Register Now: Acting Course Takes Students Behind Prison Walls

By schwartzsa | April 1, 2013

For students in the course “Inside-Out: Acting Behind the Walls,” all the world’s a stage—even when behind prison walls. This life-changing class developed by Celeste Walker, Adjunct Professor of Theater Arts, brings college students together with incarcerated individuals to study as peers in a seminar behind prison walls, through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. No prior experience in acting is required. The only prerequisite is an open mind.

“The premise of the class was to build community and to teach [students] that what we do in acting can be applied to life,” says Walker, who initiated the course in summer 2012. The course will run again this summer, starting May 20.

Students develop basic acting skills through a variety of theatrical scenes, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Waiting for Godot. Every scene examines a common theme—imprisonment, either coerced or self-imposed. Memorizing and performing scenes is mere groundwork for the real learning: cross-cultural understanding and discovery.

Some students must take a leap of faith as the experience of reciting lines moves from the familiar halls of on-campus classrooms to the prison.

“Walking inside a prison isn’t something that you do everyday,” says Walker. “I’m so happy to have this opportunity and I feel blessed to be able to do this work and share it with the students. It gives us an idea of how we can change our perceptions about the criminal justice system.”

Within the confines of the prison seminar classroom, participants are bound by very strict rules which, includes a dress code. Physical contact or divulging of personal information is prohibited. Students, such as Kala Gattis, who took the course last summer as part of her Global Connections requirement, quickly established trust with their new “inside” classmates.

“I got to go home every day, and they didn’t,” says Gattis. “I feel like they wanted to be there [in class] even more than I did. I really wanted to be there, but they had to go through and be strip-searched every day before they came in. I just thought how much they must have wanted to be there just to even have to go through that every day.”

However strict, the rules don’t impede meaningful interactions. Over a 12-week cross-cultural experience, both the “inside” and “outside” students transcend these rigid environs by keeping weekly journals. This solitary act may begin as a reflection on theater-based readings, but they are often catalysts to more profound and personal connections.

“I think [the course] made me more open minded,” says Gattis. “It taught me not to judge people as criminals. Just because they’re in prison doesn’t mean that that’s the only part of them—there’s so much more to a person.”

Excitement for the summer course is already building. “I just can’t wait to see the process again,” says Walker. “Every class has a different personality, and every group of students has a different background, and they’re going to bring something new to the table.”

Register for the Course

“Inside-Out: Acting Behind the Walls” (CJ325.1) is being offered during the Summer I session. Register for the course in Self-Service.