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The word “improv” may spark images of playing Zip Zap Zop or that show in college your friend dragged you to—things that might seem silly or inconsequential at first. But improv has the potential to mean so much more to so many. It offers an outlet for imagination, communication, and even healing. Particularly in correctional facilities, where there may be few opportunities for play and community, the arts provide some release and have been proven to be a powerful tool.

Piven’s Ensemble Play in Cook County Jail (EPIC) program was started in 2016 by two longtime Piven artists, Gillian Hemme and Beth Voitik,  to uplift the voices of the women in Cook County Jail and create a safe space for expression. Hemme and Voitik were inspired by Shira Piven and her work with The Actors’ Gang Prison Project and wanted to bring PTW’s improvisation training to carceral facilities in Illinois. Piven Theatre teachers meet weekly with the EPIC ensemble to play, write, and build worlds beyond the one to which the inmates have been confined. In the often bleak and inhumane uncertainty of jail, the performers look forward to creating and communicating through art and play as they await trial. Every class begins with improv and performance games, and ends with a period for writing and reflection. Each 8-12 week term culminates in a final performance in which the women are given a platform to share their work and stories.

Research has affirmed the lasting impacts of creative programs in correctional facilities. One of the first prison arts programs was founded in 1977, called the Arts-in-Corrections Program of the California Department of Corrections (AIC), which supports arts instruction to several California Prisons in the performing, visual, and literary arts. In a 1983 study of the program, research found that “80.6% of [participants in the AIC] at the Correctional Training Facility of Soledad had fewer disciplinary infractions when compared with nonparticipants” (Brewster 1983).

Other programs have seen similar successes in their performers’ sense of self-esteem, respect, and purpose, both during and after their time in confinement. Dr. Ashley Lauren Hamilton with the Denver University Prison Arts Initiative reports,

“I have watched theatre offer a space for these men to become more self-actualized, sharpen their communication skills, become better at conflict resolution and more sociable. Theatre gives them a stronger sense of empathy and a stronger sense of hope. Those are great skills for anyone to have, but they are especially useful for people coming home from prison.”

One of Dr. Hamilton’s students reflects,

“This workshop opened me up to realize how much I have changed through my incarceration. I’ve realized that I locked up the best parts of me years ago. I’ve been in a prison, while in prison. This class has helped release the best part of me and I hope to share that with the world.”

Jail is a transitional period, where growth and human connection should be encouraged and celebrated, though few correctional facilities offer such opportunities.  Improv and the arts equip performers with lifelong tools for creative expression, problem solving, and hope into their transition out of a justice system that has often failed to provide the same. The EPIC program promotes connection and support for their artists beyond just their time at Cook County Jail. After their release, EPIC alumnae are offered full scholarships and transportation assistance to continue learning and playing at Piven Theatre.

Any discussion about the power of our program should come from the artists themselves. In an exercise to promote expression and community, below is a collaborative piece written by our ensemble, which they presented in an Open Workshop performance in the Fall 2017 semester.

The Short, Collective Biography of Our Ensemble

I have stories.

I have gotten really good news.

I have walked barefoot in the sand, skipped over the seams of sidewalks, and stepped on a worm.

I have bumped into a friend when I wasn’t expecting to see them, and a ladybug has landed on me.

I have kissed someone, and I have fallen asleep in a lover’s arms.

I love good books, chocolate, showers, laughing, making others laugh, and being free.

I hate bologna sandwiches.

Some nights have been spent crying, but I have supportive family while I’m here.

I have changed – a diaper, the channel, myself.

I have friends who feel like family, and we have sung at the top of our lungs in a car.

I have forgiven.


Interested in learning more about theatre and justice reform? Stay tuned on our blog as we continue our series and take a more in-depth look at artistic expression in correctional facilities. In the meantime, check out the work of some of our incredible artists in this WGN segment on EPIC: