Teaching Improv at Rikers Island and Beyond: An Interview with Drama Club's Josie Whittlesey

Molly Goforth

  • Features Editor

We’ve all read interviews with famous actors who claim that if their performance can touch “even one person” person, they will have done their job.  The idea that performers step onstage or in front of a camera with a desire not simply to act but to “make a difference” is so ubiquitous it’s become a cliché.  Actors and artists tend to be an empathetic lot, but even the most sincere among us often limit our action to little more than social media outrage, or convincing ourselves that performing in a production that addresses a social injustice without taking any concrete steps to right the wrong offstage somehow qualifies as activism.  But Josie Whittlesey and her group of teaching artists are a different breed entirely.  They’ve spent the last five and a half years using their skills and training as actors and educators to make meaningful impact of the lives of young people in juvenile detention and jail through the acclaimed arts education program Drama Club.

Drama Club NYC is a year-round program that provides theatre programming to approximately 500-600 individual students annually (622 in fiscal year 2018).  Drama Club participants are between the ages of 10 and 21, and programming is offered at five separate detention facilities in three boroughs, including Rikers Island.  The organization was founded by Whittlesey (who also serves as Executive Director), a graduate of the M.F.A. Acting Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and a veteran acting teacher with more than ten years of experience, including teaching incarcerated men at Sing Sing and Woodbourne Correctional Facilities.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Josie and learn more about the unique challenges and rewards of her work.  What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

MG: What originally inspired you to bring theatre training to kids in juvenile detention?

JW: Originally I had been working with an adult group at Sing Sing, and I would repeatedly hear them make statements like, “You know, maybe if I had something like this when I was younger, I might not have ended up here.” They thought it would be really important to interrupt the intergenerational cyclical nature of mass incarceration, because so many of them also went through the juvenile system before entering the adult prison system.

MG: Let me ask you to start by giving some context to the specifics of teaching theatre and improvisation classes to students in juvenile detention.

 Josie Whittlesey, Executive Director of Drama Club NYC

Josie Whittlesey, Executive Director of Drama Club NYC

JW: The kids we work with are still in the midst of coping with and experiencing trauma. Significant traumas in their lives are major contributing factors to youth incarceration, and sadly the act of experiencing incarceration is also an additional trauma.  When they return home, it often means returning to underinvested communities, and re-entering environments where themes such as poverty and violence  are various challenges. For our youth, their focus must be about survival at all costs which creates a cycle of recidivism. I swear to God, some kids show up and we’re like, “Oh, hey again,” and there's just more bruises, more scars on them… Some live in really transient environments. Juvenile Detention is for kids that are going through the court system. They haven't been convicted yet. Then sometimes they go home, sometimes they get convicted, all kinds of different things can happen. And often their whole lives have been like that. What I’ve learned through this work was that one of biggest ways  to support our kids was by committing to consistency.

MG: Can you give me an example?

JW: The very first unit I ever did I had this one amazing kid, and we would work twice a week and then as we got closer to the end of the unit, I starting coming three times a week. So that was over course of three months, and for two and a half months, every day he saw me he would say, “I didn't think you were gonna come back.”

MG: Oh, wow.

JW: Yeah, and I was like, “Wow, Shahim, really? I've been here every day; I said I would be here. Like, what is it with you?” And then we finished the unit and it was really successful… and I couldn't get back in the facility. It took me like a month to get back in and I kept thinking about him. I was panicking, thinking, Oh my God, I'm proving him right.  And I knew he'd been convicted or he was close to getting convicted. So he was going to be going upstate and I was kind of hysterical about getting back into see this guy.

MG: To prove you hadn’t abandoned him?

JW: Yes. And you know, I finally did get back, in, thank God, and when he saw me, he said, “I knew you'd be back.”  And that was my first big victory with Drama Club, because it was like I convinced that kid that there are there are some adults that will actually do what they say they're going to do.

MG: That’s a hell of a thing to prove.

JW:  It was a huge lesson for me, and so now, that's the biggest thing, when we're looking for teaching artists to work with us, we need people who can really give us six to 12 months, not someone who has to frequently miss because they book a job or get an audition. We actually do work with some conventionally auditioning actors, an amazing group of socially motivated artists. We all commit to consistency as a team.  Our teaching artists get very attached to the kids and understand their deep need to play, so they don’t want to miss a class.

MG: You’re not fooling around.

JW: When you’re in jail, you’re with someone who is going through a lot. These kids need somebody who's going to be there when they say they're going to be there. I’ve had a lot of friends who’ve expressed interested in Drama Club but are working regularly. They would ask, “Can I just drop in?” and I'm like, “I love your passion, but no. It’s not that kind of thing.” That’s not helping because however well meaning, inconsistency might read to a child as someone just being a tourist. We love that you want to bring something to the table.  But can you bring it to the table every week, week after week?

MG: When you have a program that’s, as you say, transitory by nature—the kids are coming and going and maybe coming back— it must be a real challenge to create a sense of ensemble.

JW: It’s indeed a challenge but again, it comes back to the teaching artist.  We send in sometimes two, but usually three teaching artists per class.

MG: Really? Three per class?

JW: Oh, yeah, you just have to.  Sometimes there's a lead teacher and then someone redirecting in the middle. Maybe someone mentoring a kid over the corner. It could be a dozen kids, it could be two kids. So that’s another reason that we have might have a third teaching artist.

MG: What do you look for in a teaching artist?

JW: We want people the kids can relate to.  We want people the kids recognize. Ideally, we want artists of color—since the system so disproportionately affects those communities—who have some shared life experience and who can be super consistent.  That consistency is a big part of what strengthens the ensemble. Because in juvenile detention or jail you can have a young person there for one to three years and then you can have a kid there who's there for a day, you know, so there's usually a portion of each class where you have regulars and then you have new people coming in. We try to create some leadership for the regulars so that they can teach the games to keep it interesting. Because every class basically has to be designed to work as a one-off.

MG: What was the calculus you used when you decided to provide improv classes instead of, for example, playwriting or communication skills or poetry or something that the kids could practice on their own?

JW:  The first unit we ever did was a reading of Blues For An Alabama Sky, by Pearl Cleage, and some things worked out really well, like the facility had all these fancy dresses because they’d just had a prom and we were able to use the dresses and the suits, and someone came in and did the kids’ makeup and so they got to do the staged reading in costume…it was beautiful. So we kept working with scripts and then pretty quickly… there was this one amazing kid, and he loved the games but he wouldn't get up and read the scripts, and then he stopped coming. I was really devastated; I asked one of the juvenile counselors—which is the word they use for corrections officers in that setting— what happened to this kid?

She pulled me aside and said, “He can't read, like a lot the kids, and if you keep going with reading you’re going to lose those kids.” And I was like, Oh shit. And right around that time this amazing teaching artist, Arturo Soria, came onboard— he had taught a lot of improv. He has “Yes, and…” tattooed on his inner arm! And he just came into Drama Club right when we were starting at the second juvenile center. He had taught at inner-city schools in Chicago and he knew what worked and he taught me the games that kids really respond to. And so the improv curriculum really grew out of necessity.  The question was “How do we serve these kids best?” and that was the answer that made sense. Yeah, so part of it was excellent fate. 

MG: Tell me about the benefits that the students get from the class, either what they tell you or what you've noticed over time.

JW: So this is a bit of a hot button issue because when we apply for grants, foundations like to see the metrics, but we're not allowed to collect any data. But we do record our impressions over time.   First and foremost, we see kids learn that they can be safe and that they can be kids, and that's a big one. We have a lot of kids who've been dealing with adult-sized problems for much of their lives and being expected to step into adult responsibilities. So the whole world is telling them they’re adults, but they're not. So getting them to play games… we get a lot of pushback sometimes, “This is wack. I'm grown. I don't want to do this foolish bullshit.”

But once we get past that and we really let them play, it's incredible how badly they want it, and you hear them laughing like little kids and see them goofing around like little kids. It's amazing. It's beautiful to watch. So I think that that's a huge thing. And we create a safe space and we create it as a group and then when we work with people over a long period of time, the kids tell us “We feel like a family; like this feels like a family.” And that is something that we really pride ourselves on, and we try to bring that wherever we go.  We enter a center with that intention:  we're going to create this family in this place where it's not safe—we're going to create the safe little room where once a week you can come in and play, to be a dummy, and to be a theater geek without judgment and you know, that’s really, really important.

It’s a big benefit, but there are also others.  Our number two rule in improv is “No killing or violence” (in the improv scenarios) and we say that out of necessity. So many of our students’ environments have normalized relying on violence as a way to deal with conflict. It’s been a big lesson and we do see a reduction in incidences.  We're not allowed to get the reported numbers from ACS or the Department of Correction, but we've been told—off the record—that there's often a decrease in violence after our classes. That's great. It's a tenet of Drama Club: Accept the challenge of what's going on and build off of it as opposed to fighting it.  Modeling conflict that doesn't result in violence is important in itself. Which, to be honest, is a lesson everyone needs.  Growing up, to have someone model that for you is really incredible, and even more powerful for youth is having the chance to practice non-violent conflict. I think there's really something powerful there.

MG:  Would you say that element of active participation is what sets Drama Club apart from other enrichment programs that are brought in from the outside?

JW: There are some pretty great programs. However, there are times you notice in this type of work that there are folks who just want to come in and talk to the kids,  instead of giving them the opportunity to tell the stories that they want to tell.  They really need to see that we don’t just talk in our class, we get up together and get to play. Even in this place of confinement they get the freedom to establish their own world, with their own rules. I think also the benefit is confidence. A lot of kids in the corrections system—like all of us as teens—have issues with confidence, so participation in Drama Club, it's something they can say they did.

MG: The group identity and belonging builds confidence.

JW: Yes, when kids come back through the facility, or when we bump into them on the street, all they want to talk about is, “Before, when we did the show remember…?” At first, trying to get them to do a performance is difficult. They’ll resist you: “I don't want to do it!”  It’s a lack of confidence, a fear of being seen. And we push and push and then they do it and they feel so good about themselves. That's how you build confidence, you practice having successes in your life.  And that’s how we try to build it with the kids.

MG: Switching gears a bit here, there is a lot of theoretical sympathy in the performing arts community for the social issue of incarcerated minors, the school-to-prison pipeline, the private prison industry, and just prison reform in general.  But that goodwill and indignation don’t always translate to greater education on the subject, or action that goes further than social media outrage.  Is there something—I’m sure there are many things—but is there something in particular you want your broader community to realize about kids in juvenile detention that the public just doesn’t realize?

JW: You know, you can be arrested as young as seven years old in New York City.

MG: Really?!

JW: Yes, the youngest you can go to secure detention is 10 and you know, we don't often run into that many 10 year olds, but we have 13-,14-,15-year-old kids in our classes. But that’s still really young.  We're often dealing with middle school kids.

I mention this fact because, yes, it’s shocking. But also because all of us have been kids, a lot of us have kids, so I hope that shock also humanizes the issue. How we treat our most vulnerable is what defines our society. I hope it reminds us that we’re all part of this and that we can all be part of the solution.

I think people often think that kids in detention are “bad” kids…I mean, some of them can be violent or have been violent, but the violence comes from just indescribable life circumstances a lot of the time, and just by understanding that we have a tendency to project victimhood onto them. And then we're victimizing them further.

MG: Do you think that actors or people in the performing arts in general—because of the nature of their training and their natural affinity for empathizing with human experience—do you feel like they have more of an obligation to seek out opportunities to put their empathy into practice or to model that kind of behavior for the rest of society? A lot of people in the performing arts naturally gravitate towards some kind of service, but I don't feel like there's an imperative there the way there is in actual helping professions, and I wonder if there should be.

JW: I do feel like actors, because of the nature of our work, feel an obligation towards empathy and humanity. I mean, the building block of character development is essentially empathy.  But I actually think the better question is not “Should I?” but “How can I?”.

Sometimes the best way you can help is being the best actor you can be so that you can represent the full humanity of each character you play. But if someone feels a deeper calling there are tons of ways to help without being on the front lines. Because honestly, this work takes such a specific kind of person, not every actor makes a good teacher. But there are so many ways to play a supporting role, so to speak. For artists that have a drive for social change; I’d recommend finding an org that you believe in and help get the word out by assisting with their social media, or helping them advocate for the change their working on or better yet, helping them fundraise!

There are so many ways to help and going into jails is not necessarily the best way for everyone. I don't want to dissuade people, but someone coming in for a month and doing a workshop isn't going to be super effective in the long term—in fact, it could be destructive. The challenges these kids are facing are very real and to really get in there with them is a huge commitment. You have to do a lot of work on yourself in order to support them responsibly. You really have to know not just why you want to do this kind of work, but why you want to do it in the way that puts their needs first.

MG: It seems like doing this work is an education for you as well as for the kids.

JW:  Definitely.  I've had my eyes opened in many ways. One thing that’s shifted in Drama Club’s strategic plan is the need for a community program. The youth we work with have been urging us, “Go to our communities!” There's such an under-resourcing of communities, which is contributing to mass incarceration, and the kids tell us, “Bring your workshops there! Bring your productions there! You want to do a production of something for people? Bring it to the Bronx! Bring it to these areas where there's not a lot of resources.”  So I think that is a perspective that the performing arts community could really take to heart.

MG: Josie Whittlesey, thank you so much for your time.

JW: It was my pleasure.

Drama Club is currently fundraising to provide performing arts programming for young people in the Bronx. To participate in their current end-of-year fundraising campaign, click here.