Whitney Eliott spent her 22nd birthday behind bars.
"I was so deeply on the dark side. There was nothing joyous or happy about my life," recalled the Pismo Beach resident, who served a nearly three-year sentence at Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla for strong-arm robbery. "I was determined to become a better person, not worse."
Now, at age 26, she's an expectant mother, an aspiring drug-and-alcohol abuse counselor, and a proud participant of the Poetic Justice Project. She credits the program, which offers formerly incarcerated actors a chance to share their stories on stage, with "turning a really dark time of my life into something positive."
Founded by artistic director Deborah Tobola, the Poetic Justice Project is the only theater company of its kind in California. Although based on the Central Coast, it operates under the auspices of the William James Association of Santa Cruz, which provides arts instruction to parolees, probationers, prisoners and at-risk youth.
"Our vision statement is 'Unlocking hearts and minds with bold original theater,'" Tobola said.
So far, the company has shared that message with audiences throughout California, performing "Of Mice and Men" last year the International Steinbeck Festival in Salinas.
The Poetic Justice Project's latest production, "Planet of Love," premieres Friday at The Spot in Arroyo Grande, spending two weekends there before heading to Santa Barbara's Center Stage Theater for a three-day run starting June 22.
A published poet and children's book author, Tobola taught creative writing in the state prison system before becoming an arts facilitator at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo in 2000, under the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Arts in Corrections program.
Within a year, the former journalist was helping the inmates stage a collaborative performance piece titled "Crow," featuring visual arts, drumming, drama, music and more. "That was such a hit that the inmates said, 'Let's do a real play next year,'" Tobola recalled. "We were off and running."
Over the next few years, she produced six original plays dealing with real-life issues such as incarceration and probation, which proved wildly popular among inmates. "I think the audience appreciated it because we spoke to them about their reality," Tobola said
The plays also had positive effects on the performers, who found the freedom to express themselves in a supportive environment free of racial prejudice and violence.
"It was just such a wonderful transformative thing," Tobola recalled. "You could see people change almost before your very eyes."
Eager to share her experiences with parolees entering the outside world, Tobola left the California Men's Colony to start the Poetic Justice Project in San Luis Obispo at the end of 2008 -- just before budget cuts shuttered Arts in Corrections. Jorge Manly Gil, who's spent 20 years working with nonprofit organizations including Catholic Worker and the San Diego American Indian Health Center, joined as program manager a couple years later.
The company's advisory board includes retired prison educator Cynthia Semel; Gryphon Society executive director Bull Chaney, a former inmate who runs several sober living homes on the Central Coast; and San Luis Obispo County visual artist Guillermo Willie, who met Tobola at the California Men's Colony while serving a life sentence for taking part in a deadly prison brawl. (He was released after 38 years.)
According to Tobola, the Poetic Justice Project offers previously incarcerated people an opportunity to build confidence and community. "That sense of belonging is so important when you're coming out of incarceration," she said.
"There's a lot of guys coming out of prison who really benefit from the whole process," said San Luis Obispo resident Maux Samuel, who discovered the theater company after spending time in jail on various drug-related charges. "They support each other and keep each other on the straight and narrow."
Program participants live as far north as Paso Robles and as far south as Santa Ynez in northern Santa Barbara County. (The Poetic Justice Project is currently based in Santa Maria.) They range from first-time offenders to seasoned ex-cons, many of them recruited from local recovery homes and Parole and Community Team meetings.
"You all have that common bond of wanting to change who you really are," Eliott explained. "We're not just parolees. We're not just recovering addicts. We're also singers and dancers and brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers."
All of those aspects are on display in "Planet of Love," a science fiction-flavored musical set to music by The Beatles.
Written by Tobola and directed by Molly Williams Stuckey with musical direction by Mark Stuckey, the play follows an amorous alien who lands in the middle of a prison yard on Earth, only to mistake his new surroundings for Heaven and the inmates for angels. He gradually transforms the prison with his loving touch. "There's this thing in prison where kindness is seen as weakness. We wanted to turn that on its head," Tobola explained.
With its large cast and elaborate costumes and sets -- designed by Milly Benson and Bo Richards, respectively -- "Planet Love" is a departure from past Poetic Justice Project productions, which include the dramas "Blue Train," "Off the Hook" and "Women Behind the Walls." The latter, a stripped-down version of Claire Braz-Valentine's play, opened in 2011 on San Francisco's famed Alcatraz Island, while Tobola's "Off the Hook" toured prison towns through the state.
Stuckey and Tobola acknowledged the challenges of working with largely untrained actors who must juggle rehearsals with work, school, court hearings and probation meetings. (Scheduling conflicts forced them to recast some of "Planet of Love's" 20 parts, played by 17 actors.) At the same time, Stuckey said, these fearless performers will "try anything you ask them to do," she said. "They just lose their inhibitions and give it their all."
Willie said audiences don't care if cast members aren't necessarily polished pros. "People will watch us and they'll say they never realized we weren't professional actors," he said. "It's because we're raw and we come from the heart that they [get] that feeling."
Ideally, Tobola said, audience members will walk away with fresh insight into the correctional system. "It's a very difficult subculture to penetrate unless you're locked up, visiting or working there," she said, noting that there's a talk-back session after every performance.
"I hope that the audiences see people that have been incarcerated in a different light," Tobola said. "These are real people. They are not monsters. They're people who have made mistakes and are trying to find a way back to their lives."