"You remember what you're not supposed to talk about?" Heather Kinney asks a group of boys, 15 to 17. She and her friend Carolyn Minor are teaching improv to the residents of section 4A at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, and she's preparing them to do two-person scenes.
"No gangs, no drugs, no sex," they say, repeating the center's rules for the class. The 12 boys are awaiting trial for violent crimes. All except one have been charged as adults.
Drugs sneak into the scenes anyway. In one, a kid pretends to sell penicillin for $20. In another, a boy worries he has glaucoma, then looks on the bright side: medical marijuana. Kinney and Minor let the references pass.
The boys of 4A say they look forward to escaping the tedium of the "sects," or sections, where they bide their time on the weekends watching TV, playing cards, and sleeping. Improv, as 17-year-old Nick puts it, is a chance to "get out the goofiness that you want to get out."
"It takes your mind off home and court," says Gregory, 16. "It makes you think, focus, pay attention."
Every Sunday at 4 PM, the boys meet Kinney and Minor in the detention center chapel, a spacious room with gray carpet and brown brick walls, where they play warm-up games with names like Bippety Bippety Bop and Big Booty that require them to listen to one another and make quick decisions. Then they practice long-form improv, where they work on scenes, developing characters and relationships.
"You'll see a Hispanic boy and an African-American boy and you know they're from two different gangs," says Kinney, "and they're doing a scene about doing laundry and they're making it work. And you're like, on the street they'd be beating the tar out of each other!"
About 75 kids have attended Minor and Kinney's improv class, which they've been teaching for about a year. One boy has been attending the whole time; several have been there for six months. Most of the original kids in the class have been sent home or to prison.
Live Bait Theater and ComedySportz started simultaneous improv programs at the detention center a year and a half ago. Minor, an early volunteer for Live Bait, recruited Kinney, whom she'd met at an improv class in 2001, and the two eventually took over the program from Live Bait. (ComedySportz teaches younger kids.)
Both Minor and Kinney, who are in their late 20s, had done improv in college and had recently moved to Chicago--Kinney from upstate New York, Minor from Williamsburg, Virginia. Both came from families that valued helping those in need: Minor's mother was a social worker for a child-welfare agency, and Kinney's family took in troubled teenagers.
From the time she was 11, Kinney had a series of foster brothers--eight in all--and she says she learned how to connect with troubled youth from her father's example. "He was stern, with a great wit," she says.
Most of the boys at the detention center come in with little if any exposure to the arts, according to Anna Greanias-Wright, the center's special programs coordinator. Yet Minor and Kinney say they were determined to make the class challenging, despite suggestions from their contact at Live Bait that the boys wouldn't get what they were trying to do.
"They are sponges," says Kinney. "And they want to be believed in."
"They've gotten everything we've taught them," Minor adds.
The boys are often wary at first. In an early class, Minor instructed the group to stand in a circle and close their eyes. "I ain't closing my eyes," a boy said. "I'm in a roomful of criminals!"
Newcomers often "panic a little bit," Kinney says. "They feel like if they don't make someone laugh with the first line, they're in trouble." But after watching their peers take risks and make fun of themselves, it doesn't take long for the wariness to fade.
"Comedy breaks down a lot of walls," says Kinney. "In the world, these kids don't laugh at themselves, they don't play, they aren't kids out there." The message they get from improv, she says, is "it's OK to play, it's OK to laugh at yourself, it's OK to trust other people."
"We got the freedom to act crazy," says Jose, 16.
Within limitations. Besides such topics as guns, drugs, and sex, Minor and Kinney have banned the word "fam" from their class--gang vernacular for family.
"I spend a lot of time with Urban Dictionary," Minor says.
Greanias-Wright believes that in Kinney and Minor's class the boys learn to "think on their feet in a positive manner, instead of instantly choosing a violent response." When they return to their section afterward, she says, they are quieter and less likely to get in trouble. All programming has this kind of "calming effect," she adds, but after improv the staff notices a "spirit of camaraderie. . . . The differences from their gangs and backgrounds dissipate. They've found a common ground."
As for Kinney and Minor, teaching the boys reminds them of what they love about improv. "I exist in a world where improv is solely for self-promotion," says Kinney, who coaches an independent improv team. "You come into this world and you're like, 'I'm going to go to Second City. I'm going to get the main stage. I'm going to Saturday Night Live. I'm going to make movies.' Then I come into this world, and they're like, 'Just teach me. I don't know what this is going to do in my life, but it's something different that I love.' It's so much more innocent, which is weird. You go into jail to find the innocence in improv."