Comedy course promotes learning through laughter

Laughter: a common denominator, an icebreaker and for some in Her Majesty's prisons, an eye-opener.

Enter the Comedy School, a charity organisation that has been working inside prisons since 1998 with the aim of engaging and stimulating adult and young offenders alike.

Charity Director Keith Palmer explained: "We use comedy as an education and rehabilitation tool through humour. It's something everyone enjoys, it's non-threatening and it's all inclusive - anyone can be involved."

As an education tool, the Comedy School courses are clearly mapped out to achieve basic and key skills such as communication and teamwork, using task sheets, essays and discussion.

"For instance, we have participants write letters of invitation to see their performance - official ones to the governor and informal ones to their family. These are put in the folder toward their communication key skill."

The beginner humorists also discuss what is considered politically correct and write an essay on the arts in prison, particularly comedy, and whether they think it is of value.

Swap the pen for a microphone and the men begin to really experience what's involved when becoming a fully-fledged comedian as the eight-day intensive workshop introduces them to ways of evoking humour by teaching them comedy techniques such as using similes, acronyms or observation.

But it's not all a barrel of laughs as the men have an opportunity to examine themselves closely: their persona, who they are in front of other people, what signals they give off, and how others perceive them. It can be a real journey of self-discovery and a road to rehabilitation.

Keith elaborated: "In this setting they receive feedback from the group and things are said that never would be allowed on the wings. This process has helped some prisoners address some of the reasons why they are in and out of jail: when they realise how others perceive them, often the penny drops."

With a final performance looming at the end of the eight days, these amateur jokesters discover the practise, repetition and time required to prepare for a live performance. But their moment in the spotlight is another part of the learning process as they discover how important eye contact and interpersonal skills are when engaging an audience.

Some of the prisoners Keith has worked with have gone on to become full-time comedians and perform in front of ministers. But even if their star doesn't rise that high, he has no doubt the art of humour has had its impact.

"While they are learning something new that is of interest to them it allows them to escape for awhile from the reality of prison and by the end of it I think they realise how much they have learned about themselves."

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