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So, probably the last place that you think about hope and optimism existing is in prison, but in the last ten years of working there I’ve come to realize that all humans possess these things—they just need a little coaxing sometimes.
In June 2006 The Actors’ Gang Theater Company started an experiment: we decided to take the Sunday night workshop we do with our whole company into prison to work with non-actors, to see what kind of effect our style of theater would have on them.
So the style of theater we work in is a really bastardized version of the Italian tradition of Commedia Dell’Arte. It’s masks, white-face, high emotional, physical work, so we call it the “style.”
We took that workshop program into prison and were absolutely astounded by the effect it had on these non-actors and how it started to help them be able to heal their trauma. We’ve seen this approach transform prison yards, we’ve seen it break down barriers of race and separation, and that has happened through the courage of these people, picking up the tools that we’ve offered them and using those tools to transform their emotional lives, and they found a safe space in our work to be able to do that.
And as a result we have a ten percent recidivism rate and an 89 percent drop in in-prison infractions because these people now know how to deal with their emotions. So amazingly, this little engine that could, after ten years is now in ten prisons across California, and for me the thing that makes me so proud is that any day of the week there will be a student-led program happening in a prison. Like right now, there’s a program happening in the prison that’s led by our students, and we go and check in and support them every six weeks.
Apart from the reentry programs that we have, which is now run by one of our former students—we employed him the day he paroled, to run that reentry program—we are also creating a program for correctional officers, who are often as traumatized as the people that they are overseeing. It’s the highest suicide rate of any job.
The real secret of this work, for those of us who are lucky enough to do it, is that we get as much, if not more, from the experience. One of our juvie girls told me the other day, when people come and work with us she always thinks to herself, “Take off your cape,” and this has become out motto now. Take off your cape, because we’re not in the business of saving people. We’re going in and offering them tools that we know work and as a result changing our own lives.
I’ve definitely become a better person and a better actor, and these people have literally changed my life. So I’m really honored to introduce the stars of this work: the people. I mean it was an idea, right? I had an idea ten years ago; a lot of people have ideas. It doesn’t really mean anything unless people make it happen, and these are the people that made that happen. So I’d like to start off by introducing Chris Bingley.
Chris Bingley: Hello. Good afternoon everyone. I’m Chris Bingley. As Sabra said I returned to the community last Friday from a 12-year prison sentence. Most of my time—honestly there’s not a whole lot of programs inside of California prisons—so I just kind of sat around and kind of read books and tried to better myself on my own.
But towards the end of my sentence—I think I’ve been doing The Actors’ Gang for about five years—the Prison Project came in and it gave me a lot of tools. It gave me a lot of tools to deal with prison, to deal with myself, and now that I’m out here it’s given me a lot of tools that I’m using out here as well.