The Actors' Gang: Commedia Dell'Arte + Prisoners = transformed lives (and billions saved)

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Some of the most amazing work being done in applying arts to social transformation is in prisons. One of the best projects we know is that of The Actors' Gang, the Los Angeles-based theatre company founded in 1981 by Oscar-winning Actor/Director, Tim Robbins. UK actor Sabra Williams runs their Prison Project, which she founded in 2006 as a response to high recidivism rates in California.

They work in Men’s and Women’s prisons, with at-greater-risk kids, in Juvenile Facilities and with Parolees. An Impact Justice study on their work showed an 89% drop in in-prison infractions for people who do the class.

Since 2014, Sabra has been working with former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Attorney General Lynch, the Department of Justice and The Obama White House to (in her words) "try to have an impact on our Criminal Justice system and to ensure people are reentering society prepared and transformed."

This Huffington Post article has an in-depth interview with Sabra Williams - an except below:  

Sabra: Our work is not a conventional theatre program; we don’t put on plays. The work is process-oriented and workshop based. At our theatre in LA, all the actors gather each Sunday to play for four hours in the characters of the Commedia Dell’Arte, improvising and creating ensemble. We took this template into prison and added some theatre games, writing and exercises to foster emotional honesty in a safe space. This work puts people of all backgrounds, race and gang-affiliations in the room together. It helps them to become vulnerable and to master their emotions leading to a drop in violence and a growth in empathy.

Students view this program in a similar way to Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous; as an ongoing class they can do for many years. It also reaches a new level when they take on the leadership role and run their own classes weekly with our Teaching Artists visiting every 6-8 weeks as support. Although we are not trying to make actors, they take the tools theatre has given them and continue to use them in their daily lives both inside and outside prison walls resulting in a huge drop in reoffending. CDCR has given a preliminary figure of 10.6%.

Robert: Why should the community care about the work you’re both doing?

Sabra: The community should care because we are wasting HUGE amounts of money and human capital when we incarcerate people for crimes we could deal with in the community or over-incarcerate people of color and people who are poor. Tax-payers are now paying $75,000 a year per person - MORE THAN IT COSTS TO SEND SOMEONE TO HARVARD! And it doesn’t work. People go back to prison about 60% of the time in California. When we incarcerate children it costs about $233,000 a year!!! Most of the girls we work with are traumatized, raped, trafficked or their parents are in prison. They are often mothers which means the next generation are already in the system.

Really, to change this, we need the Arts back in the core of the school day because kids who are traumatized “act up” and get excluded because our education system is not set up to help them. The Arts reach a part of the human condition that nothing else can and can reach these kids and help heal them. We want quick answers but they don’t exist. We have to look at the roots; poverty, racism and inadequate education. Our work can’t solve all that alone, but it does help to transform people’s emotional lives and help them make different, less violent choices.

The question for the community is who do you want living next door: Someone who has developed a terrible addiction to deal with their trauma? Someone who has learned how to refine manipulation and has a warped idea of masculinity? Someone that has closed themselves off and hardened their view of society? Or, do we want neighbors who have faced themselves and had a chance to learn new tools to be empathetic and a decent father/mother for the first time? This work can do that. I’ve seen it for eleven years. It cost a fraction of the price we pay in money and broken lives and it works.