The Stella Adler Studio of Acting recently featured an interview with JRM, and her work teaching Stella Adler programming with the New York Department of Corrections. Text of the interview is below:
How did you get involved with the studio’s DOC programs?
After I completed grad school in 2016, I was looking for a way to use what I had learned to give back to the community. I was aware of the good work being done by the Stella Adler Outreach Division through other Adler alumni, and reached out to see how I could be involved. The Department of Correction (DOC) programs turned out to be a good fit, and after shadowing former head of outreach, Tommy Demenkoff, for a few months I started to teach my own writing classes.
What do you now? i.e. What populations do you work with? What role do you play?
I teach playwriting classes across multiple DOC facilities. Currently, I work with young men (18-21) in the secure unit at GRVC and adult residents of the new Transgender Housing Unit at Rosie’s, both on Rikers Island.
What is the most rewarding thing about this work?
I get to be a part of my students discovering talents they didn’t know they had, and to be a link to a future they maybe hadn’t considered for themselves. It’s tremendously exciting when the writing work really “clicks” with a student, and I get to watch them grow as artists. But even when writing isn’t really their thing, students look forward to the class and I get to provide a momentary distraction from all they’re going through.
What is the most difficult or challenging thing about this work?
Working in jail is unpredictable. You have to be prepared to adjust your plan on the spot. You can show up and students will have been moved, or facilities will be closed. Students that were in a good mood last week may be in a bad place when you arrive, but you can’t allow yourself to be let down.
How has this work affected you as an artist? As a human being?
Working with this population is so humbling. I’m constantly reminded that great theatre can happen anywhere. It has nothing to do with being accepted by prestigious institutions or the size of your audience. As long as you are getting in touch with your own truth, creating art is its own reward.
Do you feel that you have changed/grown as a result of this work?
Yes – before I started working in jails, I had a lot of strong opinions about criminal justice reform. But I discovered that only by seeing it from the inside can you begin to understand the complexity of the problem. Sometimes, the obstacles in the way of change seem insurmountable. Progress happens very slowly. The best you can do for an issue you care about is to use what talents you have to serve your community.
What is your greatest hope for your students in DOC facilities?
I hope they all continue to grow and to change, and to never give up on their own voices. For those that get to go home soon, I hope that they find strength within themselves to try something new and discover new paths on the outside. For those that may be incarcerated long term, I hope they find ways of coping inside that will allow them to continue to grow in spite of their circumstances… whether that’s through arts programs, education, or whatever gives them true joy.
Anything else you want to add?
I’d like to shout out to all the Corrections Officers and other DOC employees who support (the) Stella Adler (Studio)’s programming, without whom none of this would be possible.