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Inside a small classroom, four men croon in swinging harmony to polish their act.

“People get ready, cause the bus is coming.

“Don’t need no direction, you just get on board.”

They file to their seats on an imaginary bus with four other cast members, all wearing white shirts and khakis.

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The show, “To Destinations Unknown: Takin’ a Left Turn at Reality,” is a montage of vignettes — their stories. The bus a metaphor for the unpredictable journey of life.

In a few days, the show would go live — just one time — before a very select audience, mostly other prison inmates. at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio of Seattle, which describes itself as “a place dedicated to research and experimentation” for artists at all levels and “willing audiences” has been bringing writing and theater workshops beyond prison-guard posts and razor wire for the past decade.

Artistic Director Robin Lynn Smith launched the Engaged Theatre program in 2003, staging “The Tempest” for a rapt audience at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. Workshops that followed generated a flood of creativity, drawing out powerful writing, poetry and spoken words from the incarcerated women. The residency program was born.

Monroe inmates were introduced to Freehold when actors staged an outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale.” By the conclusion of the play, the prison-yard audience had swelled to 250 inmates — “completely engaged, laughing, crying,” Smith said. After that performance, Freehold arranged a theater workshop for inmates.

Nobody signed up.

But when Freehold’s teaching artists arrived back at Monroe, the tiny room designated for the workshop was jammed with about 50 participants.

“It was awesome,” Smith said of the prisoners’ response, their engagement and their eagerness to debate issues of justice and punishment. “We were just so thrilled to be there.”

Freehold expanded its Engaged Theatre residency to include Echo Glen Children’s Center detention facility and workshops for at-risk teens with the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative.

Telling the truth

The Engaged Theatre program is rooted in an experience Smith had while living in New York City in the 1980s. She was directing “The Lower Depths,” a play by Maxim Gorky about street life in Russia.

She and the cast went to the Bowery, a seedy area in lower Manhattan, to visit a poetry project for guys living on the street. They wound up inviting those street guys to opening night.

With their real-life counterparts sitting in the audience, “The actors had to up their game,” Smith said. “It just makes you tell the truth even more,” she said.

That truth was the hook for Smith. She moved on and worked with more experimental-theater labs, then started the Engaged Theatre program for what Freehold terms “culturally underserved populations.”

“There’s a kind of authenticity, truth-telling and honesty,” she said about working with inmates and troubled youth. “Which sounds nuts, ‘I’m going to prison to find the truth,’ but it’s true. I find that we learn more from them than they learn from us.”

Writing and acting

Teaching artists Daemond Arrindell and Carter Rodriquez are the conduit for that mission at Monroe. They also lead the Echo Glen residency and the partnership with Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative.

Arrindell, a poet and community organizer known for being the “Slam Master” and the glue that holds the Seattle Poetry Slam together, focuses on developing participants’ writing. Rodriquez, an actor and performance artist, puts his efforts into the staging and delivery.

The Monroe participants “are the most appreciative population we’ve ever worked with,” Arrindell said. “They recognize what limited opportunities they have.”

Writing prompts such as: “When I’m afraid, my heart looks like … ” and theater games that get the group reciting gibberish or behaving like animals, break down barriers and encourage vulnerability.

“At some point the armor comes down a little bit, and people show sides of themselves that they probably don’t feel safe showing all the time,” Rodriquez said.

Inmate persona

Jonathan “J.T.” Jones-Thomas, 33, a native of South Seattle, has been incarcerated for nearly nine years after being convicted of assault with a deadly weapon for shooting another man in a disagreement. He’s been in the theater program for five years and is its biggest recruiter.

“The first time that I participated in the Freehold Theatre group, I had this persona that I carried,” Jones-Thomas said. “They asked me to do different things in the warm-ups with your voice and with your mannerisms, and I really had to shake this persona that I walked around with in prison.”

Jones-Thomas will be getting out on work release later this year and credits the program for easing the transition, teaching him to be more honest with himself and to be a better public speaker. After finding a job and getting back on his feet, he plans to continue with Freehold.

“Here I am,” he said, “talking about joining a theater instead of going out and selling drugs or hanging out with the wrong crowd, or doing things that I shouldn’t be doing. I’m talking about joining a theater, and that’s worth its weight in gold.”

Bettina Hansen:

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