In a Spartan gymnasium in a Rikers Island jail in New York, seven female inmates are warming up for a performance that combines dance and poetry. Ranging in age from their teens to their 40s and wearing jail garb, they display some nervous jitters.
But they have studied with the best. Professionals from one of the most renowned acting studios in America, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, have trained the performers, working four hours a week for 24 weeks. During that time, the inmates developed the piece they are going to perform, called "The Compassion Project."
How renowned is the Stella Adler Studio? Since it was established in 1949, it has trained such stars as Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert De Niro, Salma Hayek and Mark Ruffalo.
The studio was founded on the premise that the growth of an actor parallels her/his growth as a human being, which just might have some bearing at the Rikers complex. The jail sits on an island in the East River, between Queens and the Bronx boroughs of New York City. A high barbed-wire-topped fence surrounds the island.
Most of the 10,000 inmates in Rikers' 10 jails are short timers, with less than a year left to serve. The vast majority are very poor, and unable to make bail on mainly low-level offenses.
As the performers nervously prepare to go out on the gym floor, the audience is encouraging. About 50 fellow inmates, plus corrections officials and invited guests, are signaling their anticipation with cheers, applause and foot stomping.
The theater pieces combine movement and poetry. The poems, written by the inmate-actors, are used instead of normal dialogue — expressing the very idea of compassion and understanding between people.
Director Joanne Edelmann says they are a reflection "of the thought, the poetry, the frustration and the never-ending struggle to see people, all people, no matter where they reside, with compassion and understanding."
The 45-minute program goes off without a hitch. And, as each performer takes her individual bow, the applause is deafening.
Edelmann is moved to tears.
"The performance so moved 20 of the inmates in the audience that they came forward and volunteered for future productions," she said.
Tommy Demenkoff, director of outreach for the studio, says what is going on at Rikers is a model of social engagement.
"They lose a lot of humanity when they come to jail," Demenkoff said. "We are allowed to come in and reinvigorate that humanity, bring back an opportunity, allowing the inmate to reclaim part of themselves that were left behind or were told not to tap into anymore."
Those involved in the programs report there is a clear uptick in attitude and overall improvement in jail atmosphere. And, in the case of Stella Adler's program at Rikers, it is designed to carry over after release from prison. Several former inmates now work with the Adler program, which is currently in six Rikers facilities and conducts eight different programs weekly.
The programs are funded primarily by the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Dream almost fulfilled
Inmate and performer Deanna Rhett understands the reinvigoration of humanity, and hope. Her dream includes taking advantage of a Stella Adler scholarship.
"I'd like to write," she said. "I want to improve my writing skills. I definitely have hope for the future."
Deanna wrote the following and performed it onstage:
My continuing passion:
Is to try to be the best that I can be,
Is to not throw my authority around just because I can,
Is to have everyone love one another unconditionally,
And to let the past be the past, and enjoy the now!
The inmates’ Compassion Project program was introduced by actress Pauletta Washington, the wife of actor Denzel Washington. Washington is very involved in the Stella Adler-Rikers program, which she says is aimed at inmates like Rhett.
"It is giving them an identity,” Washington said. “It is giving them a road map that they could possibly take when they get out of jail, to come out with hope."