PRISON ARTS PROGRAM

Dell’Arte in partnership with The William James Association

For questions, inquiries, and to participate on our returned citizens committee, please contact Dell’Arte’s Program Director Janessa Johnsrude at janessa@dellarte.com

In partnership with the non-profit William James Association, Dell’Arte offers weekly ensemble theatre classes at Pelican Bay State Prison on all General Population yards throughout the year. Dell’Arte is now it it’s fourth year of engagement at the prison which is supported by California’s Arts in Corrections Program. This program brings professional artists into prisons to teach their art form to incarcerated people in support of their rehabilitation.

Dell’Arte’s Prison Arts Program Director and Co-Founder Janessa Johnsrude and Teaching Artist Melanie Schauwecker work alongside several other local artists at the prison including Julie McNeil who teaches visual art, Cecelia Holland who teaches creative writing, Dale Morgan who teaches guitar, and Paul Critz who teaches the Audio Journalism class. Through newly established exchanges with Dell’Arte’s MFA students and teaching from invited guest instructors/Dell’Arte Faculty, our incarcerated students have worked with artists from India, Mexico, Israel, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Canada, Guatemala, Spain, England, and the United States. 

Students in the Arts in Corrections Theatre Classes at Pelican Bay work in ensemble to explore the creative act of generating theatre through the study of storytelling, character, improvisation, original play development, and Commedia dell’Arte. Many students have graduated from the program and continue classes as mentors, as courses commence every spring and fall. As programming develops, various ensembles have created original performances for invited public audiences as well. Several former students that have been released also serve on the Returned Citizens Committee, acting as advisors to the program. 

In 2013, the California Arts Council was able to re-establish the seminal  Arts in Corrections Program, founded William James Association in the late 1970s.  

“Arts in Corrections is a partnership between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the California Arts Council designed to have a positive impact on the social and emotional well-being of people experiencing incarceration, promoting healing and interpersonal transformation both inside and outside of the boundaries of their institutions.” 

 –  California Arts in Corrections Program Website

In 2016, Dell’Arte’s Janessa Johnsrude & Zuzka Sabata, in partnership with the William James Association, founded Dell’Arte’s Prison Arts Program. Along with Dell’Arte faculty, they began to work on establishing programming in the spring of 2015 with a desire to provide theatre classes for individuals incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison, one of California’s only Maximum Security facilities located just 80 miles north of Blue Lake, in Crescent City. In March 2016, They began engagement inside the prison with one class on the Level 1, or Minimum Security with just four students. Today the program serves 45 students in weekly classes which commence in certificate awards every spring and fall and has reached hundreds of incarcerated individuals.

In 2018, the first theatre exchange event between Dell’Arte MFA students and Pelican Bay Theatre students took place when Dell’Arte brought their annual Holiday Show inside the prison. Subsequent exchanges with Dell’Arte MFA students and Dell’Arte students on the inside have taken place and serve to foster dialogue, artistic sharing, and community building in the world of ensemble creation – breaking down barriers and fostering collectivity.

In December 2019, Dell’Arte in partnership with fellow teaching artists, facilitated the first-ever Arts in Corrections Gala at Pelican Bay State prison in B-Yard, which saw all the Arts in Corrections classes gather in an event to celebrate the incarcerated artists and welcome in a public audience. 

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Photos by Peter Merts, Collin Smith, Malcolm DeSoto, and courtesy of CDCR