Actors’ Gang Prison Projects bring theater to inmates

Story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Photos by Jeff Baur, CDCR TV Specialist
Office of Public and Employee Communications

What would you do if Tim Robbins handed you an imaginary ice cream cone?

For M. Hassan, an inmate at the California Institution for Women, the answer is simple: You “eat” it, and demand more.

Hassan is part of The Actors’ Gang Prison Project, an ensemble of female inmates who are healing through theater arts at CIW. Each week, professional actors from The Actors’ Gang, founded by Robbins, come to CIW to help women express themselves and form strong bonds with one another.

“It doesn’t feel like any sort of performance or anything,” Hassan said. “It feels like play, and I think that’s what makes it so healing.”

During a recent workshop, women in the program said their work with an audience of actors, visitors, prison staff and fellow inmates. Rather than “putting on a show,” women in the Prison Project work in the medium of Commedia dell’arte, a 16th-century improvisational form of theater based around a group of stock characters (including a hungry baby, hence Hassan’s ice cream cone). The actors go through a range of four emotions – anger, fear, sadness and happiness – from the lowest of depressions to ecstatic joy.

“I have to commend the Actors’ Gang,” said CIW Warden Kimberly Hughes. “They come in here, and they dedicate their time, and they give their whole heart to this work. I think it’s extremely beneficial in prisons. Anything I can do that is positive for them to help them stay out and be successful in society – I’m all for it.”

In addition to CIW, the program is offered at California Rehabilitation Center, California Institution for Men and California State Prison-Los Angeles County, with plans to expand to three more prisons within a year. Now in its 10th year, the project was funded entirely through donations until the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the California Arts Council revived Arts-in-Corrections funding two years ago.

“It fills me with joy to see the work itself,” Robbins said. “To see someone transform in front of your eyes is pretty inspiring — to see men and women go from being withdrawn to open and sharing and showing leadership qualities.”

For the women involved, the program provides not only a positive way to express themselves, but also an opportunity to connect with one other and get in touch with their deepest emotions.

“Coming in here makes me feel like I’m me again,” said Terri Lynn Scrape, now in her third session of the program. “It’s the greatest gift I could ever get. I feel like me. It’s not like I feel like I’m something else or someone else, and it’s not about the character — it’s really about just accessing myself.”

Donna Jo Thorndale of The Actors’ Gang, who leads the program at CIW, noted that while having a good time is definitely part of the project, it’s also absolutely terrifying for participants to delve so deep. Many try to leave during their first class, and it’s up to the rest of the ensemble and volunteers to encourage them and help them find their strength.

“They’re really calling on their bravery to be witnessed and seen and to share,” Thorndale said. “I think it’s probably like childbirth – they’re scared to do it, but they know they have to, and they want to, and afterward the result is so good.”

Sequarier McCoy said the hardest part of the program for her, at first, was becoming comfortable talking about her emotions. She’ll talk your ear off, she laughed, but when it comes to feelings, she had long ago learned to keep a poker face. The skills she learned from The Actors’ Gang have helped her not only access her emotions in a healthy way, but also to be an effective, non-violent communicator.

“Had I had more understanding of my feelings and my emotions, and that I could be upset about something and it’s OK, it’s not the end of the world, I believe I wouldn’t be serving time right now,” McCoy said. “It’s not the end. It’s going to come and it’s going to go. Just receive it as it comes.”

During the workshop, the actors supported the ensemble wholeheartedly, offering suggestions and encouraging the women as they interacted. Even the audience was urged to get involved, reacting to the women’s emotions and sharing their thoughts afterward.

Sabra Williams, who founded The Prison Project, said events like the workshop at CIW are vital to demonstrating to stakeholders how important arts programs are. That’s why she and Robbins, in addition to their acting careers and extensive philanthropy, are also activists, spreading awareness of arts in corrections and education to lawmakers and even the White House.

“This work is not for decoration or entertainment,” Williams said. “This is extremely difficult inside work where you have to believe in yourself and hold a mirror up to yourself, and then you have to have the courage to actually change and use these tools in your emotional life.”

The arts, Robbins added, are essential to well-rounded rehabilitation that includes educational and vocational programs. Arts are vital to any community, he said, be it an elementary school, a neighborhood or, yes, a prison.

“In an ideal world, this kind of work will help all of us, because it’s really a public safety issue,” he said. “If people are unwilling to participate in rehabilitation programs, if people are unable to recognize their importance, it’s putting us more at risk. Why wouldn’t you want a person who was in prison to come out with better skills in dealing with disappointment, obstacles, unemployment? It seems to me that it’s in all of our interest to have vigorous rehabilitation programs.”