Tim Robbins’ Actors’ Gang brings a Shakespeare favorite that engages and acting processes that heal to Nashville
By Dana Malone
This week, the Actors’ Gang presents “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at OZ, launching the Nashville venue’s season. In doing so, Tim Robbins (“Shawshank Redemption,” “Mystic River”) and his company bring not only a world-class performance to our city—but an initiative to strengthen it through its public service initiative, the Prison Project.
Before the Actors’ Gangs’ performances on Friday and Saturday evenings (September 12 and 13), five members of the group already will have come to Nashville’s Charles Bass Correctional Complex for two days (September 9 and 10) to conduct Prison Project workshops—for the first time outside California. The Prison Project is not an acting class, although the actors use the form of theater they use in their performances, commedia dell’arte, to facilitate their workshops. During the intense workshops (four hours, with no breaks) inmates participate in exercises to re-connect with their emotional states—in this case, the four emotional states of commedia dell’arte: fear, anger, sadness and happiness. Using exaggerated facial expressions, physical movement, vocal work, and creative writing and thinking, the actors work with inmates to foster self-esteem, tolerance and non-violent expression and ultimately, increase the effectiveness of their rehabilitation.
“We’re asking the guys to do very hard work within themselves to experience their emotional lives in a way that’s powerful and extremely vulnerable,” said the Actors’ Gangs’ Hannah Chodos, a lead teacher and program manager for the Prison Project. “I think through this work they begin to accept their emotional lives without trying to change them. They learn how to experience this uncomfortable thing of being a person—being alive, going through fear, anger, sadness, sometimes joy—and abide with that and still continue in [their] work.”
Chodos plays the role of Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—a principle character in a comedic play on the tragic “Romeo and Juliet,” where potions mischievously dispensed cause lovers to fall for the first person they meet in the forest and a delightful “play-within-a-play” enhances the playful spirit. Of course, as a Shakespearean comedy would have it, all true intendeds (Helena with Demetrius, Hermia with Lysander) reunite by the end of Act V, despite the misdeeds of Oberon, king of the faeries, and his right-hand man, Puck. In the preceding acts, however, there is an idea of plays on identity and reality. In that way, the play is not unlike what goes on with the Prison Project—having the inmates use make-up masks and ways of expressing emotion that separate them from everyday prison life, which enables them to re-enter the realities of society.
“I think the profundity of [the work] is that it’s coming from such a dark place . . . that is devoid of humanity, and somehow these guys are finding it through this work,” said Robbins in a recent interview with a CBS affiliate in (the Los Angeles area?).
Adding to the profundity of work of the Prison Project is the undercurrent of irony of the inmates becoming witnesses and being witnessed in supporting ways in the workshops“Often the simple fact of being witnessed by other human beings, in this environment where it’s extremely risky to be witnessed,” said Chodos. “In our class, we’re creating a space where these guys can be witness to other human beings and that’s something we all desperately need and we especially need in rehabilitation.”
Chodos stresses the inherent value of working in community, rather than isolation, in the Prison Project, so what keeps the actors focused in their professional work on the stage in turn serves as a focus for the workshops.
“I think one of the essential values of our program is this concept of ‘ensemble,’” said Chodos. “It’s the way we work as a theater company— where for the group, participation relies on every individual and every individual relies on the group and we can’t do the work we do without everyone’s participation. It’s an instant community. This is an extremely valuable lesson for the inmates because they have to learn how to receive and give in a way that creates value to society.”
OZ Arts Nashville plans to launch a program similar to the Prison Project here, with Tennessee-based actors trained by the Actors’ Gang. The Tennessee Department of Communications has expressed interest in that effort—for implementation at Charles Bass Correctional Facility and possibly other facilities.
“OZ’s proximity to multiple correctional facilities in northwest Nashville, and our institutional commitment to bringing world-class artists to the Nashville community through performance, installation and outreach, sparked our enthusiasm to connect this successful theater-based program from The Actors’ Gang created specifically for incarcerated members of a community, to our own neighborhood,” said OZ CEO Tim Ozgener.
Now, perhaps members of the Nashville community—and members of the audience who watch the Actors’ Gangs’ performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—can appreciate the spirit of commedia dell’arte (15th century Italian comedy), with its four emotional states and 12 stock characters that beg for attention to universal themes in even broader and more compassionate ways.
“We have all the same obstacles the guys have when we do [our] work. To have the opportunity to go and do my work, to be an actress and a member of an ensemble and go into the classroom and witness the courage it takes for these guys to do the work we’re asking them to do—the real message they bring to the class: It’s a real honor and a privilege to be a part of that dialectic because it keeps me in the work. It’s a lucky thing,” said Chodos.
Performances of the Actors’ Gangs’ “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. at OZ Arts Nashville. To order tickets and for more information about this and other performances in OZ’s 2014-15, go to oznashville.com.