How the Stella Adler Studio Gives Former Inmates a Second Chance at Life

Interview   How the Stella Adler Studio Gives Former Inmates a Second Chance at Life
 
The Studio’s Outreach Division proves theatre’s power within the criminal justice system.
The students of 2018’s Outside/In
The cast of 2018’s Outside/In performing “Forgiveness”. Photo by Kenneth Shook

After Stella Adler’s passing in 1992, her grandson, Tom Oppenheim, succeeded as the Stella Adler Studio’s artistic director in 1995. Since then, the Studio has made it their mission to combine community outreach with Adler’s famous acting and teaching techniques to bring performing arts to a range of communities.

READ: How Stella Adler Studio Changes the Lives of Inner-City Students

Outside/In is one of their fledgling programs, founded in 2017. Through Outside/In, the Studio works with formerly incarcerated people to offer a creative outlet through theatre and to help them rediscover their sense of identity.

Once a week, the participants, who are rebuilding their lives after being released from prison, rehearse for three hours with highly trained and qualified teachers from the Studio. These instructors, who also teach NYU students, teach formal techniques to these students in transition. This year’s class is 23 strong, one of the program’s largest groups this far, and each participant crafts their own original work geared towards a final performance presented at the end of the instructional “season.”

“When I go [to rehearsal], what I see is this miracle of somebody suddenly realizing that they’re being seen, that what they do matters, that they have a voice, that they have value,” says Oppenheim of the participants.

But Outside/In stems from a previous program that worked inside the prison system.

The Studio’s collaboration with Rikers Island, which was established by Oppenheim and Tommy Demenkoff, the former Director of Outreach, began in 2013. That program continues to train inmates inside the facility to help them connect to one another and themselves. In the early days of the Rikers program, a group of incarcerated women put on an original movement performance for their fellow inmates in the prison. While Oppenheim stood their proud, the audience laughed—but that didn’t stop the women from performing. “Our students were so strong-willed,” he said. “They commanded the audience and suddenly you heard laughter, but it wasn’t mocking laughter [anymore].” Oppenheim was inspired by their strength and resilience and realized that the program had given them an outlet to display the qualities they already had—and create change in the members of their community.

“When I spoke to the women after,” he says, “I said to them ‘I want you to know that you are a part of this organization. This organization was founded in 1949, but the roots go all the way back to 1889 when my great grandfather came here from Russia, and you’re part of this. You’re an important part of it. You have a home at the Stella Adler Studio.’”

Thus, he founded Outside/In. “We wanted to do more than just be there,” says Oppenheim, “[we wanted] to create a home here.”

Two years in, Oppenheim feels the roots of this Outside/In community solidifying and the final performances in May (for this year’s class) is the flag in the ground. Once the curtain comes down on that final show, participants may take different paths; some may continue training, but every one can call the Stella Adler Studio home.

This season of Outside/In’s final performances are on May 20 and 21 at Studio 6 at 31 West 27th St at 7PM. Visit StellaAdler.com for more information.

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