Empowerment & the Actors' Gang Prison Project

Sabra WilliamsIn the latest SGI Quarterly, the London-born, Los Angeles-based actor Sabra Williams (right) describes her experience as director of the Actors' Gang Prison Project. Launched in 2006, the project employs theater — specifically the techniques of the 16th-century Italian "people's theater" known as commedia dell'arte — to help prisoners in the California system positively cope with their incarceration and flourish and avoid recidivism upon their release. Here are some highlights from the interview.

In this passage Wiiliams talks about the crucial act of opening to emotions:

"In prison, people believe they have to be numb in order to survive. The only culturally acceptable emotion is anger. They have numbed themselves from other emotions. This affects not just them but their families and friends and the staff. In this work, they start with a guided relaxation and then play theater games. Then they get "suited up" into the commedia dell'arte stock characters — they wear masks of makeup. They are then able to sieve their lives and issues through these characters. They might play the old miser Pantalone, the young lover or even women. And they play them in this highly emotional state — so all of these emotions that have been dormant for sometimes 20, 30, 40 years, they are now able to express them through the filter of a character. So they are the happiest person in the world, the saddest person, the most scared person in the world, or the angriest person in the world, in a safe environment."

Sometimes, Williams says, the emotional intensity tempts some participants to drop out. But a big change can happen when they find out they are needed:

"The other guys are the ones who say, 'You need to come' and 'You're a valuable part of the group.' The empowerment starts. This work makes them visible. It takes a lot of courage. It starts to give them back their power. Many of them say it is the first time they have felt like a human being again. I don't allow them to say they made mistakes; they have to say they made choices. It's all about taking responsibility for themselves. It's terrifying for them, but it gives them back their power."

Her conclusion?

They always say by the end of the session, "The guys in this group are my brothers." The change is so profound and so fast. What I've learned is that humans really do want to change, humans want to live valuable lives. They just don't think it's an option most of the time. When you give people a viable option, they take it.

Read the full interview with Sabra Williams.

The Actors' Gang (AG) was founded in 1981 by a group of Los Angeles actors, among them Tim Robbins, who is now Artistic Director. Sabra Williams established the Prison Project in 2006 as part of the AG's community outreach programs in 2006.


[Posted by M. Bogen, 4-8-15]



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