Guilty Until Innocent

The Actor’s Gang Present The Exonerated

by Patrick Brogan

The 2005 edition of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology included a study of 340 prisoners who were wrongfully convicted of various crimes between the years 1989-2003 and subsequently exonerated. More than half of the prisoners served prison terms of 10 years or more and 80 percent had been in prison for at least five years. Imagine the years of torment in the mind of an innocent person.

Now, the general public will be able to hear such stories through a series of monologues in a performance called The Exonerated at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, April 20. The performance is being produced under the artistic direction of Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins by The Actor’s Gang, a veteran theatre group from Los Angeles. The Actor’s Gang was founded in 1981 and since then has produced 68 plays and won more than 100 awards. They mix old with new, performing interpretations of such playwrights as Shakespeare and Molière while staying current with performances about popular culture.

Performing more than three plays a year is no easy task, according to their managing director, Greg Reiner. “The amount of time spent on each play varies anywhere from a full year of development to a more traditional four-week rehearsal process,” Reiner said, who added that despite the serious nature of the subject matter, there “are many moments of humor and lightness in the play.”

Hard work is not the only thing for which The Actor’s Gang should be noted. According to cast member Adele Robbins — who is, incidentally, Tim Robbins’s sister — the play’s writers worked hard to ensure that the script would stay true to the prisoners that the actors were portraying. “The writers asked the actors not to do any research,” Robbins said. “About 99 percent of the play came from prisoner interviews.”

Although each of the prisoners channeled in The Exonerated were convicted of murder, their prison times varied from five to 20 years. Robbins, for instance, portrays Sunny Jacobs, who was convicted of murdering two police officers, spent 17 years in a Florida prison, and was later cleared of the crime. After portraying a prisoner, Robbins has become more aware of the prison system and its inherent problems. “There has been a large increase in the prison industry,” said Robbins, who has worked over the years to abolish the death penalty. “There needs to be a reform for prison systems with the exception of ones that have rehabilitation.”

Politics aside, The Actor’s Gang serves as a magnet for performers of eclectic backgrounds. Robbins, who has officially been with the gang since 1994, fits that bill well: The daughter of musicians, she began her career as a singer, then went into dance before finding herself acting in off-Broadway plays and training at Chicago’s Piven Theatre. Others in The Actor’s Gang have similar backgrounds, and that variety tends to better prepare the individuals to collaborate on the gang’s overall goal.

“The mission of The Actor’s Gang from the beginning has been dual — both to reinterpret the classics and to develop new plays that address the world today through a prism of satire, popular culture, and raucous stagecraft,” Reiner explained.

4•1•1 The Actor’s Gang presents The Exonerated at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, April 20, at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535.

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