Sunday, June 7, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 14

Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on October 16th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 32 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 32

The Poetic Justice Project brings audience members behind bars


The band Petty with a Prior will be performing live music for the Poetic Justice Project’s interactive murder-mystery 'In the Kitchen with a Knife.'

Unfortunately, the United States still imprisons a greater percentage of its population than any other country. And while American media shows a fascination with incarceration through TV shows like Oz or more recently Orange is the New Black, these depictions often paint a stereotypical picture.

The Poetic Justice Project is a locally based theater arts group made up entirely of formerly incarcerated youth and adults. Artistic director Deborah Tobola founded the project after she witnessed the transformative power of theater as she worked as an artistic facilitator at the California Men’s Colony.

“We did theater every year and I found it to be especially powerful because it combines all the art forms,” she said. “I always wanted to send my parolee inmates to a program on the other side, but it wasn’t there for them, so I decided to start it myself.”

Approaching its fifth year of producing live theater, the company’s upcoming production will feature a play that Tobola penned while she was coming up with the idea for the program.

Using prison-related props and costumes, the Poetic Justice Project hopes to drop the audience inside prison for its upcoming production.

“We’re really excited about this one; it’s our first interactive murder mystery,” she said. “There is no fourth wall and our audience will be sitting right next to the characters.”

Written with the help of Tobola’s son Dylan O’Harra, In the Kitchen with a Knife begins with the murder of a kitchen worker named Telly. The three suspected inmates are taken to “the hole” for interrogation by the prison guards and warden. The audience quickly learns any of the three inmates could have committed the crime.

“So basically the audience is going to hear each inmate’s story, and then they vote on who the killer is,” Tobola said. “We are going to have three different endings depending on who they vote for.”

All of the Poetic Justice Project plays deal with themes of crime, punishment, and redemption, Tobola explained. But not until now has a production been set in prison and featured so much audience participation.

The prison guards and warden interrogate each of the suspected inmates, but the audience is left to decide who committed the act.

“In a way, I want the audience to examine [the audience member’s] own biases that they may have about age, race, or background,” she said. “I want to have a really thoughtful discussion afterwards.”

The volunteer actors in the Poetic Justice Project run the gamut in age, background, and race. A big part of the project’s mission is to show people on the outside what inmates are really like, face to face.

“I think we want to portray the subculture of prison … in a realistic way,” Tobola said. “We want to humanize the whole situation.”

The creative energies put into the play are as diverse as the people involved. Whether acting, doing technical work, or performing live music, everyone’s talents are put to good use. The house band for the production, Petty with a Prior, will be performing live as part of the production.

Enter the kitchen
The Poetic Justice Project presents the play 'In the Kitchen with a Knif'e featuring audience interaction to help solve a murder-mystery showing Oct. 26 at 2 and 7 p.m. and Oct. 27 at 2 p.m. at the Atkinson Community Center, 100 N. Railroad Ave., Santa Maria. Performances happen in San Luis Obispo Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 2 at 2 and 7 p.m. at the Grange Hall, 2880 Broad St., SLO. Santa Barbara performances are Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 9 at 2 and 7 p.m. at the First Congregational Church, 2101 State St., Santa Barbara. More info: 264-5463,, or

“We are a theater company that is about changing lives,” Tobola said. “You can see people transform over several productions.”

Art is always a life-changing experience, for both artist and audience. But even Tobola has been amazed at the power and potency of the Poetic Justice Project.

“We use the arts and theater to engage people who are coming out of prison or jail [and help them] reconnect with their communities,” she said. “So far we have had 75 people participate in our productions, and our recidivism rate for people returning to prison is 2 percent.”


Arts Editor Joe Payne is always ready for a transformative experience. Contact him at

Weekly Poll
What do you think about Aera Energy canceling its project in Cat Canyon?

It's a victory for the environment!
It's a loss of a lot of potential jobs that are needed in North County.
I'm all for renewable energy, but we still need oil and gas.
The county should never approve another oil and gas project.

| Poll Results

My 805 Tix - Tickets to upcoming events