The Actor’s Gang Prison Project Makes a Difference

It turns out that bringing theater workshops to California inmates fosters tolerance and reduces recidivism.

The Actors' Gang is an experimental theater group based in Southern California. As the name suggests, the troupe was founded by a group of actors, including Tim Robbins, who is now its artistic director. For the past 36 years, the Actors’ Gang has lived up to its mission of creating “bold, original works for the stage and daring reinterpretations of the classics.”

But the members of the Actors’ Gang are as committed to their community as they are to their craft. Along with regular free or pay-what-you-like performances, the Actors’ Gang provides free robust theater arts programs for the youth of Los Angeles County. About ten years ago, alarmed by California’s growing rate of incarceration, company member Sabra Williams suggested that the Actors’ Gang bring theater workshops to California prisons. Tim Robbins agreed, and the Actors' Gang Prison Project was born.

Using methods based on commedia dell’arte, the Actors’ Gang Prison Project provides eight- to ten-week workshops in California prisons. The classes combine open discussion, workshops, and performance in which inmates—often with their faces painted like masks—are put in various scenarios in which they improvise as particular stock characters: for example, the mean old miser, the love-struck student, the devious politician. While the Actor’s Gang wanted inmates to learn the craft of acting, they also had a hunch that these acting exercises could help participants learn different ways to respond to challenges and foster empathy and tolerance. That hunch proved correct. The Prison Project has had a profound impact on inmates, their families, and prison staff as it continues to expand to prisons throughout the state. Tim Robbins has been actively involved with the Prison Project since its inception, both as a teacher and as an outspoken advocate for arts rehabilitation. He describes what makes the project successful and its impact on inmates.

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Music Credits:

All music courtesy of the Free Music Archive. Licensed by Creative Commons.

“PTSD_Blues” written and performed by EX LUNA

“King Of_The Cafeteria” written and performed by Lazlo Supreme

“While_the_Hay_Shines” written and performed by Orthotonics

“Wait_For_the_One_Thats_Special” written and performed by The_Polish
Ambassador, featuring Sean Haefeli .
Picture Credits:

Peter Merts
Bot Turton
Jeff Baur

Video by Carlos Arrien