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Chris Bisbano was serving an 18-year prison sentence when a drama class changed his life.

"We’re not teaching inmates to be actors. We’re giving them the tools of creative expression, and more importantly, emotional awareness."

Chris Bisbano was serving an 18-year prison sentence when a drama class changed his life.

60 days after Chris Bisbano was released from prison, he found himself back again, this time by choice.

He was there to teach a drama class with The Actors' Gang Prison Project. As he walked in, he noticed the inmates eyeing his tattoos, all of which he got during his 18-year sentence at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California, for attempted murder. He knew he stuck out from the other teachers but didn't realize how much of a difference that would make until he introduced himself to the inmates.

Chris Bisbano (center, arm outstretched) with a group of inmates participating in The Actors' Gang Prison Project at Norco. Photo by Peter Merts. All photos used with permission.


"I told them I was formerly incarcerated and had only been out 60 days," Bisbano says. "The whole room started tearing up. The inmates exclaimed, 'I can’t believe you’re back in prison after doing all that time. And you came back just for us?'"

Bisbano came back because he has firsthand experience with the life-changing potential of The Actors' Gang Prison Project.

Unlike other prison drama programs, the Actors' Gang utilizes a specific type of acting exercise — an improv style known as commedia dell’arte — to help inmates recognize and control their emotions.

Commedia dell'arte is essentially the basis for clowning. Participants develop characters that represent four emotional states: happy, sad, frightened, and angry, and they build scenes around them.

Chris Bisbano. Photo by the Associated Press.

"We’re not teaching inmates to be actors. We’re giving them the tools of creative expression, and more importantly, emotional awareness," explains Bob Turton, one of the project's teachers.

When Bisbano first came to The Actors' Gang workshop as an inmate in 2009, he was skeptical.

He expected it to be like all the other run-of-the-mill art programs that came and went at Norco. But once he started doing the work, his perception changed entirely.

Photo by Bob Turton.

"I thought it was amazing," he recalls, explaining that the commedia style is perfect for the prison environment. "In prison, you don’t normally show emotion. You revert to one emotion: anger. Or you don’t show any emotion at all — that’s a sign of weakness. This program provided a safe space where we could explore all our emotions."

Remarkably, the program also helps to quickly build a sense of community among the inmates that crosses racial boundaries, which can be much more rigid in prison.

The Actors' Gang Prison Project isn't just a cool idea — it's working really well.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the recidivism rate statewide in California is 50%. For inmates who completed The Actors' Gang Prison Project, however, it's 10.6%, according to a preliminary analysis conducted by the CDCR in conjunction with The Actors' Gang.

Even more impressive? Behavioral infractions by students in the Actors' Gang dropped by 90%.

Photo by Peter Merts.

Today, Bisbano is six months out on parole and already a head teacher for the Actors' Gang.

He started teaching weekly commedia classes as an inmate, and now that he's out on parole, he teaches at The Actors' Gang Prison Project as well as the Re-Entry Project, which helps inmates at halfway houses (between prison and full release).

As a teacher, Bisbano says, he's noticed that once the emotional "safe space" is established, the inmates are able to go much deeper emotionally much faster. "It’s like they've been waiting for this moment to open up and share," he says.

Photo by Bob Turton.

It's at the halfway houses that Bisbano and Turton say their work is the most challenging but can also make the biggest difference. The people there are anxious because they're much closer to getting out. A program that helps channel that emotion productively can be incredibly beneficial.

In 2007, there were zero publicly funded art programs in California's state prisons. In 2017, there will be art programs in all 35 of them.

Studies show just how much of a positive influence art can have on inmates' emotional development and behavior. The Actors' Gang's success — not to mention other programs like San Quentin's Prison Art Program, Marin Shakespeare at Solano State Prison, and guitar classes at Salinas Valley State Prison — are proof of that.

Photo by Bob Turton.

For Bisbano, what makes The Actors' Gang Prison Project exceptional is the way it taps into the source of inmates' behavior.

The work inmates do with The Actors' Gang helps them recognize a triggering feeling, learn how to diffuse it, and turn it into something productive. Once they leave prison, those skills give them more control over what they do, both on stage and on the streets.  

"We call it 'riding the horse,'" Bisbano says. "If [the feeling] is good, I ride it out. If it’s bad, I ride it out. But it doesn’t mean I need to act on it."

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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