Los Angeles

“The Bard” Behind Bars: LA Theater Program Lets Jail Inmates Express Themselves on Stage

"What do you think, you're gonna be on the Academy Awards next year?"

Los Angeles County Jail can be a dark and dangerous place, with little hope for real rehabilitation for the more than 17,000 inmates in the system.

But once a week in cell block K6G at Men's Central Jail, the non-profit Strindberg Laboratory comes in to teach theater to prisoners, letting inmates put on real stage plays while behind bars.

The theater program is run by husband and wife actors Michael Bierman and Meri Pakarinen. They started the program three years ago to give a voice to the voiceless.

"There's a great need to speak in the jails. Because obviously when you are in incarcerated circumstances-- to have a voice, to be able to express yourself," Bierman said.

After actors are released from custody, many continue attending theater workshops in a donated rehearsal space on Skid Row.

Forty-seven-year-old Marshall May says he'd dreamed of being an actor all his life, but it wasn't until he went to jail that he got his chance. Now that he's free, he's performing with the Strinderg Lab on stages all around Los Angeles.

May says the program has been a life line, despite criticism from some of his friends back on the cellblock.

"'Oh child, you know you're not gonna do this. What do you think, you're gonna be on the Academy Awards next year?'  All kinds of negative stuff. However, anything to get away from the negativity and do something positive," May said.

The program has allowed 37-year-old Luca Taoatao to follow his dreams of becoming a costume designer. He says he was skeptical when he first met the directors behind bars.

"I said, why is someone going to want to spend time with us?  Why? They're not getting paid. Is something wrong with them?" Taoatao said.

But for the first time in his life, he's showing up and following through with something because the group is depending on him, he says.

Bierman is expanding the program to hire actors off Skid Row. His dream is to merge LA's haves and have-nots by introducing unlikely performers to new audiences.

"If you look at the history of acting - until the studio system came up everybody who was an actor was a vagabond," Bierman said.

The Strindberg Lab actors will perform their play "The Birds" next weekend at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Burbank. If you'd like to donate or learn more about the program visit their website: strindberglaboratory.com.

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