Monday, September 19, 2005

The Comedy School Featured in The Stage

The Comedy School's work in prisons was the subject of a positive article by Alistair Smith in The Stage on September 8th 2005.

A man walks into a prison…

The Comedy School

Alistair Smith

Established in 1998 by Keith Palmer, the Comedy School uses laughter making to educate prison inmates in communication skills. Alistair Smith discovers why the groundbreaking initiative has not been met with smiles from all quarters

Porridge excluded, prison and comedy have never had what one would term a particularly cosy relationship - even Oscar Wilde had his naturally witty disposition turned a shade or two darker by his trials in a certain Berkshire institution.

However, since 1998, a small group of professionals from within the comedy industry has been using humour to teach communication skills to UK inmates and perhaps provide them with the first steps in a career for when they are released.

The Comedy School, a not for profit organisation, originally envisaged as a training centre for members of the general public, has, for nearly a decade, been taking its courses and giving them a special twist for the criminal justice system. It runs drama and comedy workshops for the inmates, lasting up to a week, and sometimes culminating in a fully staged production in front of family and prison staff.

“If there’s anywhere that needs humour, it is prisons,” explains director Keith Palmer. “People have to use it as a defence mechanism. The course has got to the stage now that prisoners can get a qualification for the work they do with us. Although it’s a laugh, it’s still learning. If you think about how humour works - if they’re laughing, they’re listening and, if they’re listening, that’s when the education process can start.

“It can deal with people who are literate or completely illiterate,” he continues. “And the thing is, who doesn’t like to laugh? Sometimes you have the situation where officers at the facility have never seen certain prisoners enjoy themselves before and all of a sudden ‘axe man whoever’ is laughing. They don’t know how to react - it makes the prisoner seem more human.”

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Sections of the media have taken a predictably negative stance on what Palmer is trying to achieve and, with profit-making organisations beginning to get in on the act, he is worried that the public might misunderstand what the Comedy School is all about.

“If it’s just a profit thing and they aren’t delivering the service, then you have to question it,” he says. “If people are being used - like prisoners - that becomes negative and sends a negative message to prison governors. That doesn’t help other organisations doing it for the right reasons. That is why I want to distinguish what we’re doing from anyone else.”

Palmer came up with the idea for the training centre while he was working with the National Youth Theatre. He was trying to get stand-up work to subsidise his acting career when he realised that there was nowhere affordable for young comics to learn their trade.

“So,” he adds, “I met up with Tony Allen - the godfather of comedy - and we devised a bit of a programme around 1995. Then Rudi Lickwood got involved. He came up through the ranks and eventually started to help deliver the course. He now does a lot of work for the prison programme.”

The organisation settled on its name in 1998, creating a board with advisors from the comedy, theatre, education and legal communities.

As well as offering eight-week courses for the public, which have continued to this day, the school started its work in jails. Palmer had already done some work ‘inside’ with the NYT and decided that if the project could work with drama, it would be even more effective with comedy.

He ran one of the school’s first pilot initiatives in the late nineties at the Young Offenders Institute in Aylesbury. “I remember the governor saying to me, ‘If you can get that up and running here, you can have the keys to my prison’,” recalls Palmer. “So a few months later I got some keys to a prison. Since then, it’s just blossomed - we’ve been at the forefront of trying to use humour as an educational tool.”

Now housed just off Regent’s Park, the organisation has a series of open classes available during the rest of the year. It is continuing its prison work and is currently developing a community programme called ‘It’s No Joke’, which attempts to dissuade young people from carrying knives. Palmer believes it is projects such as these that convince high-profile comedians to give up their time and lend a hand to the organisation.

“There’s a whole load of goodwill that comes our way with all the pros giving up their time for the school - people like Rudi Lickwood, Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Arthur Smith and Neil Mullarkey,” he concludes. “The strength is in the work - it has a life of its own and just keeps on growing. In fact, at some point I’d like to do a big comedy benefit event to feed the money back into the work for the criminal justice system.”

Tuesday 13 September 2005 10:25 AMPorridge excluded, prison and comedy have never had what one would term a particularly cosy relationship - even Oscar Wilde had his naturally witty disposition turned a shade or two darker by his trials in a certain Berkshire institution.

However, since 1998, a small group of professionals from within the comedy industry has been using humour to teach communication skills to UK inmates and perhaps provide them with the first steps in a career for when they are released.

The Comedy School, a not for profit organisation, originally envisaged as a training centre for members of the general public, has, for nearly a decade, been taking its courses and giving them a special twist for the criminal justice system. It runs drama and comedy workshops for the inmates, lasting up to a week, and sometimes culminating in a fully staged production in front of family and prison staff.

“If there’s anywhere that needs humour, it is prisons,” explains director Keith Palmer. “People have to use it as a defence mechanism. The course has got to the stage now that prisoners can get a qualification for the work they do with us. Although it’s a laugh, it’s still learning. If you think about how humour works - if they’re laughing, they’re listening and, if they’re listening, that’s when the education process can start.

“It can deal with people who are literate or completely illiterate,” he continues. “And the thing is, who doesn’t like to laugh? Sometimes you have the situation where officers at the facility have never seen certain prisoners enjoy themselves before and all of a sudden ‘axe man whoever’ is laughing. They don’t know how to react - it makes the prisoner seem more human.”

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Sections of the media have taken a predictably negative stance on what Palmer is trying to achieve and, with profit-making organisations beginning to get in on the act, he is worried that the public might misunderstand what the Comedy School is all about.

“If it’s just a profit thing and they aren’t delivering the service, then you have to question it,” he says. “If people are being used - like prisoners - that becomes negative and sends a negative message to prison governors. That doesn’t help other organisations doing it for the right reasons. That is why I want to distinguish what we’re doing from anyone else.”

Palmer came up with the idea for the training centre while he was working with the National Youth Theatre. He was trying to get stand-up work to subsidise his acting career when he realised that there was nowhere affordable for young comics to learn their trade.

“So,” he adds, “I met up with Tony Allen - the godfather of comedy - and we devised a bit of a programme around 1995. Then Rudi Lickwood got involved. He came up through the ranks and eventually started to help deliver the course. He now does a lot of work for the prison programme.”

The organisation settled on its name in 1998, creating a board with advisors from the comedy, theatre, education and legal communities.

As well as offering eight-week courses for the public, which have continued to this day, the school started its work in jails. Palmer had already done some work ‘inside’ with the NYT and decided that if the project could work with drama, it would be even more effective with comedy.

He ran one of the school’s first pilot initiatives in the late nineties at the Young Offenders Institute in Aylesbury. “I remember the governor saying to me, ‘If you can get that up and running here, you can have the keys to my prison’,” recalls Palmer. “So a few months later I got some keys to a prison. Since then, it’s just blossomed - we’ve been at the forefront of trying to use humour as an educational tool.”

Now housed just off Regent’s Park, the organisation has a series of open classes available during the rest of the year. It is continuing its prison work and is currently developing a community programme called ‘It’s No Joke’, which attempts to dissuade young people from carrying knives. Palmer believes it is projects such as these that convince high-profile comedians to give up their time and lend a hand to the organisation.

“There’s a whole load of goodwill that comes our way with all the pros giving up their time for the school - people like Rudi Lickwood, Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Arthur Smith and Neil Mullarkey,” he concludes. “The strength is in the work - it has a life of its own and just keeps on growing. In fact, at some point I’d like to do a big comedy benefit event to feed the money back into the work for the criminal justice system.”

The Stage

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

<< Home