I just went to prison for 5 months. Again. | 03

in socialjustice •  9 months ago

Last night I led the second workshop of a 5-month long theatre residency with University Beyond Bars; I’m asking 27 men in a medium security prison in Washington state to devise an original 60-minute piece of live theatre about the origin of unprovoked American violence.

Image from Unsplash

Find out more! Part 01 | Part 02

I went in this week prepared for a BIG class and all of the FUN you can have with a large ensemble of actors! As I mentioned last week I have 27 students registered!

My goals for the second workshop were to continue building an ensemble, layer in some basic acting skills, ask students to devise low-stakes original scenes, and structure a rehearsal schedule for the project, with the guys input, so that they can learn how artists schedule and plan their creative projects!

I got to class a few minutes late last night through no fault of my own. The Corrections Officer didn’t come to pick up Sponsors/Volunteers until 20 minutes past our scheduled meeting time at check-in. This is common. I am 10-30 minutes late to class more than 50% of my scheduled sessions because of DOC delays. I also lose at least one class per semester due to unplanned facility shutdowns or emergencies--which usually means I’ve driven 40 miles out of Seattle just to turn around and go back home!

Despite getting to class a bit late, there was terrific energy in the room. We had a great group of 22 students (5 of them had been given the evening off to play in a basketball game--it’s close to Finals, so you know...)

Last night we started with one of my favorite acting exercises: The Story of Your Name

Here is how it goes. All participants are paired up within the room--ideally with someone they’ve never met. Last night I asked students to point at someone across the circle from them who they’ve never spoken to before entering this class. Those were my pairs!

Each participant gets 60 seconds, on the clock, to tell their partner the story of how they got their name. This can mean something different for everyone. For example, some of my guys are strongly connected to a nickname, others to a last name, and last night I had a transgender student share her struggle with the DOC to legally change her name while behind bars.

Once both participants have offered their story and listened to their partner, we come back to the full group circle. Now each participant is responsible for introducing and telling their partner’s name story in 30 seconds. This is a great exercise in low-impact storytelling for newbie actors, and a great teaching moment for the importance of listening.

After opening with this exercise we jumped in with physical games and introductory acting exercises that began to lead into the theme of American violence.

We started with a refresher on improvisation and scene development. The first rule of improv is saying YES, AND...to your scene partner: accept the offer they give you and add on to it! I also coach beginning improvisers to stake out a strong A.L.R. in their scenes: (A)ctivity, (L)ocation, (R)elationship.

We practiced last night by writing an “open-scene” -- 6 lines of dialogue that could be framed in many ways. I then paired up actors and asked them to endow those “blank scenes” with an ALR, and to make the scene somehow reflect on one of two statements from our brainstorm the previous week:

  1. There’s nothing I can do to stop American violence.
  2. It won’t happen to me.

We threw up 10 quick scenes, then selected one that stood out to us because of its clear illustration of themes. We defined who these characters were: in this case best friends, one of whom has gone down a dark path of steroids so that he can be featured in a superhero graphic novel series.

I then asked the pairs to write a new 6-line scene, featuring these 2 characters in another time and place, i.e. a glimpse into another part of their story! Once these scenes were written--I changed things up! I asked groups to swap their scenes with another pairing, and then stage the new scene that they had received and perform it for the group!

In particular, I made this choice because we will be devising work together and there will be no room for egos, or for folks to be precious about “their work”. We are creating collaborative, generative material and that is the ethos I want to set from the very start!

We stopped 20 minutes from movement (the window of time prisoners are allowed back to their bunks) to hold a discussion on devising process and how we might structure our time together for the rest of the 5 months. I have found that there is much greater buy-in from this community if you involve them in the decision-making process.

I recommended that we spend about 1/3 of our time exploring themes, about 1/3 creating the actual material, and about 1/3 rehearsing our play. We agreed to this, although we did add an additional rehearsal to our allotment of exploration time to allow for more ensemble-building around delicate topics like violence and America.

I also had students self-select into the following groups: Actors, Writers, Administrative, Design. I want students to start thinking about the various ways that creatives collaborate on an artistic project.

For example, I will ask someone to design a poster and marketing materials--I will also ask a small delegation of students to create a distribution plan for these materials within the prison. In the real world, there will be more opportunities for these individuals in nonprofits and community agencies than in other employment fields...and I want them to learn real-world skills that will help them understand how to organize and energize communities.

Another example will be employing writers as playwrights to polish and shape the scene work we develop in class sessions. Overall, great 2nd class, and I’m ready to go back for week 3 already!

This is a weekly series! I’ll be on site every Wednesday evening for the next 5 months. Hope you can follow along as I document this project! Find out more! Part 01 | Part 02


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It's nice of you to do this.


Thanks for stopping by to check it out!

You're a stellar writer AND citizen, Lily. This post is top-quality. I'm loving this series and I await each new release!


Thank you so much for the kind words and for stopping by and for being you!


Always, my friend. Do check your DMs. 😉


Wanted to add: you're a part of my Weekly Curation Journal, keep up the great work! 🎈

Seriously, outstanding work that you're doing. Investing in people's futures, people who are often thrown away.


Thank you so much for stopping by to check it out!

Thank you @lilyraabe for this Post. What an incredible job it sounds like you're doing with these inmates. And to teach them real world skills is such a great thing.

Keep up the great work :)


Thank you so much for the kind words and tireless support! :)

Ahh, I miss acting. I used to be into it in highschool, but I started getting serious stage fright and flunked. Also terrible at memorizing lines. My favorite pagan god Dionysus is the god of theatre though, mayb he would give me the courage and opportunity again...

Its great what your doing! Keep on bein awesome!


Thank you so much for stopping by! Dionysus is pretty much the coolest god of them all, hah. ;)


I think he is, parading through the woods with a bunch of maneads :P

So are you facilitating alone with that amount of people? Does the design team go away and come back with the goods? Will they do that? Are other members of staff helping you or liasing with you, like from the education department? I love the idea of someone taking steroids to be a superhero. Theres so , so much in films and tv about people being superheroes at the moment, i imagine in the real world theres an increase in people developing that type of complex. I watch my kids become obsessed with parkour and i worry that they really believe they can jump accross rooftops. Hmm, interesting train of thought..


Hey! It’s just ME by myself, haha. It’s a LOT of students...doesn’t matter the age or setting, it’s a lot of humans to move and facilitate. I mentioned in Part 1 that I really wanted 12-16 people max for this process...but one of my past students saw the roster a few weeks out and noticed no one had registered--so he did a TON of recruitment and got 13 students. When he brought their names to the office the roster had another 14 students on it...we ended up with 27, ha.

I operate as a professor teaching a class...so creating the curriculum, structure, and goals is up to me. I link above to University Beyond Bars, the nonprofit I teach with. They give me infrastructure to work with, i.e. they process my paperwork, manage the class roster, schedule everything, print student packets etc...

We’re still deciding what the best way to have folks deliver project elements are...will be writing more about it in future posts...one a week until the project closes. :)

I'm really quite astounded with this journey of yours, it is so fascinating to follow your journey with these prisoners - and it's so good as well, what you are doing could make a real difference to some of their lives and turn them around once they serve their time. Great content and share - thank you so much for this.


Thank you so very much for stopping by to read again! Appreciate the ongoing support, kind words, and overall interest in what I’m doing! :)

It is SO exciting you can share your talents with this group of people and slowly but surely (I guess) get them out of their comfort zones, share stories, connect... Love that you're doing this and love the detail with which you describe your sessions - I would hope someone will take it as inspiration and use it too!


Thank you so much for checking it out..the guys DEFINITELY come out of their comfort zones. It’s always really funny to watch these “tough guys” soften up into giggly, silly actors after a session or two, haha.


That is SOOO amazing - We all have a soft giggly side in us :-) I'm working with 'tough boys' at the moment but they get really kind after a week or two with what they perceive as 'role models'. It's just amazing to see the transformation.


I know...the moment when the conditioning strips away and people just get to be people is pretty amazing. :)

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I wouldn't forgive myself for losing this chapter hehehehe

Great workshop what you did @lilyraabe 'cause you made them get out of an established scheme and got excellent results. Besides, the activities you made with them are, for me, totally superb!! =D


Thanks so much for that feedback! I spend a lot of time scaffolding exercises and thinking about how one things flows into the next -- its an art in and of itself. Appreciate the thoughtful comment. :)