Not the improv I expected

Meet another long-time Brilliance Inside volunteer, Vivienne Bennett, as she divulges the differences she experienced between her Improv classes “on the streets” at Finest City Improv and her Improv experience inside Donovan as facilitator Gary Ware joined us for a couple sessions.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Improv class, level II, at Finest City Improv in San Diego, Fall 2018. A dozen strangers in the room. Our teacher, Gary Ware, leads us in exercise after exercise designed to break down barriers in our brains that inhibit spontaneous thought, action and talking. We remain strangers albeit laughing nervously together. We take an 8-week class. We become more comfortable with each other. But still, we are shy, worried about how others perceive us, afraid of failure, of not being funny. We work, work, work at those exercises and begin to feel the brain shift, the letting go. After each class we quickly pack up and go home, tired, sometimes exhilarated, but needing to get back to our busy lives. We don’t talk about what it means to us or how we are changing.


Fast forward to August 2019, Donovan Correctional Facility, A Yard. Improv class with Gary and about 20 Donovan residents. He starts us on the same exercises to free our brains, to build spontaneity. The resident “men in blue” have never done anything like this together and we have never done anything like this with them. There is no hanging back. Even the young resident who never talks is all in. There is laughter. But it’s not nervous laughter, it’s laughter from the gut. It’s laughter from men who are in joy. It’s laughter from men who had the worst childhoods imaginable and are laughing as only children do. It’s laughter from men whose brains are freed momentarily from the rigors of prison life. But then it becomes more, so much more. Gary asks what each exercise means to us, and without hesitation or shyness, each “resident in blue” can’t wait to talk about how this exercise made them feel more confident, how that exercise made them feel connected to others, how the other exercise brought them to feel intimacy within themselves and trust with the rest of us in the room, about how they feel human in ways they had not experienced in years or decades or maybe ever.


On the outside, even after 8 weeks in Improv class, there has been very little revealing of oneself to others, very little connection to each other. On the inside, in a place that is built around deprivation, rules, uncertainty, division, separation, loneliness and fear, Improv brings connection, joy and intimacy. And most importantly, each resident in blue is bursting at the seams to talk about it all. Even after one class, we are bonded by trust, by our willingness to be authentic with each other, to cut to the deepest and most urgent parts of ourselves.


Time and time again, I find that communication among the program participants is deeper, more authentic, more complex and more worthwhile on a regular basis than any communication with a roomful of 20 people on the outside ever is. The residents we work with want to grow, they want to learn and they approach the work with us with openness, earnestness, and commitment. I feel privileged to be part of this group, to have the honor of participating in the vulnerabilities that are shared and addressed, to experience the caring and trust between the unlikeliest of group members, and to feel my own humanity as part of a group that too many in our society thinks has none. 

Mariette Fourmeaux