Actors Help Inmates Develop Empathy

In some small corners of the Californian correctional system something remarkable is happening. A team of actors is helping the toughest and most violent of men learn to be vulnerable. The way they learn is through adopting a unique acting technique based in the physical and improvisational style of Commedia dell'Arte -- a form of community theatre that was played across village squares in 16th Century Italy and which awakened ordinary citizens to the narratives of others.

Tim Robbins and members of the Actors' Gang team with inmates from a Californian prison. Photo: Peter Merts.

The same is happening in American prisons today as these same techniques are introduced to the incarcerated by members of the Actors' Gang, a theatre company founded by Shawshank Redemption actor, Tim Robbins. This ground-breaking work is all about gaining access to emotional states and thereby enabling prisoners to recognize, express and manage their emotions. The program has even won the support of the outgoing U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder. For seven years, feedback from staff and inmates has consistently demonstrated that by encouraging prisoners to take responsibility for their emotions they can learn to take responsibility for their actions. This in turn leads to making better choices and adopting new behaviours.

The Actors' Gang 10 class prison program is neither a behaviour management course nor a therapeutic intervention. The intention here is simply to "play". But play doesn't mean having fun; nor does it mean performing or entertaining. Play in this context means "doing the work" and doing the work requires total concentration, patience and collaboration. It also requires being real with your emotions and a willingness to perfect this extremely self-disciplined acting method. Again and again the teachers tell the class that they too struggle to perfect the honed emotional "states" required by Tim Robbins during his rigorous evening workshops (being a member of the Actors' Gang requires regular weekly practice as an ensemble).

For those serving a prison sentence the work is healing because it unlocks the cage where emotions are buried. During the two weeks that I observe the program, in two separate adult male prisons some 60 miles east of Los Angeles, I hear countless accounts of change. I am here as a part of a British Council fellowship to explore ways that my work in the UK can connect with innovative practices in California. American prisons, unlike in Europe, are deeply segregated with ethnic groups kept well apart. However, on the Actors' Gang program everyone works together until race and colour have no currency. As a result what happens afterwards, back on the yards and in the dorms, is unprecedented. Men, who would never acknowledge each other before, now nod in recognition with mutual respect. The hidden part of this work is that it changes the culture of the prison.

Sabra Williams, an actor and the Actors' Gang prison program director, explains that once inmates are given the tools and the opportunity to work as a team they develop empathy and start to create healthy relationships. 'People in prisons survive by numbing their emotions, and when people are numb they have no empathy and continue to commit crimes,' she says. One inmate confirms, 'I came here to learn how to control my emotions rather than let my emotions control me.' Another who has done the course several times explains, 'It puts your head in a different mind-set.'

Many men who take this program have never been in touch with their emotions, and while some can naturally and easily adopt the four key emotional states (happy, sad, angry and afraid), others struggle. But emotional states can be learnt and, as Williams tells one inmate, 'Sadness is a muscle. You need to practice remorse.'

Another inmate explains, 'I was raised not to show facial expressions so now I'm learning to be more expressive, so people can read me.'

What is also essential in this work is being willing to fail. Back in L.A. I hear Tim Robbins tell his actors during the evening workshop, 'It's OK to make mistakes. Just own it, and then have the ability to alter it.' In prisons, in particular, losing face and messing up sets tough guys on edge, but with the Actors' Gang inmates learn that it is essential to sometimes look stupid as it allows for vulnerability to mature. There's fuel in the discomfort because vulnerability is where the strength lies. Not only does vulnerability open the door to authenticity but for those watching (and usually half the class watch while the others "play") it is easier to be empathetic when witnessing another's helplessness. As Williams explains,

'When you feel uncomfortable you get to know yourself better and understand why you're angry or sad. Then you can start to have control over your emotions.'

The third class of every program involves inmates "suiting up" - a term which means applying make-up, or "man cake". Their made-up faces replace the masks which are integral to the archetypal characters of Commedia dell'Arte. Behind the masks prisoners are free now to be more themselves, assuming the emotional states of the character they most identify with. They are advised not to be histrionic or dramatic because this isn't a "show"; it is about exploring the subtlety and nuances of human behaviour. The word "generosity" is frequently used both in the prisons and also at Tim Robbins' workshops.

'Be generous with each other in the work. It doesn't matter who plays what - it's about everyone being together,' he insists.

Where I feel a strong connection between the Actors' Gang prison program and the work The Forgiveness Project has pioneered in UK prisons over the past eight years is that both interventions are fundamentally about respecting the humanity of others and addressing behaviour not by identifying faults but by simply helping people relate. They are also about developing compassion for self and empathy for others. But whereas The Forgiveness Project's RESTORE program uses the authentic sharing of "victim" and "offender" narratives as the stimulus for learning, the Actor's Gang uses archetypal characters which show us what it is to be human. And key to all of this highly disciplined and transformative work is the notion that if you can master your emotions you are no longer a victim of your thinking.