It may not be the sound one would expect to hear in a correctional facility. But on a September weekend the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Calif. was filled with laughter, as the inmates learned the art of performing improv and comedy routines.
That weekend was the first workshop produced by Laughing on the Inside, an organization founded by Teresa Bacigalupi, a student of standup comedy. Friends who had taught art in prisons inspired her to use her performance skills to help female inmates develop self-confidence and a sense of community, while at the same time learning to handle stress – all things that will be useful to them when they begin to search for employment upon release.
And comedy is a great way for these women to develop skills to deal with their current situation and better understand what they are going through. “The connection between comedy and tragedy is so strong, and what better place to find people experiencing that than in prison,” she says.
Bacigalupi enlisted the help of Kurtis Matthews, owner of the San Francisco Comedy College, where Bacigalupi studies. Two other comics also taught classes at Chowchilla as part of the workshop.
The weekend began with 28 women in an improv class on Friday night. “It’s sort of an icebreaker, but it also gets them into learning a bit about how to work off each other’s energy and your own (the teacher’s) energy,” she says. “It’s hard to believe, but within the first five minutes we all – students, staff and us – forgot where we were. We were laughing.”
On Saturday morning, Matthews started teaching the basics of stand-up to about 30 women, just as he would at his comedy school. He introduced the concepts, and then the women would one by one get up on stage and talk about themselves. That went on for the rest of the day. At the same time, 40 other inmates were taking 90-minute improv classes.
The next day, Sunday, the instructors helped some of the women fine-tune what they’d talked about the previous day, and some of the students tried a stand-up routine. The others worked on improv. In the afternoon, the women put on a performance to show what they had learned, whether stand-up or improv.
To say the least, the weekend was a success and a learning experience for all involved.
“This is powerful knowledge they’re getting. Not only how to make comedy but how to see things they’re experiencing and get away from their depression and use that knowledge to do something good. Maybe to make their cellmates laugh or avoid a potentially dangerous situation like a fight,” Bacigalupi says.
Bacigalupi learned how appreciative the inmates were to have them there. “I kind of expected to get attitude somewhere, but I got no attitude,” she says. “The biggest challenge of the weekend was not being able to be there longer and not having all the people who signed up for it be able to attend.”
Inspired by her experience at Chowchilla, Bacigalupi hopes to do workshops at the Central California Women’s Facility, also in Chowchilla, and at jails in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I just need to raise money to be able to do this again,” she says.
For more information and to help her in her fundraising efforts, visit www.laughingontheinside.org
To learn about a British comedy school that has been dong workshops in that country’s criminal justice system since 1998, visit thecomedyschool.com/prisons.shtml