Alex Fradera and Julia Pöhlmann explain why improvisational theatre is so effective at breaking down the barriers between prisoners and society.

Image of prison performance
‘Nus Meios’ performed by inmates of a Portuguese prison

“Hello, it’s great to see so many innocent people at once! Welcome!” This was the charming opening line of the ‘Lock and Key’ debut theatre performance. We were performing improvisational theatre, where content is created in the moment using audience suggestions and inspiration from fellow actors.

Improvisation training at Rottenburg’s prison in Germany took place each week over a period of two months. It was part of a six-month project supporting reintegration and combating depression, a serious issue at the prison. ‘Lock and Key’ had a fluctuating cast of about eight inmates from a range of backgrounds, all serving long sentences.

Everything about the participant is an asset such as their background, their movement and voice, their disability

Improvisation has a number of qualities that work well with marginalised groups. It is flexible, unlike more scripted activities, in that people can dip in without disrupting other activities. The content can be tailored to suit mobility, energy levels or sensory limitations. It is personal as we are only interested in what the participants offer. Everything about the participant is an asset such as their background, their movement and voice, their disability. These distinguish and actively benefit the work. It is shared: the arts professional can rapidly understand and participate in the perceptions and experiences of the individuals. Through the work it took no time for us to see what a prison meal, bedtime conversation or exercise regime feel like.

Without a script, improvisers depend on each others’ contributions to survive. This creates a supportive, constructive working atmosphere. Inmates became free with compliments, the most memorable being: “I often don’t know what to say or do, but these two have such good ideas. I don’t understand why they are inside. They are creative enough to break out of here!”

Understanding and creating stories through action and intuition helps us author our own ‘life stories’. The inmates experienced this through a much-loved status game. These explore how high-status people are used to getting their own way and remaining unchallenged, whereas low-status people are deferential and uncertain. In the ‘Lock and Key’ version, a prisoner and policeman meet and eventually find a way to exchange their status. For the group, this provided a playful, safe way to release frustration and tension about the difficulties they face, and helped them process emotions they found hard to address.

Additionally, the game teaches us about social interaction, the consequences of our behaviours, and that different approaches are possible. Improvisation encourages a kind of awareness we call 'possibility-seeking'. We get to experiment, explore and test alternatives. An improvised scene is only fettered by the limits of the imagination, allowing participants to slip on a new skin, try out a different relationship, attitude or mode of being.

As the lights went down on the opening night of ‘Lock and Key’, it was a chance to reflect on time invested, risks taken, mistakes celebrated and the possibilities explored together. The show itself was a roaring success, thanks not so much to flawless acting but the enthusiasm, the energy and the sharing.

 

Alex Fradera is a chartered psychologist and improvisation specialist. Julia Pöhlmann is an improviser and improvisation teacher. They work together as Make Shift Impro.

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Thanks to Arts Professional for allowing us to share our experiences. Just one clarification that is needed for this edited piece: Julia and I work on various projects together but this specific prison project was conducted by herself with German collaborators. In terms of the content in the final article, my role is simply in co-producing the written piece and teasing out the implications of this kind of work together!