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Prisoners Find Humanity in Theater Arts



On a recent day in New York City, seven women prepare for a theater production. Their show is not for a Broadway stage, however. And, the actors are not professional.

They are prisoners. They will perform in a gymnasium at Rikers Island jail. The correctional center sits on an island in the East River. It holds about 10,000 prisoners, most of them with little time left to serve.

The performers range from teen-aged to midlife. They all look a little nervous, just like any actors might before a live show.

But they are ready. These prisoners have trained with the famed Stella Adler Studio. It is one of the most respected acting schools in America.

The studio launched the acting program at Rikers in 2014. It hoped to bring some humanity to prison life. Tommy Demenkoff is the studio’s outreach director. He says the program is important to the prisoners.

“They lose a lot of humanity when they come to jail,” he says. “We are allowed to come in and reinvigorate that humanity.”

The Stella Adler prison program has grown. Today, film and stage professionals train prisoners at six Rikers Island centers. They do eight different programs each week. And, several former Rikers inmates now work with the studio on the prison program.

The show today is called “The Compassion Project.” The audience includes about 50 prisoners, correction officials and invited guests. The crowd shows its support with loud cheers and by stomping on the floor.

The Stella Adler Studio of Acting helped prisoners produce a theater project at Rikers Island jail in New York City.
The Stella Adler Studio of Acting helped prisoners produce a theater project at Rikers Island jail in New York City.

“The Compassion Project” combines movement and poetry written by the performers. The poems express the ideas of compassion and understanding between people.

Performer Deanna Rhett’s piece describes her passion to be the best she can be, to love unconditionally and to let the past be the past.

Rhett praises what the Stella Adler program has done for her.

“It has let me escape to another dimension. It has changed me to be whatever and whoever I want to be, whenever I want to be.”

Rhett says that she would like to work with the Stella Adler Studio when she gets out of prison. She wants to keep writing and improving her writing skills. She says she has hope for the future.

“The Compassion Project” is a hit with the audience. Just as on Broadway, the prisoner-actors get a curtain call. Each steps forward to loud cheering from the crowd.

Entertainment industry supporters of the Adler program at Rikers include Benicio Del Toro, Julianne Moore and Pauletta Washington.

Washington introduced “The Compassion Project” to the audience. She says the Rikers program is important.

“Anybody that can survive this, and come out on the other side, just to come out period, and then to come out with hope, that’s somebody we really need in our communities.”

I’m Caty Weaver.

Bernard Shusman wrote this story for VOANews.com. Bruce Alpert adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

What kind of program do you think might help prisoners serve their time and improve their futures? Write to us in the Comments Section and share your views on our Facebook Page.

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Words in This Story

gymnasium – a large room or a building used for sports activities or exercise

compassion n. feeling of wanting to help and be kind to someone

allowv. to permit something

inmate n. a prisoner

stomp v. to put your foot or feet down forcefully and noisily

reinvigoratev. to give life and energy to someone

curtain calln. at the end of a show, when performers come forward to accept the cheers of the audience

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