Strindberg Laboratory teaches craft inside maximum-security prison

Story and photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications

(Editor’s note: Some websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer.)

Video link: Watch a Strindberg Laboratory video of “Redemption in our State of Blues” at https://vimeo.com/165714981.

Staff, inmates and artists at California State Prison-Los Angeles County (LAC) are stepping outside the box and onto the stage when it comes to offender rehabilitation by offering an innovative program one would not expect to see inside a maximum-security prison.

For a year, Michael Bierman and Meri Pakarinen, founders of The Strindberg Laboratory, a nonprofit theater arts organization located in Los Angeles, have brought their craft inside LAC to share with inmates. It’s possible through Arts-in-Corrections (AIC), a partnership of CDCR and the California Arts Council that funds structured arts programming inside California prisons. The program, brought back as a pilot in 2014, has shown so much early success that CDCR’s 2016-17 budget includes a $4 million increase in funding – enough to expand AIC to every single adult institution in California. This includes the return of Strindberg to LAC for a second year to inspire even more therapeutic creativity.

“It’s about time that I showed myself, society and my family I’m ready to go home and I’m ready to be the person I should have been a long, long time ago,” said Charles Baker, an inmate at LAC show who took part in the first round of Strindberg courses. “To be on the ground floor of something that is being looked at from the street level, from the administration, from Sacramento – those who make the decisions about what goes on here – is really important to us.”

This spring, LAC hosted two performances of “Redemption in our State of Blues,” a selection of scenes written by men involved in the program. The shows were the culmination of months of hard work by inmates who for the most part had no theater experience whatsoever, and who, to a man, had to learn how to be comfortable sharing their deepest emotions.

“Working with people who have had no experience working with someone on the outside for a long time is really hard, and especially when they’re in this environment it’s hard for them to stay focused,” said Bierman, reflecting on his first classes at LAC. “I don’t know how they did it, to be honest. I don’t know if I could. It was a really remarkable thing, them getting together.”

In the months leading up to their performances, men in the program worked closely with Bierman and Pakarinen, learning not just theater techniques like blocking and line memorization, but also working through past experiences to pen hard-hitting pieces about their life journeys.

The men involved in the program agreed one of the biggest obstacles to overcome was racial barriers, as “prison politics” often come into play in a Level IV facility. In watching “Redemption,” however, it is apparent those barriers have been broken down inside the gym, and they are spreading to the rest of the institution.

“We don’t bring the yard in here,” Baker said. “It’s very diverse in here. Individuals have gotten tight, whereas if we were out there on the yard, we might never had had any conversation or interaction with each other. Here, not only do we do that, but we look forwarding to hanging out with each other. And not only do we hang out with each other here, but we might walk a lap or two together on the yard.”

Gabriel Venegas agrees with Baker: “Once you get to know them individually, it’s not that hard,” he said. “I got to know him, and I like him. He’s cool, he’s someone I could kick it with on the streets. Just because we’re in here, why do we have to be separated?”

As the doors opened for the performance, another diverse group of people entered the gym. Outside guests, LAC staff and other inmates filed in, curious as to just what they were going to see. Instead of a typical theater performance, the show began at the door, where Donald Hook presented an energetic spoken-word piece. As the audience members took their seats, the show began, interweaving original music with autobiographical scenes, from humorous looks at life on the street to gut-wrenching memories of violence, betrayal and loss.

Anthony Gonzales shared how Bierman and Pakarinen taught him not just about acting, but also about opening up emotionally and realizing that putting aside stereotypes and shedding negative actions is one of the bravest things a man can do.

“If you’ve got the courage, hypothetically, to go rob a person, why don’t you have the courage to stand up and speak your mind about something positive?” he asked. “If you’ve got the courage to go try to beat someone up or sell drugs, then why can’t you be a man and try to voice your opinion?”

Bierman and Pakarinen are no strangers to working with inexperienced actors and people serving time. They started Strindberg Laboratory six years ago, and both have been lifelong actors. After discovering their shared interest in criminal justice, the couple partnered with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to open their first theater program, in a wing at Men’s Central Jail designated for gay and transgender inmates. Pakarinen also has experience working with at-risk children in Helsinki, where she ran a theater department providing underserved youth with a creative outlet and a positive way to spend free time.

Despite his students’ lack of experience, Bierman is quick to point out how talented every man is in the LAC program.

“Our main motivator is to create high-quality art and that’s something that I learned working with this population – they are so talented,” he said. “We’re not philanthropists, we’re not do-gooders, we’re artists and we could probably get hired at other places besides where we work to do what we do, but we want to work with this population because they’re extremely talented.”

Today, in addition to their work at LAC, they also run Jails for Jobs, a Strindberg program made up entirely of former offenders. Their “Break it to Make it” program is a collaboration of Strindberg, Los Angeles City College, Los Angeles Mission and LAC that works to build bridges between educational organizations, community service groups and the criminal justice system to assist the formerly incarcerated in transitioning home. In addition to performing in theater productions, ex-offenders are also paid to teach theater classes to local community organizations.

“People on the street look at us as being condemned, or we’re animals, but we’re not – we’re human beings,” said James Frierson, who joined the program at LAC to learn how to express himself in a positive way. “This program helps me now, and when I get back to society I will know how to deal with something if something goes wrong. I don’t have to fight people now. I can talk my way out of something. That’s why I like the program.”

That’s the ultimate goal: For the healing power of theater to follow offenders from inside prison into the community, and for the skills and creativity fostered onstage and backstage to be a permanent part of their lives.

“Michael called us ambassadors one day,” said David Rodriguez. “I looked it up; a definition of the word says we’re messengers, basically. We’re delivering a message for humanity.”