NORCO (CBSLA.com) — Actor Tim Robbins is probably best known for his role playing an innocent man convicted of murder in “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Now, the Academy Award-winning actor is helping prisoners try their hand at acting.
Each Tuesday, Robbins is among 15 rotating acting coaches at Norco’s medium-security prison, directing inmates to express emotions of fear, anger, happiness and sadness. It’s part of a program organized by The Actors’ Gang, a non-profit theater company Robbins helped found nearly 30 years ago.
“They’re asked to do things they never been asked to do in their life: open up emotionally, and put makeup on and costumes on, and pretend to be people. It’s weird stuff,” Robbins said.
“You can erase your old self and paint up a whole new one,” an inmate, who wanted to be identified only by his first name Joshua, told CBS2’s Pat Harvey.
Another inmate named Zach was one of the first to try the The Prison Project.
“In here you get to experiment with it and you kinda find out who you really are,” Zach said.
“What makes you keep coming back?” Harvey asked him.
“A sense of freedom. Every time we walk into this room it’s an escape. We’re no longer in prison. And, actually, we feel free,” Zach said.
Norco inmates like 27-year-old Joshua, now serving eight years, said he witnessed the change.
“It’s the opposite of prison, completely opposite. I’m hanging around with a white person, black person. I’m hanging around with someone who is energetic, someone who is happy or sad, and you get to experience these different types of people,” Joshua said.
The Prison Project is one of the last standing art rehabilitation programs in California prisons.
“We live in the same society with these guys,” said Sabra Williams, the program’s director of outreach. “It’s in all of our interest to make sure people are rehabilitated and do better when they come out.”
The workshops are made possible through private donations and teachers covering expenses out of their own pockets.
“I feel we’re doing the work of the state. We’ve never had any public money,” Williams said. “Right now, we have a 75 percent recidivism rate and that’s not good for anyone.”
“And you think you can help that?” Harvey said.
“I know that we can help that,” Williams said.
Cynthia Ettinger, who helps run The Prison Project, feels the program offers inmates a rare opportunity to connect with their peers.
“It’s a place where they can feel a sense of community with other guys; guys they see every day but don’t have relationships with; a place for them to be actually treated like a human being,” Ettinger said.
“We can say to them, ‘It doesn’t matter if you like the person next to you, when we step onto this stage it’s a different world: it’s a world where it matters what you do, where I can be aware of you, and we can be in this moment, connected,” Ettinger said.
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