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Rehearsals for ‘Getting Out’ Go Inside for Firsthand Look : Actors Learn From Frontera Inmates About Life’s Intricacies on Both Sides of Barbed Wire

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Outside a classroom window, a breeze swept past trees across a lawn and over the adjacent road to a distant cornfield. Between the lawn and the cornstalks, however, was a high fence, surveyed by patrol towers and topped by ominous, thickly wound barbed wire.

At the California Institution for Women, Frontera in San Bernardino County, everything past the barbed wire is called “the outside world.” This day, that world penetrated the confines of the state’s largest women’s prison with a visit from director Joel Asher and cast members of his production of Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out” (opening Friday at the Burbage Theatre).

“We’ll have to turn off one of the fans so we can hear the actors,” teacher Lee Brandon announced to the inmates/students in his literature class. Eighty percent of them, said a student, are lifers, some without possibility of parole.

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Turning off the fan meant less relief from the heat, but no one complained--not when it meant being able to hear singer-songwriter Carole King as ex-con Ruby. Or Pamela Harris as new parolee Arline, or Laurie Lathem as Arlie, Arline’s younger, delinquent self. They enacted a scene in which Arline meets Ruby while Arlie recounts her vengeful glee at killing some frogs.

Asher reminded the class that the cast was still in rehearsal, and that “one of the reasons we’re here isn’t to put on a show, but to hear your comments and criticisms.”

The “Getting Out” team got what they came for.

“See Arlie’s feistiness?” a red-headed woman said to Harris and pointing to Lathem. “It’s what would get her through eight years of time. You have to show that.”

A classmate next to her was even more specific: “When Ruby touches you (Arline), you’re not showing me what a woman just out (of prison) would be, and that’s suspicious. You have to flinch at her touch, with your body saying, ‘Don’t mess with me.’ ”

Clearly, the scene did trigger deep feelings in the women about the complexities of life on both sides of the barbed wire.

A woman in a long, flowered dress: “I’ve been outside, and the first few days go by so fast, you don’t know where you’re going.” Said another about a parolee’s re-discovery of personal freedom: “What gets you confused is making a choice. I look at a catalogue, and I can’t make up my mind.”

Asher’s company gave some students the chance to improvise off the scene they had just seen. Later, other students read a scene that explores Arlie’s history of child abuse. The woman in the flowered dress noted that “nearly everyone in the class received some kind of abuse when they were a child.”

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Frontera, according to prison officials, was designed for 926 inmates and currently houses 2,300. The crowding plus the heat can create an explosive situation: Just 24 hours before, a disturbance necessitated a prison-wide lock-down.

“It’s an escape,” officials and students repeatedly said of Brandon’s literature class. “And the women you see in this building (housing academic and occupational training classes) have a goal in life,” another inmate said, “to improve themselves--even if they never get out.”

The extra bonus this day was Carole King’s presence. She tuned up her electric guitar, apologized for her voice (“I’m getting over laryngitis”) and swung into a rocking tune from her upcoming album and a sing-along version of “You’ve Got a Friend.”

Later, when King, Harris and Lathem re-enacted their scene, the class applauded, commenting on how it had improved.

“You’re natural directors,” King said after a student noted Norman’s tiered language.

“Of course,” the woman said. “You watch people all day here. You learn human behavior. What else can you do?”

When Carole King talks about her return as an actress, her listener does a double-take.

It seemed that King, 46, was a born songwriter, singing her way into pop music history with the album, “Tapestry,” which ushered in the era of soft rock.

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When King was a student at New York’s legendary High School for the Performing Arts, she was there for drama.

“I think a lot of that came from my mother,” King said in her manager’s West Los Angeles office. “She was an actress who did all kinds of theater. Even now, she is active in the stage in southern Florida, where she lives.”

She pointedly remarked how she is just one part of the “Getting Out” ensemble: “Ruby doesn’t even come on until the second act.” She is also acutely aware of wags who might sniff that this is another “Madonna phenomenon”--referring to Madonna’s recent co-starring role in David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow.” “I’ve been working very hard at this--although work is really the wrong word for something you love to do.”

Besides the new show, her first in Los Angeles, King has been seen in two films, “Russkies” and “Murphy’s Romance,” and was the lead in an off-off-Broadway staging of Hindi Brooks’ “A Minor Incident.”

Hardly the shy recluse her reputation suggests (both from her music and her reluctance for interviews), King revealed a gregarious, assertive side that is pure Brooklyn--her hometown.

“Stage acting,” she said, “runs on rhythms. We were having problems with a scene the other day, and I started thinking in a musical rhythm with Norman’s language. Her writing allows for that. It just came together. Whether it’s my words or a playwright’s, I feel like I’m a flute for those words.”

But how did King get from the recording studio back to the stage?

“ ‘Minor Incident’ was one of those things that came along, and it helped bring more work. I got very fired up from the theater.

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“I called on a casting notice for ‘Getting Out.’ (Director) Joel (Asher) was very skeptical at first: ‘Who does she think she is?’ ” King said with an ironic smirk.

“I read for him, and he said, ‘Ve-e-ery nice,’ which alone was validating. But, I had to wait a week before I got the word.”

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