Actor and filmmaker Tim Robbins, a well-known progressive, created something called The Actors’ Gang. It is a theater production and support company that pushes innovative and progressive theater throughout the world.
In the last 31 years, The Actors’ Gang has produced over 100 plays in Los Angeles, in forty US states, and on five continents. The company was founded in 1981 by a group of young artists looking to build a theatre that would present relevant and vibrantly entertaining plays. Guided by Founding Artistic Director, Tim Robbins, the company provides a supportive environment for a diverse ensemble of artists and the development of their groundbreaking work.
The mission statement is simple:
To present new, unconventional and uncompromising plays and dynamic reinterpretations of the classics; To restore the ancient sense of the stage as a shared sacred space; To introduce theatre to children and help them fins their own creative voices; To bring the freedom of self-expression to the incarcerated.
The last part of that mission statement is covered by a workshop that has been going on for six years that Robbins and Sabra Williams run. It started in one California prison on private funding and is now being experienced by prisoners in six California prisons with the help of state funding.
“We demand the truth from them by asking them to play a character to express extreme emotion, we encourage them to use their imagination,” says Tim Robbins.
“They are playing so they can express the incredible rage they feel through these characters and they can express the intense sorrow and true fear they have, and the joy that’s still there.”
With the lack of any meaningful rehabilitation programs in American prisons, the Actors’ Gang workshop has shown real evidence of accomplishing the one thing we should hope a prison stay accomplishes: helping inmates begin the process of never having to come back to prison ever again.
“A study came back in December that shows that for those men who took the acting class there is an 89% reduction in infractions, fights within prison, which is huge for the safety of the prison itself and the safety of the corrections officers,” Robbins says.
Another preliminary study suggests that the state’s 60% recidivism rate is more than halved for people who have been through the Actor’s Gang programme.
By mixing up races and providing a safe space for inmates to explore emotions and highly dramatic experiences together—without violence and without judgement—the acting program can give even the most angry and hardened individuals a small amount of grace. You can read about the prison project here. You can also watch a video about the prison project below the fold.