No one is going to mistake “Off the Hook” for a traveling Broadway show.
First of all, the musical stars former inmates with varying degrees of acting experience — in some cases, very little. And the troupe travels not in fancy tour buses, but in a former San Diego State University shuttle bus that can’t reach more than 15 mph up hills. They stay in a Motel 6 if they’re lucky, and once spent a night in a church in exchange for helping serve food to the homeless.
Yet, the cast and crew have traveled from Redding to San Diego, spreading their twofold mission:
“We want to get these stories out there,” said Deborah Tobola, the artistic director who wrote the play. “And No. 2, it’s going to help the guys in it. The biggest barrier in coming out of prison is not food, housing, jobs — all that stuff. It’s, ‘I don’t fit in, they don’t want me here, everyone can tell.’ ”
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The musical, which comes home to San Luis Obispo after a touring stint, is the latest in what Tobola hopes will be a continuing series of plays about prison life put on by her group, The Poetic Justice Project.
Already, there’s talk of the inmates performing “Of Mice and Men” at the Steinbeck Festival, and actor-director Tim Robbins has expressed interest in having them perform a stage version of his film “Dead Man Walking.”
Of course, that’s putting the cart before the horse. Just getting the group’s first tour off the ground was challenging enough.
“It’s not your regular theater experience,” said Mary Meserve, the former San Luis Obispo Little Theatre artistic director, who is acting as an adviser.
Early on, it was difficult getting enough actors to show up for rehearsals. And then the original script was scrapped for one that now features more characters. And there were
technical considerations, like figuring out how to travel with 20 people on a limited budget that includes money from an NEA grant.
But the musical has been moving along since August, and the actors are reaping the rewards, the greatest of which is mainly finding a purpose.
“These are guys whose lives have been screwed up for a long time,” said Bill McLaughlin, another former Little Theatre regular, who is directing the play. “It was clear that they were holding onto this project as a life raft.”
The play centers on four plotlines with themes that entail prison violence, gangs and racial divide. One inmate is a snitch headed for protective custody. Another is lured into a gang he won’t be able to escape. A third finds a mentor in a guard, and a fourth is a philosophical inmate who works to stop an act of violence.
“They’re snapshots of these different lives,” McLaughlin said. “The scenes are short and quick.”
Having spent 12 years teaching writing and managing an arts program in California prisons, Tobola has an insider’s perspective on prison life, even if she’s never been an inmate herself.
“I have a good ear for how people talk,” said Tobola, who formed Poetic Justice after leaving Arts in Corrections. “I could talk prison to you right now because I could switch to that mode.”
That prison-speak keeps the play authentic, but the crew didn’t want to overdo it. For one thing, they don’t want to lose the message. Education is a big part of the goal, after all, and winning audiences over can be a challenge — as it was when the group’s first play was staged at the Little Theatre last December.
“We had a woman at the Little Theatre, who said, ‘I don’t want to go to see these guys,’ ” McLaughlin said. “ ‘I worked in the courts system, and I know that everybody in prison deserves to be there.’ And I said, ‘Nobody’s arguing that. Maybe they did deserve to be there. But they’ve done their time, they’ve paid their debt. Now they’re trying to come out and make a huge transformation. And that’s all we’re trying to do — to help them do that.’ ”
The play will feature original music by Shawn Collins, performed by the inmates. And each show concludes with a Q&A.
While Tobola will look into the Steinbeck Festival and “Dead Man Walking,” she is also reaching out to other writers, hoping to get many voices.
“We want all different perspectives, like someone who’s incarcerated, a family member, somebody who worked in the system,” she said.
While some might not be able to relate to the prison lifestyle, statistics say that more and more Americans will have at least some connection to prison. Which is why, Tobola said, the play is relevant.
“The Department of Justice says now that, at our current rate of incarceration, one in 15 people will go to prison in their lifetime,” Tobola said.