Teaching impro in prison

Ever since I first discovered the life-enhancing and mind-expanding benefits of improvisational theatre, I’ve been dying to run workshops in prisons.

So when Adrian Turpin, asked me to talk about my books at Her Majesty’s Prison Dumfries recently, I said I would much prefer to do some impro.

I had no idea that this choice would go down very badly indeed with prisoners.

When the date approached, prison authorities told me that I would be working with long-term sex offenders.

As you might expect, I was daunted, but also excited.

I felt confident that this group had at least as much to gain from impro as anybody else.

So the day came.

I went through lots of locked doors, and was led into a smallish room packed tight with men sitting in a circle, most of them leaning back in their chairs with arms folded and legs stretched in front of them – a less than encouraging specimen of body language.

I later discovered that some prisoners had been so determined to avoid my workshop that they requested – and received – special dispensation to stay in their cells.

From my own point of view, it helped to acknowledge openly at the beginning that I felt rather apprehensive because I had no very clear idea at all what I was going to do.

(That’s impro, after all.)

After 20 minutes, with no prison officers in the room, I encouraged one of the larger prisoners to shove me off my chair, whereupon I ended up on my face, bottom to the ceiling.

This turned out to be the best thing I could possibly have done – because it dismantled the sense that I was some kind of privileged outsider.

When I lifted my face from the floor I saw that even the most resistant participants were laughing uncontrollably.

From that moment onwards, we all played together happily.

I was so chuffed about the feedback I received. You can read it here:

HMP Dumfries Feedback.pdf (1.8 MB)