Theater behind bars helps prisoners know themselves better

— Inside a dingy community room at the California Rehabilitation Center, the prisoners were segregated into two distinct populations.

Members from one group awaited their cue behind a “curtain” — an old bed sheet strung from the ceiling. The other group sat in folding chairs waiting to take the “stage.” All wore garish greasepaint to variously resemble mimes or clowns, Kabuki performers or horror movie antiheroes. And all had been kitted out with funny hats, prop glasses and fake mustaches to whimsical effect.

But their makeup served another purpose too: concealing an array of menacing facial and neck tattoos.

Tim Robbins leaned forward over a bongo drum, stroked his chin thoughtfully and began to address the burly crew behind the curtain.

“Do you have something to say?” Robbins asked. “That’s the important part. The big speech? What I’m asking for is extreme emotion. These are the words that your characters are all about.”

The Oscar-winner had come to this Norco facility with three members of the Los Angeles-based theater group he co-founded, the Actors’ Gang, to teach a workshop in improvisational theater. But their ultimate goal was as unlikely as the workshop’s medium-security prison setting: to help inmates gain a new understanding of themselves and relate better to others through acting instead of acting out — with violence.

Community outreach is as important to the Gang as staging productions. And the troupe has driven to Norco once a week for the past eight weeks (a cycle it repeats three or four times a year) to provide a crash course in commedia dell’arte, the ancient Italian theater form involving vivid pantomime, unscripted bursts of dialogue, masked or heavily made-up characters and minimal props.

If applying those ideas in a prison setting seems abstract, the reality is even more surreal. The group is a United Nations of intimidating convicts — African Americans, Latinos, Caucasians, Pacific Islanders and a self-described Lakota tribe member — attempting to enact sketch comedy-drama under adroit instructions from the star of " The Shawshank Redemption.

To hear it from Actors’ Gang prison project director Sabra Williams, most prisoners use the workshop as a kind of “talking cure,” achieving a kind of cathartic release from acting. “Stepping outside yourself brings you back to yourself,” Williams said. “It gives you more confidence to be what your true self is.”

Concurrent with wrapping up the workshop’s latest cycle on this Tuesday, the troupe has been in overdrive preparing for its ambitious new historical drama “Break the Whip.” Written and directed by Robbins and featuring Williams, a veteran of movies and television, in a starring role, the production is set to open Saturday at the Ivy Substation in Culver City.

“This group is interested in doing more than just appearing in theater,” Robbins said. “Part of our obligation as actors is to get beyond the self-indulgent ‘I want to be in the play, it’s all about me’ kind of thinking and understand what the larger picture is.”

Portraying characters they created for themselves — a “drunken doctor,” a hunchback, a virginal girl — the inmates’ goal was to illustrate a range of emotions: happiness, sadness, fear and anger. The men growled and shouted at one another, spouted gibberish, Crip walked and even burst into a falsetto rendition of “I Feel Pretty.” At times, though, the performances seemed close to crossing the line from actorly expression into bodily harm.

A hulking, wild-eyed prisoner with full arm tattoos who called himself “Captain Pantalone” began hectoring another inmate in character at one point, calling him “boy!” at top volume and convincingly threatening to “smash him.”

But the apparent tensions were diffused with instructions from Robbins — outfitted with a “panic button” that would put the prison in lockdown if pressed — who urged, “Let’s not go there.”

After several hours, the individual sketches congealed into a loose narrative, culminating with a group sketch: a wedding reception gone wrong that had everyone cracking up.

CRC officials say it is too soon to evaluate whether the Actors’ Gang prison project has had an impact on inmates’ recidivism rate and no quantitative studies have been conducted to determine if commedia dell’arte keeps people from returning behind bars in the long run. But Chief Deputy Warden Kevin Peters hailed the workshops’ “positive” effect, explaining they help prisoners better relate with others and often supplied anger management alternatives.

“They may be resistant in the beginning to let themselves go,” Peters said. “But what ends up happening is, they get into it and it helps them with all sorts of things: family life, the inside life, anger issues. Some of the reasons why they’re inside prison. It helps them get insight into themselves.”

Correctional Lt. Brian Davis added: “Before, if they would get angry, the only thing for them to do would be to act out.”

Prison administrators requested that inmates’ full names not be used in this article in an effort to ensure their safety in the CDC’s general population. So the prisoners identified themselves by first name (or nickname) in conjunction with a favorite movie: “Joseph ‘Batman,’ ” “Kool Aid ‘Sling Blade’ ” and “Chris ' The Godfather Part I.’ ”

“Mike ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?,’ ” who has been incarcerated for 51/2 years, acknowledged that prison was an unlikely place to foster personal growth. “This is not an environment that lends itself to branching out and getting to know people,” he said. “The more closed-in you are, the safer you are.”

Now finishing his second cycle with the Actors’ Gang, however, Mike sees its value as a means of creating greater unity, especially among different races.

“It broke down all those barriers,” Mike said. “It changed the way I started looking at the world around me — because this is my world. I tried to be more tolerant and to understand, ‘Hey, this person I don’t like right now may become my friend later.’ It took this for me to understand. [My experience] was negative until I got here.”

Having produced prison-set theatrical productions in her native U.K. with the English Shakespeare Company, Williams pitched Robbins on a similar project involving commedia dell’arte — which the Actors’ Gang practices every week — in 2006. She won his enthusiastic approval and launched the project the following year.

This summer, the Gang received a $20,000 grant from Chase Community Giving to fund the program. But now, the theater workshop finds itself in a unique position: Because of a $20-billion state budget shortfall projected to last through 2011, all Arts and Corrections programs have seen their funding eliminated this year. And the troupe’s volunteer-staffed program is the last arts project operating within the California penal system.

Williams’ ideal outcome would be to land funding to spread commedia dell’arte workshops to every prison in the state.

“It’s so cheap — especially compared to warehousing people,” Williams said. “If they could just give us some money, if I could just pay people a little bit, buy the makeup and pay for gas, that’s all we need.”

She paused to reflect on the value it has added to her life: “To come in here with guys considered the dregs of society, to see them to change their lives? What else is there? I’m inspired as an artist and a human being. It’s my privilege to be here.”