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BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Inmates involved in Freehold Theatre’s Engaged Theatre program do warm-ups with teaching artists Daemond Arrindell, far left, and Carter Rodriquez, in blue, before giving a performance at the minimum security unit of Monroe Correctional Complex last week.

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.

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.