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Jail-born theater troupe uses Aristophanes to address addiction, recidivism

by Eric Zassenhaus | Take Two®

Christopher Simpson and the cast of "The Birds" get into character before a rehearsal on Thursday, June 11, 2015 at The Vortex in Skid Row. The production is put on by the Strindberg Laboratory, a non-profit that brings theater to people who have experienced homelessness, addiction or incarceration. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

A new play opening this weekend got its start at Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. Strindberg Laboratory's adaptation of Aristophanes' satire "The Birds" features a cast of nonprofessional actors, most of whom come from the shelters and recovery programs in downtown's Skid Row area.

The play opens, like the Greek original, with a couple castaways following a crow to the outskirts of the city, as they contemplate how to escape the confines of their society and the burdensome laws of the gods and man. They land on the idea of petitioning the bird king to work with them to create an aerial utopia immune to the worlds above and below them.

Strindberg's version follows its own trajectory, tracing the outline of the original but picking up pop culture references as well as personal experiences and additions from the cast, who spent five months of workshopping the piece.

Meri Pakarinan, who runs the program along with her partner and co-director Michael Bierman, said they were looking to do a classic, scripted play that would be a break from their last production "Hustlin." That play, which will be the subject of a documentary currently in the works — was drawn largely from the experiences of its cast-members.

"The Birds" took them in a somewhat different direction.

"It just had a lot of possibilities," said Pakarinan. "It's physical. It's satire. We can put it up to date. It allows a lot of creativity."

Drama born of LA's jail system

Strindberg has been working in L.A.'s jail system for years. Pakarinan said they started working with prisoners on the 9th floor of Men's Central, where the gay and transgender inmates are largely housed, as well as in the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood.

They began by rehearsing scenes from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," but the script quickly morphed as the prisoners added their own experiences to the performance.

"Juliet was an addict and the priest was a drug dealer," Pakarinan said, laughing. "It was like crazy, and we didn't give those suggestions to them. That came out of them."

That gave them the idea to let the prisoners begin interpreting the plays through their own experiences, an approach they brought to subsequent plays they performed in the jails, including one called "Love: A Life Sentence" and an earlier version of "The Birds."

In fact, several cast members were introduced to the program while they were in Men's Central, including 48-year-old Marshall May, who plays the bird king, and Lucas Taoatao, who created the costumes and makeup for the show.

After leaving the jail, May said he ran into Pakarinan and Bierman at the Volunteers of America drug counseling program he was attending, where they were leading an acting workshop.

"It was kind of serendipitous," he said. He was having difficulty staying clean after emerging onto Skid Row.

"It was scary," he said. "I smoked cocaine, crack. And when you see somebody on the street smoking crack five feet away from you and I have to kind of dodge the smoke [...] if I was to get a whiff of that... I'm not trying to go back to the ninth floor."

The play, May said, has helped him keep himself on track.

"It gives me a focus, it gives me something to look forward to," he said. "I'm not employed, right? This play gives me a sense of what it would be like to be responsible and committed to a job. I have a sense of obligation, responsibility. It's good for me. It's cathartic."

Performer Carrie Gazzaruso came from the same VOA program, where she'd been struggling to stay sober.

"I was in rehab along with Marshall and they had this acting class," she said. "It just changed our lives."

Gazzaruso was also featured in Strindberg's earlier play "Hustlin," where she enacted scenes from her days on the street. "I've had a tough life to say the least," she said.

Theater, not just therapy

Bierman and Pakarinan acknowledge that there is an element of therapy in their shows' process, but they bristle at the idea that self-help is Strindberg's central purpose.

"After 'Hustlin' people still said, 'Well, it was sort of therapeutic'. Which is great. It is therapeutic," said Bierman. "But this is really good theater." So we said, 'What do we need to do now?' We said 'Let's do something that they're not expecting. Let's do an old Greek play.'"

Pakarinan said working with nonprofessional actors completely changes the dynamic of the show.

"They have amazing instruments," she said. "The street has taught them more acting than any actor can ever teach you. They're natural."

The nonprofit will soon get a chance to expand on the vision. They're set to begin a similar program in L.A. County prisons in the coming months, thanks to a grant from the California Arts Council.

"The Birds" plays at the Sidewalk Studio Theatre in Burbank on Friday night at 7 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. You can reserve tickets online or by calling 213-265-6313.

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