Bridey Heing
Updated Jun 23, 2015 @ 11:05 am
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We all know and love Red as the gruff mama bear of Litchfield Penitentiary on Orange Is the New Black, but Kate Mulgrew (the actress behind the Russian inmate) is helping those serving time in a different way. Along with the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, a renowned acting school in New York, she’s bringing acting classes to Rikers Island inmates, with the hopes of bringing some positivity to the lives of those locked up.

Tom Oppenheim, the artistic director of Stella Adler Studio and grandson of the organization’s namesake, told AM New York, “The mission of the outreach program is to confront a social inequity, a social injustice to offer free acting training to people who can’t afford tuition while providing our tuition-based students with a model of social engagement. All that comes from the overall mission of the studio, which is based on the insight that growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous.”

Participants, both male and female, are given the chance to learn the craft and put on performances, working closely with the celebrated talent behind Stella Adler Studio.

“It’s a program of hope,” Mulgrew told the site. “It’s very true, at least in my experience in life, that the young people who are often thwarted by their circumstances are often liberated by their own imagination. They have only to discover that.” Mulgrew herself studied at the studio as a younger woman.

This is not the first time a celebrated actor has been instrumental in bringing the arts to inmates. Since 2006, Tim Robbins (who spent on screen time as an inmate in The Shawshank Redemption) has been helping bring acting classes to inmates in California via a program called the Actor’s Gang, a part of the Prison Project. There have also been positive accounts of professors teaching inmates Shakespeare — performances often included. By bringing inmates together in the class setting these programs help lesson segregation inside, as well as teaching inmates about empathy and their own emotions. As was written in a Huffington Post article about the Actor’s Gang, “Many men who take this program have never been in touch with their emotions, and while some can naturally and easily adopt the four key emotional states (happy, sad, angry and afraid), others struggle. But emotional states can be learnt.” These programs help to teach them.

For the inmates on Rikers, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting offers a much needed opportunity to get away (at least mentally) from Rikers, a notorious prison that’s currently under debate for reform. Yesenia Vega, a former participant in the program, described it like this:

“You literally left — mentally, emotionally, you left Rikers Island. It brought a lot of the girls together, people you wouldn’t normally speak to in passing. The atmosphere [at Rikers] is OK, keep your head down, walk straight, speak to no one, you know. You would just never think that you meet amazing people in jail.” And there you have it.

It’s amazing to see an actress like Mulgrew, who has had a groundbreaking role in a show about prison, helping inmates in such a real way. Red, we’re sure, would totally approve.

[Image via Lionsgate]