Work of Art: Actor Abbie Johnstone is taking theatre to prisons

Adelaide actor Abbie Johnstone travelled to New York’s Rikers Prison with the help of the Helpmann Academy and the Independent Arts Foundation Neil Curnow Award in order to develop a drama outreach program for inmates in South Australia.

When Abbie Johnstone graduated from the Adelaide College of the Arts (TAFE SA) with an acting degree in 2014, she knew that in order to set herself apart from her fellow classmates she needed to create her own career path. After securing a regular grant from Helpmann Academy in 2015, Abbie set off for the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York to study under their community outreach division, servicing inmates in New York’s Rikers Island Prison.

“It was something that had reignited a bit of a passion that gets a little lost when you graduate, because you’re so overwhelmed by trying to find work and having so many people competing for roles,” says Johnstone. “And I was like ‘No, this is something I can do, this is something I enjoy, this is something no one else is doing’.”

Inspired by her time abroad, Abbie applied for the $10,000 Neil Curnow Award in 2016, with hopes of being able to intern under the director of the Stella Adler Outreach Program and learn how create her own prison program to implement in South Australian prisons.

“I knew that it was important work and I knew that I really enjoyed it and had something to give to it. I had an inkling that it might be something that we need here in South Australia, that wasn’t being done,” says Johnstone. “I found that through using drama, it was giving these people hope, an outlet and a different sort of expression that they had not been privy to before. It was just something that fit with me in terms of where I wanted to take my career.”

Johnstone was successful in landing the Neil Curnow Award and set off to New York in February 2017 to work at the Rikers Island Correctional Facility and take courses at the Upright Citizens Brigade Training Centre, which has spawned talent like Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari and Donald Glover.

“As part of the Neil Curnow Award, when I was in New York, I also went to the Upright Citizens Brigade, which is a comedy improv school over there,” says Johnstone. “I studied sketch writing and improv as well. Both of them were really, really challenging but so beneficial to me in this work.”

Using drama as a way to connect with inmates felt like a natural fit to Abbie.

“I think they get to play different characters, they get to be different people, they get to explore things in different ways and there’s something really beautiful about the way that the program is structured, that they learn to be silly again,” says Johnston. “They get retaught that naivety, I guess. The structure of the program and the nature of acting means that they have to be vulnerable and if they’re all being vulnerable then no one is getting judged.”

Since returning to Adelaide, Abbie has been working hard on establishing her own drama outreach program, working with inmates in Mobilong Prison for men in Murray Bridge.

“I just finished a ten-week trial here in South Australia. One guy came up to me, midway through the term and said, ‘Thank you so much for coming in. In prison, you have to have your guard up and in here you feel like you get to let it down, just for a moment, and that feeling stays with you for a little while. And it’s so nice. So, thank you’,” says Johnstone.

“That’s exactly the effect that I wanted it to have, you really feel like those four walls fall down. Or that you’re not even in a prison, you’re somewhere else. It’s that escape, metaphorically.”

Abbie plans to use what she has learned through this ten-week trial to extend the program.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to do another six months next year. I’ve applied to be able to go out once a week, from January through to July. If that funding comes through, then that’s great. I’ll be able to take two other facilitators out with me and we’ll be able to get paid for that time, which is great,” says Johnston. “If I don’t get that, then I’ll just keep working at it and keep trying to find some funding to be able to bring that program out to them.”

The Neil Curnow Award is a joint initiative between Helpmann Academy and the Independent Arts Foundation and is made possible through the generous bequest of the late Neil Curnow, an extraordinary man of the theatre based in Adelaide.

Abbie Johnstone was the recipient of the 2016 Neil Curnow Award. The 2018 recipient is set to be announced shortly at www.helpmannacademy.com.au

Photography: Tommy Demenkoff

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.