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Hometown actor/comedian helps prison inmates to prepare for their second act

Courtesy of Cognitive Behavioral Theater

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – While Dominic Syracuse is currently preparing to record his live stand-up comedy show here in Cheyenne, at the Historic Atlas Theater, on March 6th, that doesn’t mean he isn’t too busy to work on his other passion:

Using his talents to empower people who are currently incarcerated by combining the principles of acting and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Syracuse, who is currently based out of Los Angeles, is not your typical performer. He is a jack-of-all-trades artist whose journey to becoming a standup comic didn’t happen all at once. His crosscountry resume includes a stints of being in a band, working as a radio deejay, studying acting at both the Steppenwolf Company in Chicago and at the Stella Adler Acting and Theatre Academy in Los Angeles.

Syracuse says that he can’t remember a time in his life where acting wasn’t his passion.

“I remember seeing a picture of me where I was two years old, and I saw myself standing up on some sort of highrise. I asked my mom what I was doing in the photo and she told me that we just saw a movie and I reenacting my favorite parts. By the time I was in second grade my teachers wouldn’t even ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. They knew I wanted to be an actor.”

Syracuse said that he first became involved with his work of teaching acting to inmates while earning his master’s through Stella Adler Studio of Acting (in Los Angeles) in 2015.

“I heard about this outreach program that Stella Adler had where I could go help teach acting to prisoners and I knew right away that I wanted to do it,” Syracuse said.

He describes his involvement with the program as an opportunity that he “accidentally” fell into, but it was a something that clicked for him right away due to his own struggles with mental health.

“I had suffered from depression and massive anxiety for almost decade, where it had complete control over my life for a really long time. Which ultimately became a blessing in this work that I do now,” Syracuse said.

According to Syracuse, his involvement with the Stella Adler outreach program with prisoners came at the perfect crossroad in his life.

When reflecting on his first experience with working with inmates at Pitches Detention Center, a maximum Security prison in Los Angeles, Syracuse admits how incredibly nervous that he was.

“I tried not to be scared. I used my acting training to practice being as cool and collected as I possibly could. I walked into the jail as an intern with another guy who had been doing it for thirty years, and I remember having so many nerves. I took a deep breath and my lip started quivering uncontrollably. It was like having hypothermia,” Syracuse reflects.

As terrified as he was intially, however, the Cheyenne-raised actor found his footing quickly as he saw how the inmates connected to what they were being asked to do.

“From the second we started doing just warm up stretches and tongue-twisters, these guys started belting out with laughter. These men with tattoos on their faces were just laughing like children. It was amazing. I had been doing acting for so long at that point, that I was just trying to get through these warm ups to get to the fun stuff. But for them, just being able to stretch their arms in the air and laugh was this liberating experience,” Syracuse reflected.

Syracuse described in detail how the rest of the class unfolded and how profoundly it impacted him. He remembered that the theme of the day was “What does compassion mean to you?”, where the inmates had a chance to take on more dramatic activities. The activities offered the prisoners a chance tell part of their story to the group and Syracuse remembers that he could not believe the thing that he was hearing.

“It got really real, really fast,” Syracuse said. “Before that acting was just a chance for me to express myself and relish in attention. But when I started seeing what it was doing to these men, and how it gave them a chance to express themselves for the first time in their entire life. For a lot of these men the only expression they had was drug use or violence. They had never had the chance to talk about emotions or being vulnerable in any way.”

Courtesy of Cognitive Behavioral Theater

From that moment on, Syracuse was hooked and continued to volunteer at the program as much as he could.

After his time with the Stella Adler program came to an end, Syracuse began to volunteer at California Regional Detention Facility where his first project was to help the inmates put on a poetry night. The show gave a few of the incarcerated women a chance to share their stories with the entire population.

Syracuse said the entire evening was so powerful that afterwards the he felt a calling to continue the work of helping inmates tell their story.

“Right after that performance I knew what my mission was” Syracuse said with conviction. “A bad story has two-dimensional characters. You don’t want a character to be a “bad guy for just being a “bad guy”. What you want is a fully realized character that you can relate to. What I realized that in society we have made prisoners, and drug addicts and the homeless into two-dimensional characters. They are the “bad guys”. What you don’t realize that each of these prisoners is a human being that has a complex story that led them to where they are right now. I became obsessed with helping them tell their stories.”

Courtesy of Cognitive Behavioral Theater

From that initial show, Syracuse was asked and agreed to help take over an ongoing anger management and drug addiction program in the prison called “Back on Track” that inmates could take part in to help reduce their sentence. The program used the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) approach that had the goal of helping prisoners change patterns of thinking or behavior to help change the way that they feel.

Syracuse immediately saw the parallels between CBT and acting.

“This is acting 101. This is what acting is. It’s shifting your mindset and trying to walk in another person’s shoes,” Syracuse said.

The actor then went and applied the lessons he had learned in the craft of acting and applied it to CBT to create his own version of the program. Syracuse worked with the inmates by using acting techniques and improv to help them work through their emotions.

The positive results of his program were so immediate that Syracuse began to envision other situations were it could be implemented.

“What I realized is that this technique is so effective, that if it can work in prison, with people who dealing with their anxiety and depression in one of the hardest places to deal with those things, then it can help in any setting.”

Syracuse created his own program that uses acting and improv techniques that help people reduce stress, increase emotional intelligence, improve self-confidence, communication and creativity and vision building.

He calls his program “Cognitive Behavioral Theater”.

Syracuse has recently had his program approved by the National Anger Management Association. He has also partnered with a variety of other mental health organizations and school systems to allow for him to bring his approach to homeless shelters, public schools and rehab centers all throughout Los Angeles.

According to Syracuse a component of his Cognitive Behavioral Theater program also allows him to teach educators and counselors these acting and improv techniques that they can bring to their own clients and students that they serve in their communities.

Syracuse has recently launched a Gofundme campaign to help his program reach as many people as possible.

Our mission is to break the cycles of poverty, homelessness, and incarceration by empowering the individuals in those communities. Whether it is individuals battling homelessness, addiction, or re-entry from incarceration, CogB Theater offers a fun and engaging way to take control of your thoughts, reverse dangerous habits, and develop the skills needed to build positive, hopeful goals for the future,” the website of Cognitive Behavior Theater said.

If you would like to talk with Dominic Syracuse about his work with Cognitive Behavioral Theater you can catch him in two weeks when he comes to Cheyenne for his comedy show that he will be taping at the Historic Atlas Theatre.

Here are the details:

Dominic Syracuse LIVE Stand Up Comedy Taping

(Featuring Hannah Deleeuw) 

hosted by Blue Pig Presents

March 6th @ The Histotic Atlas Theatre (Located at 211 W Lincolnway)

7 p.m. will be an all ages show

9 p.m. is adults only

Ticket information and purchasing can found here.