’s what the survival go-to emotion is in prison. And this room allows them to express emotions that they’ve never, or have not expressed, for a long time. And so we’re in an improvisation, and imagine there’s a person that comes on the stage and he’s angry, and another person comes on the stage and they’re angry as well. And I say, “Well, there’s really no scene here except for an argument and a fight, which we can’t do, so why don’t we try a different emotion in response to anger?” And this would be in the second or third week. And by the eighth week they’ve already been presented with several different improvisational situations where they’ve been confronted with anger and had to respond with three different emotions: happiness, sadness or fear. But not anger. And lo and behold, guess what happens? They understand they have a choice in the emotions that they express. They have a choice. Anger is a choice. If someone comes up to you angry, it is your choice to engage or not engage. And so what it does surreptitiously is gives these men and women a different path. A different way to process disappointment, hostility, anger. And I’ve heard again and again from these guys, “I was in a situation. There was a guy up in my face. I would’ve fought him before this class. When I was looking at him he looked ridiculous. He looked like a character from a Commedia dell’arte and I started to laugh.” It put it in perspective for them. You know, it gives them the tools to avoid confrontation. Because every time that happens in prison you get what’s called a 115, it’s a prison infraction. And that adds time, or oftentimes can add time, onto your sentence.
For whatever reason, we discovered that there was some constants in the reactions of the men and women that took the course. And those constants were the abilities sometimes for the first time in their lives to talk to family in an intimate way and personal way. Better relationships with their children on visits. Being able to be open emotionally with them. Understanding their own vulnerabilities. Creating bonds with the people in that room, bonds that they say far deeper than bonds they had in their gangs. And some in their families. Going across interracial lines. Blacks with whites. Latinos with whites, blacks. All of a sudden this segregated culture that is on the yard is now being broken up because of this class. Because there’s people now crossing over. Because they’ve created such bonds in that class and such friendships in that class that they continue those friendships openly in front of other inmates on the yard. And once one person does that, it allows many other people to do it that have that same feeling inside them but won’t cross over the racial lines because of fear.
We’re starting to get some very encouraging numbers as far as recidivism and in a reduction in violent offenses within prison. And we’ve had wardens tell us that it’s changed the culture of prison. So what we came to understand is that what we’re doing is incredibly effective, it’s working and it’s making things safer. And at that point when we understood, that was when we realized we had to expand and it had to become our mission to try to bring this to every prison in the state of California.
We had this guy that came up to me about seven weeks into the course and said, “You know--“ he said to me that, “You know, there’s this prison guard that is really mean to us and he says abusive things and he’s always bullying. He’s putting us back in the dorm early. He’s taking us out late. Spot inspections, putting us on lockdown for no reason.” That’s just kind of like this kind of guy. And he said, “You know, I looked at him the other day and I started wondering what’s going on with him at home? What is his life like that it manifests in hostility towards us? What is going on with him personally in his own private life?” And I was listening to this guy and that was actually the moment that I realized, “Oh, my God. We got to expand this thing.” Because this is next-level stuff. This is where you get, you take the lessons of the class, and then you say, “Well, okay. Let’s just forget about me for a second. Who are these sentient beings that I’m living amongst and who are they as souls? And who are they as people? The idea that you can start seeing a deeper level of empathy is pretty extraordinary.
The goal is: we bring the discipline and the method to the inmates and the inmates themselves run the program. We had one group in particular at Norco where we had been work-- we did three sessions with them over the course of a couple years and then we said we couldn’t come back because we were going to a different part of the prison. “We’ll be back in eight months.” And then three months later we get a phone call from a prison saying we’ve been invited to see a play that they’ve written and directed and we find out that two of the guys that we had trained had started their own theater company and had trained 40 new people in the method that we were working in. And so we came to understand that that was the way we could expand the program. We just took the clue from the prisoners.