The Actors Gang is Tim Robbins’ experimental theater company. It’s based in Culver City, where the troupe recently mounted a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
But the Actors Gang also spends a lot of time in local correctional facilities, where it teaches improvisational theater techniques — they look a little bit like Commedia dell'arte — to inmates.
The idea is that by hiding their identity, often through makeup, the inmates can somehow reveal themselves. As the Actors Gang puts it, that can "unlock human potential in the interest of effective rehabilitation."
On a recent morning at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, a group of prisoners were preparing for rehearsal. Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder had been invited to experience an Actors Gang Prison Project, but he hadn't arrived yet.
The prisoners had meditated. They had done vocal exercises. Sabra Williams, an actor who runs the Prison Project, was directing the group — sort of.
"Whatever might be stopping you, it's not important enough," Williams said. "Put it in that river beside you, let it float downstream, and dig in!"
The warmups looked a lot like what you'd see in a college theater class: the students lock eyes, laugh in unison, move in slow motion. Williams sat the actor-prisoners down and asked each to share his story.
"I'd like to be remembered as somebody who was a contributor. And who was not a taker," said Christopher Bisbano. "I was a taker most of my life, and now at this point I want to give back. And it feels like I've found my purpose here, in this program."
Bisbano has been incarcerated for 17 years and in the Prison Project for four. He’s even started his own theater program, modeled after the Actors Gang process.
"I get a front row view to watching these big bad asses — if I can say that — want to play women, and get into character as women," Bisbano said. "When they get fully engaged, it breaks them down. And it's helped a lot of men realize that their self-worth still is intact — and that they still are human beings."
Michael Dunn has been in the program for just four months but said he's already found practical applications in the prison. In the past, if another inmate, say, stepped on his foot, he would "jump in their face and threaten them in a physical manner," Dunn said.
"But now I'm able to not only control my reactions, but respond in a more healthier way. It definitely makes things easier in here, because in prison you deal with an assortment of different personalities and with this, this kind of work kind of anchors me," he said.
"It gets them in touch with how they have control over their emotional choices," said actor Tim Robbins, the artistic director for the program. "Through improvisation and through theater exercises they discover that they can make a choice. They can choose whether to be angry, or sad, or happy, or fearful. If one character comes on stage approaching another character in an improvisation in a state of anger, we encourage the other player to respond in a state of emotion other than anger."
At last Holder arrived.
"We have to really ask ourselves new questions all the time: are we doing the right thing by the people who are incarcerated? And the larger question: are we doing the right things by our nation?" Holder said before the program.
"If we simply warehouse people and forget them, put them back in situations from which they came without any kind of intervention — why would we expect a different result?" Holder said.
The federal criminal justice system is looking for creative ways to educate and rehabilitate prisoners in hopes to reduce recidivism, said Holder. So — to that end — does the Prison Project work?
Cynthia Tampkins, the warden at NORCO, acknowledged there's no research on the program's effectiveness outside prison. But on the inside, she said, the change is remarkable. "If you look at the outcome from the inmates being in this program, the disciplinary rule violations have been reduced, there's better behavior in the dorms," she said. "My director said it best: you launch how you fly."
After the performance was over, the VIPs filed out. The inmates went to wash off their makeup and then walked, single file, back to their cells.