“I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in months. It sort of took me to this other place,” said Herb Kandel after watching “Inside /// Out,” a commedia dell’arte performance by the Poetic Justice Project (PJP) at the Unitary Church in Orcutt last Saturday.

The audience gave the actors a standing ovation. Many stayed to talk with them afterward.

The show followed “Damian,” played by Leonard Flippen, from his courtroom appearance, where he was represented by the “Public Pretender,” to life in prison, then to life back on the outside. The actors used masks as part of their performance.

“I found that putting the mask on the outside allowed me to get in touch with and remove some of the masks I wear on the inside,” Leonard said. “They are therapeutic in a sense, especially for individuals such as myself who have spent the majority of their lives hiding behind one mask or another in order to survive.”

Caroline Taylor-Hitch played several roles in the show. Using the masks was emotionally painful for her.

“The style of acting is so physical, and I found that having spent my entire life hiding my feelings and covering up my emotions, it was so foreign and uncomfortable to shed those tendencies in order to stay true to the style of commedia dell’arte," she said. "It was also very difficult for me to trust myself, to trust in my own creativity and improvisations, to believe that what I was going to say, do, or portray was good enough. This particular play forced me to grow artistically and also in some deep personal ways.”

Gale McNeeley directed the show.

“In commedia there is no subtext. What we say we mean. Each mask tells the truth from that character’s point of view. In fact, the characters are often called ‘the masks.’”

Deborah Tobola started the project in 2009 with the vision of “unlocking hearts and minds with bold, original theater.” The connection actors make with the community transforms them, she said.

"Being in a production is empowering and freeing at the same time. Imagine going from not wanting to appear in public -- even going to the store -- to appearing onstage and being embraced by the audience. Once people feel they belong, they find jobs, make friends, go back to school, try other new things.”

Caroline was 19 when she got involved with PJP. She’s 24 now.

“PJP has affected my life in some major ways," she said. "Over the years my cast members have been an example for me: They introduced me to recovery, they showed me that it's possible to live a different way, and showed me how. I didn’t know that before. They give me constant support, a creative outlet; they tell me that they love me and that they need me. Having those simple things changed my life forever. Once these people saw something in me, I started to see it in myself. I thought, maybe I do matter!”

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Audience members grow from the experience, too.

Gale recalled a woman who stood up during an after-show talk at a previous performance.

"(She) admitted she was afraid of former prisoners when she walked into the performance that day. With tears in her eyes, she asked for the forgiveness of the actors in the cast. She now realized they were good people and not to be feared.”

Leonard said the project helps reintegrate individuals back into society.

“The very society that once loathed and despised them suddenly accepts and embraces them, and in doing so helps to heal the wounds and separation experienced by all. The walls that separate the formerly incarcerated from those responsible for incarcerating them dissolve through the magic of laughter, love, passion and tears -- theater.”

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Jeanne Sparks is a writer, photographer and graphic artist. Send story ideas to Jeanne@jeannesparks.com.