NORCO, California – Fifteen men darted across the room, their faces slathered in greasepaint, reciting lines from “Tartuffe.” The stage, such as it was, was a low-ceilinged recreation room and the cast was a troupe of felons who had just stepped in from the dusty yard of the California Rehabilitation Center.
For four hours, they conducted workshops under the direction of the Actors’ Gang, an ensemble from Los Angeles, which goaded them into acting out emotions that could be put to use in the 17th-century Moliere farce about, appropriately enough, a con man working a swindle.
“Why are you angry?” Sabra Williams, the prison project director, demanded of the jostling lineup of actor-prisoners.
“They gave me too much time,” shouted one of the inmates, Ron Reiber, his face red and veins bulging.
“Now go to happy!” she said.
The room burst into giddy smiles and rubbery limbs from men in prison jumpsuits.
Two years ago, arts in corrections programs were a mainstay of prisons across the country, embraced by administrators as a way to channel aggression, break down racial barriers, teach social skills and prepare inmates for the outside world. There was an arts coordinator in each of the 33 California state prisons, overseeing a rich variety of theatre, painting and dance.
But these programs have become a fading memory, casualties of the budget crises that have overwhelmed state and local governments nationwide. Nowhere is that truer than here, where prisons are so overcrowded that the Supreme Court in May ordered the state to start releasing inmates.
“The artist facilitator – that position was eliminated,” said Violette Peters, who filled the role for four years at this medium-security prison in the desert, which, with 4,410 inmates, is at double its capacity. “So now I’m a corrections case analyst. I work in the records department, which has nothing to do with the arts programs.”
Only two prison arts programs are left in California, and both rely on volunteers and private contributions. The one here is run by the Actors’ Gang, whose artistic director is the actor Tim Robbins. Robbins has become nearly as familiar a figure at the prison as the warden himself. (The actor, walking through the prison yards, sets off a rustle of recognition among inmates who recall his movie role as a prisoner in “The Shawshank Redemption.”)
Laurie Brooks, the executive director of the William James Association, which runs an acting workshop in San Quentin State Prison, said these programs were first championed in 1979 by Jerry Brown during an earlier term as governor. “We enjoyed this real lush period when there was this boom in prison growth,” Brooks said. “There really isn’t any state-funded support for arts programs anymore.”
The Actors’ Gang presumably has the fund-raising advantage of its association with Robbins and its following in Los Angeles, where it staged its own version of “Tartuffe” in the spring. But even it has struggled to raise money. During a break one scorching morning, Williams asked that this article note that the Actors’ Gang had received a $500 donation in makeup supplies from Mehron Makeup, an act of kindness, she said, that deserved notice.
“People don’t give money because they don’t see us,” she said.
Advocates say these programs have reduced recidivism rates, though there is no conclusive research on that. But prison officials and inmates suggest that the workshops – by forcing inmates to confront emotions and to deal with other inmates they might ignore or fight with outside – can produce fundamental changes in behavior and character. “No. 1, it breaks down racial barriers,” said Peters, the former arts facilitator. “It breaks down gang barriers. It’s a safe place for them to come and get away from institutional stresses. And they tend to remain disciplinary-free: If you are busy writing a poem, you can’t be doing drugs.”
Lieutenant Brian Davis, the public information officer at the Norco prison, who sat in on the sessions, said: “They build self-confidence. I see the inmates starting to work together, and somewhere along the line the fear goes away.”
One inmate, Robert Paxton, 23, said the program “gives me a place to be silly – be myself.”
“You know, this whole prison situation, where you have to act macho and put up these mental barriers, this really allowed like a mental vacation,” Paxton said. “It makes doing time that much more easier.”
The workshops and rehearsals are antic and oddly entertaining: Guards can be spotted peering through a window (even when Robbins is not on hand). The inmates are animated, campy, energized, liberated and fearlessly engaged, comfortable even playing women in this sea of gang tattoos and muscles.
And there is no attempt to pretend that this is not taking place where it is taking place. The real actors are issued panic buttons to attach to their belts, in case they are cornered. And Robbins draws heavily on the inmates’ lives in training them in the commedia dell’arte style that is the heart of the Actors’ Gang method, with its ornate costumes and makeup, exaggerated expressions and comedic movements, focusing on four basic emotional states: anger, fear, happiness and sadness.
So it was that Robbins also asked the actors what made them angry. “This place turned me into a dope addict!” one shouted. Reiber followed with a cut-the-tension answer: “Prison food.”
Robbins instructed the inmates to feel fear, again by connecting it to their own experiences. “What is Tartuffe afraid of?” he said, wearing a wool skullcap and dressed in black. “Being discovered. Because that would mean jail for him.”
“Something is coming after you!” he said urgently to the inmates as they scampered around. “What is it?”
“Cops!” one inmate yelled.
“Cops!” Robbins responded, clapping his hands in delight. “Then run!”
No one seemed more surprised at the experience than the inmates, as they said during the concluding sessions of two workshops conducted over the course of the past few months, one for the general prison population and one for a segregated population of former gang members and sex offenders. Prison officials asked that the last names of the segregated inmates not be used, saying that they could be put in danger.
“I know this,” said one of those inmates as he sat on the floor in a circle with Robbins, Williams and the other inmates. He and his fellow prisoners had just performed scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “I’m thinking about Shakespeare in the shower. I don’t think I ever did that before.”