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Exchange stories: comedy in a Texan prison

By Rachel Harper

Our global exchange programme takes our students all over the world, enabling learning in all kinds of settings. It took David Jones MBA 2020 to Texas and a very unusual teaching assignment.

What brought you to LBS David?

Before LBS I was leading a team developing the commercial strategy for BT, the multinational Telecommunications firm and I spent the majority of my days talking about the evolution of SD-Wan and “pivoting our customer journeys”.

I increasingly felt that my life needed more than just network specifications and came to LBS with the idea of building a social impact start-up, as I had heard that LBS has some of the best resources (including the Entrepreneurial summer school) to make that dream a reality.

So, what surprised you about LBS?

The scale of opportunity here is staggering, I have had the opportunity to work in Private Equity, Consulting and tech start-ups and each opportunity has been amazing in its own way. I’ve also been to Madrid with the rugby team, skied with flaming torches down the slopes of Val Thorens with the ski club and taught stand-up in Texan prisons whilst on exchange.

Teaching comedy in prisons? That sounds amazing, how did you get involved with that?

It started at LBS, where the SA provided me with a grant to develop a comedy teaching program with some of London’s best comics (Cerys Bradley and Samantha Neville). When I went to Austin on exchange, I didn’t want to lose this part of my London life.

Arriving in Austin I met with a friend of mine who had been out there for a few years, and she had been incredibly busy setting up a charity which works with Texan prisons, providing free college credit bearing educational programs in English, Maths, Education and Sociology. (http://sites.utexas.edu/texasprisoneducation/)

I started working within Lockhart Prison, teaching Maths for three hours every Thursday evening to some of the most motivated students I had ever met. These students were desperate for their second chance and were working to improve themselves and their opportunities when they leave.

I wanted to do something to help more, so I started with writing an interview skills course for recent parolees combining the advice learnt within the behavioural courses taken at LBS with improv and acting games to give an opportunity to practise these skills. Running these courses, I noticed something; every time we ran Improv games the energy and engagement in the room exploded. A bit of calculated silliness gave them an escape and did wonders for the engagement and enthusiasm within the rest of the course.

I pitched the idea of a comedy and improv course to the TPEI team and they loved it, so we designed a course which would combine several trainings and writing sessions with a final performance at graduation.

And how did that go?

It went amazingly, the course was massively oversubscribed and every one of the participants really threw themselves into performing some of the funniest improv that I have ever seen.

Games included the “product pitch” - four volunteers deliver a marketing pitch for a weird product decided by the audience seconds before and “question talking” - participants had to act out a scene but they can only talk in questions. Some of the pitches were amazing, the one that sticks in my mind is the pitch for “cough sweets for giraffes”, as if the sore throat lasts too long your giraffe become a little horse.

And how did the final performance go?

The graduation performance will stick with me as I grow old - I headlined a stand-up showcase in front of 200 inmates who seemed to love my unique combination of self-deprecating humour and terrible puns.

I wasn’t the star of the event though, a brave group of inmates played a 10-minute game of freeze tag, acting out short improvised scenes on everything from fashion design to aerobics to online dating. I’ve never heard a room laugh so loud, or applause go on for so long and the performers were rightfully hailed as comedy heroes by the audience.

Why did prisons appeal to you?

Texas has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world, over 150,000 people are serving time in prisons across the state. Life in these prisons is tough, with many having to face the 40-degree Texan summer in cells lacking air conditioning or natural ventilation.

I’ve been lucky to grow up in an environment that has provided me with a huge amount of options, something not available to many of these inmates. Unstable homes, poor education and dangerous environments have limited their options and pushed them into involvement in criminal activities. Cuts to education programs, social work and youth outreach disproportionately hit those in disadvantageous positions and I wanted to do something to help.

Education programs have shown that these people will thrive if only given the opportunities. In similar education programs the reoffending rate dropped by 95%, as students were given an opportunity to thrive.

The comedy side was an attempt to address the other side of incarceration, in these environments energy and morale is sapped from the students and this impacts on motivation and behaviour. I’ve found that the silliness of improv helps to cut through that sense of ennui, meaning that the students are happier, work harder and are more empathetic to the concerns of others.

What advice would you have for incoming students?

Go outside of your comfort zone, you never know what you are capable of.  Some of my best experiences in LBS have been when I have pushed myself to do something new and different. There are so many opportunities at LBS to push yourself and to give back, you’ll be surprised at how much you enjoy it.

And finally, David tell us a joke.

I bought my wife an elephant for the room,

She said thank you

I said don't mention it

To find out more or get involved in partnering with programme, contact David: Djones.mba2020@london.edu