Prison Project theater program arrives at ASP
Video (story below):
(Editor’s note:The video may not be viewable from a CDCR computer.)
In the above video, teacher and professional actress Sabra Williams coaches the inmate students through complex emotional expression during an Actors’ Gang Prison Project demonstration at Avenal State Prison.
Photos and video by Lt. Michael Tuntakit, AA/Public Information Officer
Avenal State Prison
Inmates at Avenal State Prison (ASP) are using a centuries-old artistic practice to express themselves, improve communication and foster self-esteem.
The Actors’ Gang, a longtime supporter of theater programs in correctional institutions, has expanded to ASP, where inmates are tapping into different levels of themselves physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. Warden Rosemary Ndoh invited the Gang to bring The Prison Project into the prison, recognizing the program’s ability to engage inmates emotionally in a space safe from judgement.
“No matter how often I have the privilege of teaching in our outreach programs, I never cease to be amazed at how deeply and quickly humans can change when they’re given the tools and apply some courage,” shared Sabra Williams, program director.
The students learn a theater style called Commedia dell’arte, an improvisational technique created in the 16th century. The actors take on the personas of several stock characters and take them through a range of four emotions – anger, fear, sadness and happiness – from the lowest of depressions to ecstatic joy.
At a recent demonstration of their new program at ASP, inmates began the process by applying their character faces and forming a circle for warmup exercises designed to culminate spiritual harmony and calm nerves. In the first exercise, one person acts out a song and the rest must emulate it. Next, clapping warms up speed and quickness for “Zip Zap Zop,” an elimination game in which participants must focus their energy on saying the words “zip,” “zap” and “zop” quickly and in order around the group.
“It was spectacular to watch different factions and races join together without any ‘prison politics’ hindering their behavior,” shared Lt. Michael Tuntakit.
Once the warm-ups are over the character scenarios begin, with Actors’ Gang teachers coaching the actors through their scenes, encouraging them to allow their deepest emotions to come through. At the end of the demonstration, the inmates presented a poem they had written, along with a traditional haka dance to thank the facilitators for sharing their time and expertise.
ASP inmates who experienced the program will begin teaching other inmates the skills to continue the program as an Inmate Leisure Time Activity Group. Inmates in the program stated the experience allowed them to feel liberated within the prison walls and they felt a mutual respect collaborating with the ASP staff who also participated.
“It is a program that truly breaks the barriers of color and culture, and opens the eyes to what is possible,” Tuntakit observed.
Ndoh expressed her gratitude to the Actors’ Gang on behalf of the entire staff at ASP.
“The inmates believe in your quote: ‘I am a master of my mind, not a victim of my thinking.’”