The first time Tim Robbins stepped foot in a prison in 1994, he was doing research. The Academy Award winning actor and director toured local facilities in Ohio to prepare for his leading role in the iconic Shawshank Redemption, and witnessed the failings of the modern American prison system. Men were entering prisons for non-violent crimes, and leaving them hardened criminals.
Over a decade later, Robbins found an impetus for reform. A member of Robbin’s theater group, The Actors’ Gang, suggested that the company create a curriculum that could be taught by the troupe in California prisons. What started eight years ago as a fledgling outreach program that struggled to register twenty participants has now become a dynamic and powerful rehabilitation program that often has a waitlist of hundreds.
The success of The Actors’ Gang Prison Project, says Robbins, stems from the principles of commedia dell’arte, an age-old form of theater that is often characterized by masked character “types” and improvised performances. Participants paint masks on their face to give them the freedom to express themselves honestly. And in their improv classes, prisoners are taught that in order to create successful scenes, acceptance, as well as emotional generosity and flexibility are essential. Since any form of aggression is forbidden in Prison Project workshops, if one prisoner enters a scene with aggression or hostility, the inmate actors must learn to diffuse the situation with an emotion other than anger. It’s a skill that the participants learn to apply to situations beyond acting class, often using their new found emotional control on the prison yard and in their interactions with guards and administrators.
“We have the guys tell us again and again that the bonds [they] have made in this room are far more powerful and important and significant to me than any gang ties [they’ve] had in the past,” said Robbins. “It has this profound impact. They understand that they are all sentient human beings that are capable of emotions, and they are legitimate to express.”
Robbins sees the Prison Project as more than just a way for inmates to learn about emotional expression. He also sees the potential impact that the program has on the future of affected inmates. While the state of California has almost a 60% recidivism rate, to date, the recidivism rate for participants of the Prison Project’s is zero. Robbins believes that by teaching empathy through creativity, expression and community, they are also teaching inmates how to live successful lives once they have regained their freedom.
Award-winning actor and director Tim Robbins sat down with Mike Walter in Los Angeles to discuss the Prison Project, the political scene in the United States, and the power of empathy and emotional expression.
Tim Robbins: A gang of goodMike Walter sits down with award-winning actor and director Tim Robbins to discuss the Prison Project, the political scene in the United States, and the power of empathy and emotional expression.
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