how to change the world

Teaching impro in prison

By John-Paul Flintoff

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

So when Adrian Turpin, of Wigtown Book Festival, asked me to talk about my books at HMP 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, the biggest success was 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 about 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 – better even than acknowledging my apprehension (above) because when I lifted my face from the floor I saw that even the most resistant participants were laughing uncontrollably.

And from that moment onwards we all played together very happily.

Some weeks afterwards, I received written feedback from some of the prisoners. You can read it here.

Posted: March 15, 2014