Can a theatre program help rehabilitate Ontario prisoners?

At the Beaver Creek minimum-security institution, putting on a play helps connect serious offenders with their emotions. It’s controversial, but can it help them eventually rejoin society?

Inmates Gilbert Ho, left, and Marcello Palma participate in volunteer prison programs, but said nothing compares to the theatre production. Palma was found guilty of killing three prostitutes in downtown Toronto on Victoria Day weekend in 1996. (ALEX MCKEEN / TORONTO STAR)

GRAVENHURST, ONT. – The gymnasium-turned theatre at Beaver Creek minimum institution is full of the trappings of a highly anticipated performance night.

Crew members check lights and actors fidget with their costumes. The director, 25-year-old Jill Kooymans, is easily identified as the one with the booming voice flying around the room to put out minor fires and give time warnings — one hour to showtime, half an hour, 10 minutes.

The lead actor, sweating in a suit and flat cap, listens to her calls while pacing and muttering lines under his breath. He’s been in prison for 16 years, waiting for a time when he feels like a member of a real community. Tonight he’s counting down for the project that feels like a step toward that possibility.

A uniformed man enters the gymnasium just as 11 inmates gather around Kooymans and two volunteer actresses. He’s here for a different count, the tallying of inmates ‘— a nightly occurrence but one which feels out of place juxtaposed onto a whimsical warm-up routine.