Shawshank Redemption star Tim Robbins is now giving free acting lessons to convicts in prisons.
In something that sound exactly like an episode of Orange is the New Black, Tim Robbins is giving back to the community. The Hollywood actor has set up his Actors’ Gang drama workshops to help rehabilitate offenders in Californian prisoners. The Actors’ Gang drama workshops, set up by Robbins, have been going on for six years in six different Californian prisons. It gives prisoners the chance to explore their emotions and as Mirror points out, “gain some control over them with the hope of preventing them from re-offending.”
“It’s an amazing feeling to be able to see someone change from a dark, negative, shut-off person into a potential leader of men,” says Robbins. In many cases it is the only form of rehabilitation prisoners will get before they are released.
And there is evidence suggesting that Tim Robbins’ acting classes are helping the prisoners.
“A study came out in December that showed for those men who took the acting class there was an 89 per cent reduction in infractions – fights within prison – which is huge for the safety of the prison itself and the safety of the corrections officers,” he says. “They have to deal with a lot less from the people who have been through our programme.” The workshops see previously violent prisoners put on costumes and make-up and act out improvised scenes.
Tim Robbins’ acting class is not like most acting workshops. Robbins teaches a type of theater called commedia dell’arte which uses masks and character works.“We demand the truth from them by asking them to play a character to express extreme emotion. We encourage them to use their imagination,” he says. “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.”
It is important to point out that in California, 60% of all prison inmates return to prison within three years of being released, but one study suggests that California’s re-offending rate is cut in half for those who have been through The Actors’ Gang programme. “That is the key to rehabilitation, that they stay out of prison. And we now have the evidence that our program does that,” says Robbins.
David De La Torre was a member of a gang in LA and served 15 years for armed robbery and discharging his gun at a movie theatre. But, after taking part in the Actors’ Gang project, the former gang member revealed that it made him “feel human again” for the first time after 12 years spent in prison, he says. Now a free man, he spends much of his spare time going to theaters. “I was a violent person. I would get into lots of fights and riots inside. This project really mellowed me out.”
“The Actors’ Gang programme teaches you how to control your anger and emotions and that’s what sets me apart from the other guys who get released from prison.
“I still get mad but I can control it. I don’t just slap someone. I have the tools to control myself.
“We check into the parole office and you see the people you get released with, then you just don’t see them no more, they have violated and are
“But no one from The Actors’ Gang has gone back in. They are all still out.”
David is not the only person who feels rehabilitated by this process. Michael Blair was jailed for five years for causing grievous bodily harm with a firearm. And getting back into society was a difficult transition. “In prison, if you disrespect someone in prison that’s the trigger, that’s the thing that will kick off everybody going off. But outside, especially with their phones, people are bumping into you all the time and I find that very difficult – people being rude and not thoughtful.”
But, now David uses the tools he learned from acting classes to keep his temper in check. “Something I still do when I pass a mirror is practice the facial expressions we learned in the acting class, the emotional states, just to remind myself. It’s a reminder you can control your emotions,” he says.
Tim Robbins says he gets as much out of The Actors’ Gang project as the inmates.
“This is so much more fulfilling than any $1,000 plate dinner I had been to,” he says.
“It’s an opportunity to throw all that Hollywood crap away and figure out how to help this dude and if you can get through to this guy.
“Rather than chase The Shawshank Redemption – which is not going to happen again – what else is there in life that you can achieve to create something new in? To find some idea of achievement in? Surprisingly it has been this.”
Tim Robbins is known aroudn the world as the unlikely prisoner Andy Dufresne in the classic 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption. After being wrongly convicted of mudering his wife, Andy takes a job in the prison libary and learns how to survive in prison thanks to his fellow prisoner Ellis Boyd (played by Morgan Freeman) to “get busy living, or get busy dying”.