i'm going to jail (for 2 hours).
October 22, 2007 4:04 PM   Subscribe

what fun, performance-related activities would you teach in a high-security prison?

i have a background teaching & working with under-served youth, mostly in the field of drama / performance. next week, i am leading 2 guest workshops in a high-security british prison. the content can be whatever i want- communication, improv, acting, group dynamics, whatever. it should have some performance component, and it should be fun and playful.

i'm allowed to use audiovisuals (although i'm not sure what i'd use, nor how compatible my DVDs would be) and handouts (although at least 50% of the inmates can't read).

i will have 2 groups of 20 inmates for 2 hours each.
group 1 are "vulnerable inmates" facing threats from the mainstream prison population. apparently they like this kind of guest speaker session a lot and tend to be engaged & participatory.
group 2 are the mainstream population, who tend to also be pretty open to this kind of stuff but are a bit more rowdy and disruptive.

i thought i'd like to do stuff involving improv, acting, self-expression, comedy, or performance.

i want the inmates to have fun, feel that i like & respect them, and feel safe with each other in the workshop. i want them to all feel talented & successful at the end, and maybe get to practice some kind of communication skill that they can apply to their daily life or get some sort of self-esteem boost from (like "hey, i didn't know people thought i was funny!" kind of feelings). and i want them to be able to laugh good-naturedly at each other in a way that won't exacerbate any tensions that may exist within the group. i worry that i'm overthinking things a bit, but that's how i feel. frankly, i'm a little nervous- i'm a young, innocent-looking canadian woman, i speak in a kind of nerdy overenthusiastic cadence which usually makes "tough" people tease me (good-naturedly, and it doesn't hurt my feelings, but i don't want to come off as some nice, clueless suburban girl who thinks she can teach MEANINGFUL LIFE SKILLS or whatever- even if that's kind of what i am), and i'm not particularly street smart, especially compared to prison inmates.

i like the idea of them doing performance stuff, typical improv games like clap-focus, freeze/switch, hotseat, and those games where 2 people tell a story simeltaneously or one-word-at-a-time. simple open scenes, maybe, make-a-story, genre opera, etc. but i don't wanna limit my options to just improv, i feel like there may be other activities that will work well in this context.

in short, my questions are:
1. what kind of performance, expressive, or group dynamics stuff would you teach in this situation?
2. is there any meta-advice you can give me, about what to expect, or how to think about my position in this situation, that will help me relate well to the group?

any advice would be so helpful- thanks in advance!
posted by twistofrhyme to Education (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
"Yes, and" might be a little too much to play with a group that big.

I'd run through enunciation exercises, just to get everyone's mouths moving first off. Then I'd do the warmup where you get everyone into groups of four or five, and you have them run through the alphabet backwards, one letter at a time. Each person can only say one letter, and you have to remember what letters you had as you go back (plus, you can't say more than one letter in a row, and you can't develop a pattern). Otherwise you have to start over. It's incredibly frustrating at first, but it really gets you into the state of listening to what other people are actually saying while simultaneously keeping track of what you've got to say. Tell 'em that it's like mental deadlifts—really hard at first, but something builds you up quickly.

Oh, and something that might help that I remember from my Second City class— Remind them that the problem with going into sex or violence isn't necessarily with the sex or violence, it's that the next person has no where else to go in the narrative. That can help calm things down if you remind them that they're not just responsible for themselves, but that part of performance is not screwing over the guy who has to go next (when I taught elementary kids, I gave candy for the "best straight lines," but I don't know what candy you can give).
posted by klangklangston at 4:20 PM on October 22, 2007

What an excellent question!

Have you considered - and this is going to sound kind of odd - clicker training? In Don't Shoot the Dog (a book I know I suggest about every two months on AskMe) the author discusses having "training" sessions with groups of humans. She explains it much better than I could, but I've played it as a party game. Essentially, one person - "The animal" - leaves the room, and everyone else agrees on a single person to be "The trainer". The group then also agrees on a specific behavior - turning a light on, standing on a chair, going to a specific spot and spinning around three times, whatever - and the "animal" is called back in.

The trainer then uses a marker (a "clicker", or a whistle, etc.) whenever the "animal" exhibits a behavior that's close-ish to what you want, until, finally, the person does whatever you're trying to train them to do. Thunderous applause and approval usually erupts.

I know, I know! That sounds very weird! But every time I've played this game, I've ended up feeling like I really like the people I played it with, even if I didn't particularly like them before. It's fun, it's entertaining for everyone, it's very good-natured, it has a common goal, and it teaches useful dealing-with-people skills.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 4:25 PM on October 22, 2007 [4 favorites]

How old are they?

Would they be interested in dancing--learning breaking or popping or something like that? You bring in videos, maybe instructional, maybe not, and see if they're interested in teaching themselves. Slam poetry, creating and performing their own poems? Free rap? Slam poetry and free rap have the advantage of not requiring people to write things down.
posted by schroedinger at 4:32 PM on October 22, 2007

what's the improve game where a pair starts a scene, then one by one each person is swapped out, until everyone has had a chance to participate?

well, do that.

i like the idea of improv, because the key to good improv is cooperation. also, everyone gets to participate.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:32 PM on October 22, 2007

Response by poster: ah, their ages, i knew i forgot to tell y'all something.
the vulnerable population group are all over 30.
the mainstream group are 18-40.

thanks for the answers so far- those are all excellent ideas, please keep them coming!
posted by twistofrhyme at 4:51 PM on October 22, 2007

I always enjoyed the questions game. You give a situation to them, (ie: trying to resturn something to the store) but each person may only ask questions. It isn't so free form that they won't know what to say, and it is generally hillarious to watch.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 5:14 PM on October 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

You might want to think carefully about activities where eye contact or touching are involved. Those behaviors have significantly different meanings in many prisons than they do on the outside, and inmates who have been institutionalized for a while may react differently than you would expect.

I'm wondering if you won't be briefed on security routines, and provided with some guidelines for your sessions by prison administration. Perhaps you'll even be monitored/observed by correctional staff, even if just by CCTV. When I was doing visits to men's state prisons in the U.S. several years ago with my parent's church group, the visitor procedures were ironclad, and there was an informational pamphlet for first time visitors given to everyone who wasn't specifically there for a family member. It covered some basics of psychology, including mentioning that many prisoners had issues of depression, isolation and poor socialization, and that some might not react well to prolonged eye contact, or touching from strangers, even if they were visiting by choice.

Pay attention to the advice of prison officials, not only for your own safety, but for the well being of prisoners coming to see you. Underplay and understate a lot at the beginning; you don't need to "sell" your program, to gain participation, as you do outside. Even inmates who have no real interest in you or your program will come, eventually, if they can, simply for the break in routine, and perhaps to see what connections to the outside you might represent. Coming back regularly, and sticking to any commitments you make count a lot more than being entertaining or educational, in the program you're about to begin.
posted by paulsc at 6:09 PM on October 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

2 hours is not very long. I think your instincts on keeping it fun are good. You're not there very long, and you're not trained to work with prisoners. You're the expert on drama.

My work is with underserved youth as well (often with ESL and literacy classes.) When I get such a limited time to work with these kinds of communities, my favourite thing to do is something like this:

1. Physical fun warm-up (keep in non-contact I think)
2. Can be combined with some fun vocal stuff
3. Move into co-operative game play
4. Get them to move into storytelling, and maybe tableaux
5. Create groups/scenes based on some of the stories
6. End with *volunteer* presentations of some of the work

They come out with a few new skills and in a very short time have created a bit of theatre. They become more open throughout the class because they recognize that their voice/story is worthy of being heard. It sounds like therapy when I write it all out like that, but it is not because it is all in the framework of drama and storytelling. Let's be honest, you're not going to create actors or theatre artists in 2 hours. All you can do is have fun and make them feel good about what they did.

Also, as part of research for a play that I was in, we spent some time at the P4W, the federal prison for women. For the most part, the inmates were eager to speak to us once they realized that we not judging them. I say this, because once they felt validated, the conversations and rapport was like night and day. They are extremely outside of society and deliberately forgotten. All it often took was being truly sincere and listening. This might be worth noting as a primer. The director of the piece above was inspired by his time teaching drama in those prisons. He taught for years and can certainly speak more to specifics in terms of exercises. His contact info is in your Mefi Mail!
posted by typewriter at 8:52 PM on October 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

I would be interested to see how your vulnerable prisoner group enjoyed status transaction games like the ones in Johnstone's "Impro".

These are always fascinating to junior high school students who want to see the bones under the skin of social interaction, so maybe it would work well in your situation.
posted by Sallyfur at 12:05 AM on October 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: as a followup, i thought i'd post what went down in that prison:

first of all, i had a great experience & highly recommend this sort of activity to anyone. overall, i felt safe, i had fun, i liked the inmates, and they were really into learning improv!

when i got there, i was REALLY nervous- the wardens were extremely apprehensive about putting me in with the inmates, which made me uncomfortable and tentative, so the whole session was a bit tense to begin with.

i started by introducing myself with a banal fact or two (i'm twistofrhyme and i like cats), and they went around the circle doing the same. a few of them said clever things like "i'm kevin and i like women". i responded by rolling my eyes, and with a noncommittal "yeah nice one, thanks kevin, next please? oh, mark, you like music? cool! what kind of music? oh neat, i like eminem too!"... i tried to reward good behaviour with enthusiasm but not engage with obviously attention-seeking, inappropriate behaviour.

we started with easy group CIRCLE GAMES- clap-focus, clap-focus with names, and zip-zap-zop. those were fine.

then we played a competitive round of an awesome improv game called SOUND & GESTURE. basically, one person makes a gesture and an accompanying gibbersh sound, directed towards someone else in the circle- for instance, fling your hands towards them and say "gah!"
that person returns the eye contact, imitates your sound & gesture back to you ("gah!" with their hands flung towards you in the same way), and then they immediately throw a different sound & gesture to someone else in the circle (both hands over the head, squeak "booga!").
that person copies their sound & gesture back to them ("booga!"), then throws a new sound & gesture ("haaa!") to someone else. etc.
if you make an error, pause too long, laugh, or forget to make eye contact, you're out).
it took a little longer than i expected to teach them- i've taught that game to all ages, and in this context i'd say it took about as long to teach as it has taken me in the past to teach the same game to 9 year olds. once they all got it, they loved it, and the competitive aspect went over really well. even when people messed up and were good-naturedly hollered "OUT!" they laughed and kept watching, cheering on other players. the energy was infectious- even the stern warden was cracking up, which the inmates obviously loved.

by this point in the session, i knew all their names and felt really comfortable with them- i could feel that they had a lot of goodwill & enthusiasm for me & the activities, so i relaxed and was able to act more natural, high-fiving them when they succeeded, touching them casually on the shoulder to say "your turn", etc. things went pretty smoothly from then on in.

next we did PASS THE OBJECT- a game where one person reaches out into the air, grasps an imaginary object, pulls it towards themself and interacts with it. for instance, reach out, make a tight fist in midair, pretend it's a toothbrush, and mime brushing your teeth. then pass the object to the next person, who accepts it as a different object and uses it (for instance, it becomes a broom and they sweep the floor). again, a few inappropriate gestures (the worst was that one guy turned a pencil into a woman and mimed bending her over). he seemed like he wanted to test boundaries, so i said, "hey, sean, that makes me uncomfortable, although i'm sure you didn't mean it that way. wanna try again? here comes your next object, catch!" and then i mimed tossing him a ball. his next attempt was G-rated, and i praised it. after that, they settled down, and that was about as inappropriate as anyone got.

one game that they loved was QUESTIONS- i divided the class in half- one half was the audience, the other half lined up in two teams. the two guys at the fronts of the lines had to speak only by asking questions. if a guy said a line that wasn't a question, he was "out" and went to the back of his team's line, and the next guy had to take over for him. "how are you?" "what do you mean?" "who are you talking to?" "i'm talking to you!" "you're out!" that went over really well- again, they liked the competitive aspect of it. they were really impressed by the guys who were were good at these games- it ended up being an obvious source of pride and a confidence-booster for a few of them.

finally, we moved on to scenes- establishing environment through mime, establishing relationship through first line of dialogue, & some very basic STATUS TRANSACTIONS ("enter and say a line of dialogue that shows you have higher status than the guy who started the scene"). they were interested in doing that, and understood immediately what i was asking them to do- i thought they were particularly clever with the status games.

throughout the games, if people seemed shy, i'd pick them to demonstrate with me, putting them gently on the spot but make it really easy for them to succeed- setting them up for jokes and laughing enthusiastically when they were funny, then praising them warmly in front of the class. that kept them all engaged, and it basically became impossible to fail. i could tell they were flattered when i chose them so i didn't feel weird about putting them on the spot.

we ended with OPEN SCENES, many of which were bust-a-gut funny, and a couple of which were genuinely moving. interestingly, a lot of their subject matter was petty-crime-related- again and again, interactions began with "hey, that doesn't belong to you!" or "you shouldn't be in here!" the scenes were pretty funny. a couple of the guys were really quick-witted and had us all howling with laughter.

throughout the day, i experienced a few mild instances of what i suppose should be termed sexual harassment- a few insolent, sexualized stares, a few suggestive comments- and interestingly, entirely from the mainstream prison population (who had committed violent crimes or drug offenses). the vulnerable population (most of whom had been incarcerated for sex crimes) were not at all physically or sexually threatening to me, and in general, were less rowdy and much easier to manage. that wasn't what i or the wardens had expected, although in hindsight i guess it makes sense (to generalize, maybe more sex crimes happen one on one, not in gangs, and often involve a period of quiet charm or flirtation. meanwhile violent crime is more macho and maybe more likely to happen with an audience or involve an element of showing off, or mob-fueled escalation.)

overall, the majority of the inmates made an obvious effort to be friendly and went out of their way to avoid physically intimidating me (keeping their distance, apologizing if they momentarily entered my personal space, etc). most of them listened attentively & asked lots of questions about the activities and my career and life in my hometown. afterwards, they thanked me sincerely for coming, and when they passed me in the halls later, i heard them brag to other inmates about how fun the improv class had been and how nice i was to them. even better, during the class, they were really nice to each other. they smiled a lot, they were affectionate and friendly (back-clapping, high fives, arms casually thrown over shoulders), and they laughed good-naturedly and generously at one another's jokes. if one guy ended a scene on the floor another guy would run over smiling & give him a hand up. there didn't seem to be any tensions with physical contact or eye contact between them. in fact, they were much, much nicer to one another than kids in a standard high-school drama class would be. i really enjoyed getting to know them.

overall, i had a blast. i'd highly recommend prison teaching to any artist- it's a neat experience and it sure gives you some perspective! so thanks all, for the excellent advice!
posted by twistofrhyme at 6:21 PM on January 1, 2008 [4 favorites]

Sounds like you did a fantastic job and gave them a great experience! Kudos!!
posted by typewriter at 6:50 PM on January 2, 2008

« Older secret to getting "OLD" out of fabric   |   Bash, I command thee to always... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.