Inside the prison actors studio

October 21, 2014

Norco, California
By Mario Anzuoni

Recently I was granted access inside a California state prison to photograph the Actors’ Gang Prison Project final presentation. The project is funded by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and aims to rehabilitate inmates through the arts.

Inmates participate in the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte", part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco

The California Rehabilitation Center is located in Norco, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, only a couple of blocks from a dense residential area, and houses more than 3,000 inmates.

Inmates watch the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte", part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California

I cleared security around 9 a.m., and was escorted through a sliding gate and into a minivan, which inadvertently gave me a tour of the prison grounds before finally arriving at our destination atop the hill.

I was led into a room adapted into a small auditorium. It was quiet and as I looked around, I could see that the inmates participating in the project were on the floor, meditating, while the artistic director of the project, actor Tim Robbins, sat quietly in a corner.

Inmates meditate before the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte", part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco

Their acting coach guided them through the meditation routine and then it was makeup time. The workshop was called “Commedia dell’Arte,” a type of comedy theater developed in Italy in the 16th century. Given the genre, the makeup is very colorful, and very artfully applied by all of them. As they were finishing up, their small audience of about 30 inmates trickled into the room. Tim Robbins took the stage and welcomed everyone by asking us to turn off our cellphones. Everybody chuckles, including the inmates, because there are no cellphones in prison, of course.

Actor and artistic director Tim Robbins speaks before the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte", part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco

The workshop lasts three hours, in which the 15 inmate-actors are exhorted by their acting coaches to go through a series of emotions, short improvised sketches, and group acting; everyone in the room, from the guards to the hardened inmates in the audience, is entertained by their performance, and they deserve the applause they get at the end. These guys are genuinely emotional for having reached the end of this project, but more so for what it means for their effort to rehabilitate. They don’t come across like criminals, and even if they were once, there is no curiosity from anybody on why they ended up in prison, and they don’t like to disclose it either: they are actors for three hours and we are audience, and that is all that matters to them.

Inmates David Di Marino and Tarifa Henson participate in the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte", part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco

Inmate William Dillon participates in the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte", part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco

Inmates Chris Bisbano and Rudolph Ferrel participate in the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte', part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco

Actor and artistic director Tim Robbins laughs during the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte", part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco

Inmates Di Marino, Dale and Dooley practice before the workshop "Commedia Dell'Arte", part of the The Actors' Gang Prison Project program at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California

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