Tim Robbins and Sabra Williams lead exercises during an Actors’ Gang Prison Project workshop.

For first time, rehabilitative theater program is offered to officers

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR PIO II
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Recognizing the benefits of theater for all people, the Actors’ Gang will soon offer a pilot program for CDCR correctional officers.

The Actors’ Gang Correctional Officer Experience will be held over two days in Corona, where professional actors will work with officers in a first-of-its-kind program developed for correctional officers. The voluntary class is designed for California’s sworn correctional peace officers, with an emphasis on line officers, and is offered in partnership with the Actors’ Gang, California Endowment and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

“We are starting a two-day pilot program specifically tailored to correctional officers,” said Sabra Williams, who co-founded the Prison Project along with Actors’ Gang founding artistic director and Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins. “We’ve been working with CCPOA with a view to making it part of their wellness program and we want to support the well-being of our officers in any way we can.”

Stephen Walker, Director of Governmental Affairs for CCPOA, emphasized the importance of officer wellness and the many steps the organization is taking to support those who keep our prisons and the public safe.

“We recognize there are no one-size fits all answers to dealing with the dynamics and pressures of a career in corrections. To that end, we have engaged with a number of programs and service providers,” he said. “The reason we are happy to support the Actors’ Gang is their respect and recognition of the value of our members as people, and as such the recognition that people are unavoidably affected by the environment of corrections, and in that acknowledgment there has to be some form of address and outlet. We believe the program that the Actors’ Gang has developed is one lane of what we ultimately hope to be a multi-level and multi-lane expressway to help our members maintain and re-establish a holistic, healthier life.”

Classes will be offered Sept. 12 and 13, during which participants will learn about Commedia dell’arte, a 16th-century improvisational form of theater. Actors explore the extreme highs and lows of four emotions – anger, fear, sadness and happiness – as they take on the personas of several stock characters. Participants run from the deepest sadness to the most ecstatic joy, learning how to process and appropriately express those emotions, how to acknowledge and move on from them, and how to incorporate those tools into their personal and professional lives.

Classes also include exercises designed to fuse the group together, from games such as the highly charged Zip-Zap-Zop to silent challenges, like walking away from one another and then turning as a group, sensing the energy of those in the room.

While participants in the normal acting troupe exercises don heavy makeup as part of their characters, officers will not be asked to put on makeup during the two-day pilot. No inmates will be involved in the workshop. Participants can expect to have a profound experience, step out of their comfort zones and work together as a team.

“We use theater as a tool,” Williams said.” Even though you’re playing a character in these highly emotional states, ultimately it holds a mirror up to your own life.”

The Prison Project has been operating in California prisons for 11 years, and has expanded throughout the state, with programs offered at California Institution for Men, California Rehabilitation Center, California Institution for Women, California State Prison-Sacramento, Ironwood State Prison, California State Prison-Los Angeles County, Kern Valley State Prison, Avenal State Prison, High Desert State Prison, California Correctional Institution and Calipatria State Prison. The Actors’ Gang is part of Arts-in-Corrections, a partnership of CDCR and the California Arts Council to provide structured rehabilitative arts programs in prisons statewide.

Through teaching teamwork, communication and empathy, the Actors’ Gang reports a marked reduction in rules violations in those prisons where the program is offered. Correctional officers can now benefit from the program not just in terms of a safer work environment, but also an increased skillset and opportunity to learn new skills. Officers who participate will remain anonymous.

“The outcomes of participation in this are going to vary from person to person,” Walker said. “As the saying goes, ‘you get out of it what you put into it.’

“I believe that it has the ability at a minimum to shine a light on some things within us that we may have forgotten exist, or may have just forgotten how to access. We get so caught up in our work that we forget about some of the simpler things in our lives that help contribute to a balanced and happier life.”

“In the last 11 years, our work has proven to give people tools to transform their emotional lives in a safe and fun space,” Williams said. “So many officers have watched the work over the years and expressed a desire to have their own program. With the extremely challenging work they do, we understand the importance of having the opportunity to try something fun, new and effective to address the unique issues of their daily experiences. Recognizing the importance that CCPOA is placing on officer wellness and with the support of the California Endowment, we are finally able to bring the opportunity to participate in this respected and effective program to correctional officers. Join us!”

KNOW AND GO

The Actors’ Gang Correctional Officer Experience will be held Sept. 12 and 13 in Corona. Classes will be offered from 8-11 a.m. or 3:30-6:30 p.m. both days. The training is voluntary, and will take place during attendees’ personal time. For those who choose to participate, attendance is required both days, but officers do not need to attend both classes each day. For more details, and to RSPVP, email Kathryn@TheActorsGang.com.