The Stella Adler Studio of Acting is usually associated with actors like Kate Mulgrew (an alumna), rather than her character on “Orange Is the New Black,” a prison inmate.
But prison inmates are who the Stella Adler Studio of Acting is targeting. Specifically, Rikers Island inmates, where the Stella Adler Studio of Acting is heading into its second year of teaching its acting program.
The acting classes were “pretty much the best experience me myself could have gotten out of Rikers Island,” said Yesenia Vega, a former inmate at Rikers. “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 okay, keep your head down, walk straight, speak to no one, you know, you would just never think that you meet amazing people in jail.”
Kate Mulgrew, who is on the board of directors of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, has stressed how important learning the creative process can be — especially for people in jail.
“It’s a program of hope,” Mulgrew said. “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. So often these kids do not understand that their creative energy is a tool they can use to their creative advantage.”
For her part, Mulgrew says she would never have been able to play an inmate in the Netflix series she stars in without the tools she had learned at Stella Adler Studio– tools the acting school is now bringing to Rikers.
The program teaching inmates acting began in August 2014, the latest in a long line of outreach programs at Stella Adler Studio. The school also teaches at the recovery center Phoenix House and there is playwriting program at the East River Academy, the school that serves incarcerated students ages 16-21 that predated this acting program.
Stella Adler Studio’s director of outreach, Tommy Demenkoff, who started working at the studio three years ago, had previously worked at Rikers Island in various programs. “There was not a robust arts program” at Rikers, Demenkoff said. Demenkoff, and Stella Adler Studio artistic director Tom Oppenheim spent two years working to bring the acting program to Rikers.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte “just gave us carte blanche; the doors were open, gave us keys to enter and has been an enormous advocate on our behalf from that time on,” Oppenheim said.
The acting program first started at the Rose M. Singer women’s facility on Rikers Island. It kicked off with about 20 students (Vega said she “expected the worst”), but it has since expanded to the George R. Vierno Center (a men’s facility), and they are in talks to expand into more facilities on the island. Three hundred inmates have been taught acting classes by the studio.
The inmates at Rikers learn the basics — acting, movement, voice, speech, dance — from Stella Adler actors and writers. “At first, I was like, ‘This is something to do, I’m never going to be an actress,’ but once you start taking the class … when I came home, I was like ‘wow, I speak differently’ … You learn so many different things, you use it so much in everyday life.”
The inmates have done performances, which Demenkoff, Oppenheim and Mulgrew say are extraordinary. While traveling to Rikers Island involves security checkpoints, guards and so much more, the performance takes the audience outside of the prison.
“The women had worked so hard and believed so much in their work that they commanded the audience, they commanded all of us, they became our teachers,” Oppenheim said.
At the Stella Adler Studio’s 10th Annual Gala in May, Mulgrew was honored and proceeds from the gala went to the Outreach Division, including the Rikers Island program.
Students who participate in the program can continue their education at Stella Adler Studio after they are released. Vega said she plans to stay in touch, and even knows women who have been transferred to longer-term facilities upstate who plan to do the same.
“It gave me a different confidence of myself and gave me a better sense of worth for myself,” Vega said.
Oppenheim, who is the grandson of Stella Adler, said this is exactly the goal of the Stella Adler Studio. The school was started with the core goal of teaching humanity through acting.
“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,” Oppenheim said. “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.”