Hollywood troupe leads acting workshop for state prisoners

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Steven Cuevas/KPCC

Prison inmates in character during an acting workshop hosted by the Actors' Gang troupe at California Rehabilitation Center, a medium Level II correctional facility in Norco, Calif.

Actor Tim Robbins is no stranger to prisons. He played an innocent man convicted of murder in “The Shawshank Redemption.” He was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for “Dead Man Walking” — a film about a death row inmate.

Now Tim Robbins is behind bars again — but this time, with a theatre troupe leading one of the last arts rehabilitation programs in California prisons.

About two-dozen inmates — some with menacing tattoos etched into their necks and faces — trickle into a spacious prison rec room. These guys usually cut a wide path around each other to avoid conflict. But in here, they share jokes, gossip — and even share makeup tips.

They gingerly apply thick, colored layers of the stuff. Tattoos vanish; so do gang identifiers. The only gang they’re in for the next five hours or so is the Actors' Gang — a theatre troupe co-founded by Tim Robbins.

“OK, so let’s take a moment," he says. "We’re gonna think about everything, the whole body…”

To qualify for the eight-week course, an inmate must have a clean disciplinary record. Formal acting experience is not required.

“The only performance I did was doing a robbery, telling everybody to put their hands up.”

That’s David, now serving 17 years for that robbery. The prison asked us to use first names only.

“Everyone, everyone out there is acting. Everyone’s putting up a front. That’s why I like coming in here. Coming in here is pulling down that front that’s put up on the yard.”

For today’s Actors’ Gang workshop, each inmate has adopted a new persona — a flamboyant pantomime based on a 16th century European acting school. Once in character, the inmates split into groups. A white bed sheet strung across the ceiling splits the rec room into a stage — and a backstage. The visiting actors coach the inmates through warm-up improvisations.

A narrative gradually coalesces around the travails of pregnant woman — boldly played by a stocky male inmate in drag.

“When we do workshop," says Actors’ Gang prison project director Sabra Williams, "there’s never a script because all the improvisation that happens comes out of one of four states; happy, angry, sad or afraid. And when you trust that, emotion naturally comes out of that.”

Williams modeled the course on work she did with prisoners in England.

“They don’t have the edit a lot of actors have; these guys have a direct brain-to-mouth with no edit. You know, stream of consciousness stuff. It’s awesome!”

If it’s rich or refined stars you want, look elsewhere. These actors play it rough. The humor is coarse, the emotions raw and real.

Inmates are encouraged to plumb real emotions, and shed the mask they think they need to survive in the off-stage world. If they dig too deep into actual rage, the visiting actors gently draw them back. It’s a transformative experience for hardened inmates like Coleman.

“There was a time when I would get handcuffed, it was a badge of honor! As you’re walking in handcuffs, you’re looking at everybody who’s looking at you to see what they’re thinking ‘cause you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna whup your ass when I get back — and you, too!’"

"But for the first time, I was ashamed. I don’t never wanna be in ‘cuffs no more and it felt degrading, ‘cause I’m trying to repair myself, and I’m thankful for what this class has shown,” Coleman says.

The class nearly saw its final curtain last year after California axed funding for its Arts-in-Corrections program. But Tim Robbins told Norco prison officials the show could go on. The gang now covers expenses out of its own pocket — and some private donations.

“We don’t need any funding from California,” Robbins says. “I wish people had more of wider vision on how important it is to view incarcerated inmates as potentially functioning valuable members of society."

"That’s possible. It’s not possible if you take away rehabilitation, if you just view them as the detritus of society. I believe everyone is capable of transcending their past sins and past crimes and finding a way to a more productive future,” Robbins says

The Actors’ Gang prison project is continuing at Norco. Robbins and the rest of the theatre troupe say they hope to bring acting workshops to other California prisons soon.

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