Actors’ Gang Goes To Prison

actors' gang logoWalking into Walden House off of McArthur Park in downtown Los Angeles, can be a slightly unnerving moment.  It’s a discomforting environment, lots of tough looking guys milling about, tattoos, all a bit of trigger for me.

Living in a free world, it’s readily apparent that this environment is not just a social service program, but it’s a half-way house, half way between prison and the real world. A residential program right on the edge of crack central.

I didn’t know anyone there, nor did I grasp what I wanted to accomplish, other than I had been invited to be a part of the audience for a final presentation of a group workshop taught by members of The Actor’s Gang. I had been in touch with Sabra Williams, the Director of Engagement and The Prison Project, after I’d learned that she had been named a Champion of Change by President Obama. She invited me to see the work.

Actors Gang
(Photo: Bob Turton)

I was running a bit late, and was shown the way to a large activity room. On stage there were about a dozen men, all appearing to fit into what one might stereo typically call “prison types.” The difference, was that they were all in some variation of white face or had on masques. In the front row of the audience were several people that I assumed were the facilitators, one of which was beating out a rhythm on a drum.

As a scene started, there was a general swirl of motion on the stage, as various members of the cast began circling in a counter clockwise motion, all giving some very specific eye contact to other cast members and ritually keeping face front to the audience when passing down stage. It was readily apparent that this was a standard entrance, and what followed was breath taking.

I had once spent a few days in jail, and my recollection of interaction with fellow inmates was not a really pleasant one. Nothing untoward, just hostile, non-connecting, all driven by an underlying sense of fear. But on this stage, within seconds, I witnessed these students, or recently released inmates transported, to vital communicative performers.  I was experiencing a level of contact between these performers and audience that I seldom see on any stage. No they weren’t polished, with years of moment training and technique study, but the core connections with both fellow cast and audience was so profound so moving that it was that story that was important.

For the next hour, I was enthralled, I wanted to jump up and be a part of what I was watching. There were swirls of motion and a facilitator would call out, and everyone would freeze. Whatever their intent each performer had for that moment, they froze and held in posture and attitude. An individual would be called, “What are you feeling?”, “What’,s you goal?”. “Try that again!” Frankly it didn’t matter what was being called, nor do I have a clear memory what was called, other than it immediately produced a change, an adjustment from whomever was being addressed.

Toward the end of the performance, each actor spoke of what they had discovered about themselves while participating in this workshop, what their hopes were and how they saw this work as operatives in their lives. None spoke with stars in their eyes and visions of acting careers. All spoke of better listing, deeper caring and a vocabulary that didn’t speak with just anger.

Actors Gang
(Photo: Peter Merts)

So what was this about? While I certainly recognized many elements of my studies in theatre while watching the performance. I had come in prepared to see inmates “acting”. What I found were men growing, transcending what they had learned to become which had put them in prison, and moving through to a maturation in a program that they had participated in for eight weeks. A lifetime of experience affected by eight weeks.

Don’t get me wrong, this was not watching therapy in process, this was entertaining imaginative theatre. Laughs and tears, reflection and applause. A show that was worthy of performance anywhere. I needed more, I wanted to know what this was, how it worked, anything that would help me understand and more importantly allow me the experience again.

Some exploration on this was due. Sabra sat down with me to go over the program, the impetus, the process and some of the results that have been tabulate in the 10-year-old program. This is a unique program, in that there is limited technique taught, not the full on board Alexander Technique and elocution… and careful application of challenge to the students. One of the crucial steps is helping each participant to work with four essential emotions. Happy, Sad, Anger and Fear. Most people in prison have learned to live their lives in anger. It would be difficult to argue that for many, it was a result of anger or an effort to assuage anger that crimes are committed.

Getting to that understanding, and then getting students to actuate that awareness is reached through theatre games. The only requirement for participation is an agreement to leave baggage outside of the class. The result is that while prison is in most cases a very segregated society, the Actor’s Gang Prison project has a very integrated program. Members from multiple gangs, from different races, all work together to establish the communication skills necessary for these shows. The result is that even in the prison yard, a bleak grey seemingly hostile environment, Crips are talking to and working with Bloods and Northies and Aryan’s. Working on exercises and projects developed in class. Hostile competition is turned to creative cooperation.

The program is about to enter into its eleventh year. What started as a four-week class in a local prison, is now an eight-week program in what is likely to be 11 or more facilities in 2017. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation the recidivism for participants is only 10.6%. As this only covers the 800 or so prisoners that have gone through the program to date, it can’t be used in direct contrast to the historic average. But that is an amazingly low number. While the numbers are still somewhat anecdotal, more will be discover as by February there may be as many as 250 additional students participating in the project.

So, how did a theatre company, The Actors’ Gang, an amalgamation and residue of 1981 graduates of UCLA Theatre, evolve into this? What did that involve, and where are they going? In coming months, we will look at some of the people and projects ongoing that make up one of the most exciting companies currently in American Theatre.

About Peter Finlayson

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Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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