Stanford Prison Experiment: The Musical

Download the libretto for Stanford Prison Experiment: The Musical

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So what exactly is Stanford Prison Experiment: The Musical?

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s landmark Stanford Prison Experiment, we are releasing this musical retelling and interpretation of the events that took place August 15-20, 1971.

Stanford Prison Experiment: The Musical (SPE:TM) is the core of a libretto for a mini-musical, with new lyrics that are written to music from popular songs that would have been broadcast over radio during the actual events of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Two of the selected songs were chart-toppers from earlier years, while the remaining were “Top 40” singles during that specific week.

(We’ve assembled a playlist of those popular songs, so you can listen to them in their original form — or sing along with the new lyrics from SPE:TM)

The 10-song story-arc of SPE:TM begins with well-intentioned, scientific curiosity from Phil, who is seeking insight into the causation and prevention of a troubling social phenomenon.  Christina appears as the voice of caution, initially quietly but eventually forcefully when drastic intervention becomes needed.  However, the focus, build, and climax of the storyline is around the prisoners and guards – in particular, the “John Wayne” guard, an everyman antihero whose rise, fall, and remorse could befall anyone.

In the light of the 50th anniversary of the Stanford Prison Experiment, perhaps its lessons can encourage us: to be wary of blanket assessments, convenient characterizations and simplistic solutions to complex problems; to maintain conscious resistance against getting “lost in a role”; and to seek the truth and wisdom of “the other side” as we pursue shared objectives for desperately needed systemic change in our society.

If you’d like to know more or to be part of making Stanford Prison Experiment: The Musical happen in some form or other, please feel free to email the project via SPE-TM (at) SugarCreekSolutions (dot) com

A message from Dr. Philip Zimbardo

There is something about songs, about setting words against rhythm and melody that helps us to remember and internalize the message. Songs have “staying power” in our minds because they speak into our hearts as well as to our beliefs.

That is what excites me about Stanford Prison Experiment: The Musical.

This series of songs retells the story of what happened in August 1971, down in a psychology department basement, in a way that is memorable, evocative, and inviting of further inquiry. While the words are new, the music itself comes from songs that were playing on the radio during the week our experiment was taking place – a reminder of how popular culture both reflects and shapes a society’s collective wisdom.

Stanford Prison Experiment: The Musical is a brilliant, creative vision for welcoming a new contemporary audience to explore how situational forces can have a powerful influence over the behavior of individuals, often beginning with someone simply getting “lost in playing his or her assigned role”.

I look forward to multiple interpretations and productions of this masterpiece as part of the discussion of where we want our society to go collectively and how best to get there.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo

History of the Stanford Prison Experiment

This was the original classified advertisement that solicited volunteer prisoners and guards.
(Note that August 14th was when the “guards” received their orientation and uniforms; the actual experiment, starting with the “arrests” of the “prisoners”, began on August 15th.)

The Stanford prison experiment (SPE) was a social-psychology experiment that attempted to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison officers. It was conducted at Stanford University for six days, August 15–20, 1971, by a research group of college students led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. In the study, volunteers were assigned to be either “guards” or “prisoners” (by the flip of a coin) in a mock prison, with Zimbardo himself serving as the superintendent. Several “prisoners” left mid-experiment, and the whole experiment was abandoned after six days. Early reports on experimental results claimed that students quickly embraced their assigned roles, with some guards enforcing authoritarian measures and ultimately subjecting some prisoners to psychological torture, while many prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, by the officers’ requests, actively harassed other prisoners who tried to stop it. [from Wikipedia]

Detailed information (including backstory, timeline, and pictures) can be found on the Stanford Prison Experiment website.

History of Stanford Prison Experiment: The Musical

In the spring of 2015, the pre-release publicity of a feature-length, cinematic dramatization renewed general interest in the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE).  Knowing that I had written many song parodies – new lyrics to familiar music – on a range of topics over the years, a friend challenged me to write one such song about the SPE.  I then began some research to refresh my vague recollection of the event.

I encountered the many cautionary themes that are commonly extracted from the Stanford Prison Experiment: man’s capacity for inhumanity to man, savagery lurking just beneath a veneer of civilization, the corrupting nature of power.  While I recognized their relevance, I didn’t find them to be particularly unique or insightful, as these are found widely throughout literature and history.  Similarly, the SPE seemed to supply more illustration than illumination on the issue of bullying, examples of which already abound in everyday life.

Contemplating how SPE participants became “caught up in a role”, I recalled that organized sports were historically understood as disciplined pursuit of excellence both in athleticism and in character, with competitors serving as “complementary teammates” to work together towards those ends, all within a spirit of play and of fun.  However, as unilateral winning eclipses bilateral excellence and fun, competitors can be recast as enemies, and surrogate battles can degenerate into actual physical violence among players, spectators, and officials.

Further insight came from polarity-thinking: recognizing that there often is truth and wisdom on more than one side of a complex issue, and that the greater good of a bigger picture depends upon complementary contributions from each side.  A prison (including SPE) has complementary needs: both respect and safety for the guards (and for the authority and order that they represent); and respect and safety for the prisoners (and for the humanity that they represent).  Emphasizing one side to the detriment of the other is counterproductive toward the bigger-picture objectives, which ostensibly include someday restoring rehabilitated prisoners back into society as functional members.

When participants (or advocates) in a polarity become too invested in “their side”, “their cause”, their role, each side then views the other as the enemy in an either-or, win-lose battle.  Imbalance (real or perceived) on one side often triggers over-compensatory imbalance from another side, and so forth.  In the SPE, volunteer prisoners initially took their roles and situation less seriously than did the volunteer guards.  The guards responded harshly, the prisoners responded to that response, and the cycle escalated destructively as the roles (particularly those of the guards) eclipsed the larger objectives – and the means became the ends.

I began to wonder what social phenomena – even those as subtle as poor sportsmanship – might influence individuals and make it easier for them to get “lost in a role”, easier for polarities to become destructive instead of constructive.  Might these eventually escalate tribalism, impasse, and outrage in complex social issues, causing difficult situations to become intractable and unstable situations to become dangerous?

Suddenly, the implications and applications of what transpired in August of 1971 caught my imagination.  What began as an impulsive lark became serious inquiry, then a full-blown project.  Eventually, I wrote not one song parody, but ten, which together outlined the events of the Stanford Prison Experiment in music.

Present status of Stanford Prison Experiment: The Musical

The present version of SPE:TM includes only the lyrics to the songs, the names of the characters singing each section, and minimal staging directions.  This forms a core of creative material that could be adapted and expanded in several different directions with varying degrees of supplemental material.

  • A film (documentary or dramatization) could utilize one or more songs “as-is” in the soundtrack, where/when they could enhance the effectiveness and impact of the storytelling.
  • A radio play (or podcast) could utilize the libretto along with expository narration as an introduction and between scenes.  Spoken interstitial dialogue (perhaps ad lib) could “book-end” songs within scenes, along with sound-effects to suggest what is happening physically.
  • A modest stage production (such as by community-theatre, college, or high-school ensembles) could build upon the radio play, while adding substantial block/staging directions as appropriate to the size and sophistication of the sets and costuming to be used in that particular production.
    • Such a production could be an interdisciplinary, project-based collaboration of a university’s Drama/Theatre, Music, Dance, Psychology, Sociology, and possibly even Athletic departments.
  • A more elaborate stage or film production would require extensive narration, exposition, and interstitial dialogue – especially to expand the material to a more traditional duration, and/or to include additional storylines or subplots – as part of a complete stage play or screenplay.

The preparation and premiere of any (or variations) of the above might be interesting to document on film. Eventually, SPE:TM can mature into something that is easily adaptable by a wide range of skill-levels for a wide range of audiences.  This may require a resource for coordinating, navigating, and facilitating creative-content rights and licensing while maximizing accessibility and outreach of the material.

If you’d like to know more or to be part of making Stanford Prison Experiment: The Musical happen in some form or other, please feel free to email the project via SPE-TM (at) SugarCreekSolutions (dot) com