The actor and arts educator talks about taking theatre into prisons.
Garrett Botts is a (newly) LA-based actor and arts educator. When he’s not performing, Botts teaches theatre arts and creative writing in prisons around Southern California. Up next, Botts will be starring in Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!) at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. Botts sat down with me, and we discussed how to break into the LA theatre scene, his work with inmates, and the future of theatre for specific communities.
Where are you in your career, and how did you get here?
I would say I’m still a phase one actor looking to build reel material, find representation, and get unionized. I am a member at Actor’s Co-op and Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. I went to school at Cal State San Bernardino, and graduated in 2015. I moved out to Los Angeles County — the very far end in Glendora — in 2017, and that’s when I started to really come out and audition. But I don’t think that just the acting and auditioning is fully the career. My job as an arts instructor has been a career in and of itself, and that’s been going pretty strong for two years.
What theater companies are you a part of? How did you get involved?
The first one was Sacred Fools Theater, that’s the first company I really got involved with. I’m not a member there, but I have friends who are. I’ve acted a lot in their We the People series, where they do political action theater. [For that series] they give out a prompt taken from the preamble of the Constitution, and writers will write pieces and submit them, and six to eight get picked and then cast and performed. We also did their Serial Killers series, which is a wild ride. There are five shows that go in, and three shows come out. So if you’re in a show that’s going on, you have to keep writing it. I’ve been in several of those, and the whole nature of it is you have a script and you better be memorized. You may get a rehearsal that week for a 10-minute play. You’re hoping you get one, but sometimes you never work with the actor until you’re on stage with them.
Actors Co-op is probably the one I’ve spent the most time with. I became a company member there in 2018. What’s cool is that they have some beautiful spaces, and they have a lot of people who are at very different levels of their career.
How has having an artistic home developed your career?
Having an artistic home, for me, is kind of how you grow as an actor. If you’re in Los Angeles, it’s so annoying to meet people and to get work and to hear about things because you’re pretty much just looking online. But having that artistic home and that artistic hub helps you grow, and allows you to be in community and fellowship with people who are like yourself and want to get things done.
Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on?
I did a production of Orphans by Lyle Kessler at Ophelia’s Jump. It was one of those experiences where I was able to take real life people I had met and totally transform them into a character. I was playing Phillip, who is this recluse who was probably mildly autistic. So, based on experience I had working with autism in special education, I was able to pull from that.
What do you wish someone had told you before you started this career, and is there anything you would’ve done differently?
Look at it like a business. I think looking at it from the perspective that it takes time to construct a career, and you’ve got to put in that time. I think the best analogy I’ve heard is that with anyone very successful, they’re going to spend five, six, eight years working on it. A doctor doesn’t just graduate school and be like, “I’m a doctor now.”
Yeah, a lot of people who are young and successful either have connections or started as children.
I wish someone had explained that to me. [It’s about] Who do you know? And when did you start? Truthfully, I didn’t start in LA until 2017, and I knew nobody. I knew no one. So I’ve had to build all of that. I didn’t get connections from my college; I’ve had to make those connections myself. I also wish I would’ve tried moving out here sooner. I had some financial issues, but I wish I would have just gone out to LA, or Chicago, or New York or something, and just tried it.
How did you go about making connections in a new place once you moved to Los Angeles?
I started stalking all of the theater companies, and I would see some of their shows. That’s primarily why I got connected with Sacred Fools at first, because you could just attend their company meetings. I show up, and suddenly I’m meeting all of these people and they’re like, “Oh, give us your email and we’ll cast you in things.”
If you’re able to volunteer and help out here and there, that’s a really great way to get involved. I find that if you can do anything but acting to help out a company, they’re really going to love you. You sell concessions, they will love you for that. If you can hang lights, they’ll love you for that. If you know how to do graphic design, they will love you for that. Other skills you have besides acting will help you.
So you have a really interesting day job — you teach arts education in prisons. How did you get involved?
I teach theater arts and creative writing for the Riverside Arts Councils’ Arts in Corrections Program, that works in conjunction with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which works in conjunction with the William James Foundation and the California Arts Council.
I knew the chair of the Riverside Arts Council, Patrick Brien — I had auditioned for a show he did back when I was living in Riverside, and he liked me and kept casting me. He applied for this contract to start teaching theater in the institutions, which is a relatively new job. He asked if I wanted to do the job and I said, “Yes, 100%, get me into that field.” And it took a long time. I sometimes think it would probably be easier to get a job on a television show than to get a job being an arts in corrections instructor. It’s hard. You have to know somebody, and you have to be lucky.
What does a typical day or curriculum look like?
It’s very different in the sense that I’m not trying to teach them to be actors. We have to use theater to try and build community, talk about conflict, and [create] constructive dialogue. So a lot of it is almost theater therapy without being theater therapy. We’ll focus on a lot of the same exercises that you would probably have done in college or an improv class, all of those exercises. Then we have to reconstruct them and figure out how they work in a rehabilitative sense: How will this serve this person who’s not going to be an actor? What does this do?
We have energy and focus exercises that [work on] a person’s ability to sit down and focus on a task at hand for a time. We’ll have trust exercises, which is a big one, a big problem, just your ability to be asked to trust someone, and to be given that trust and what that means. Then, we’ll usually bridge into improv, where we’ll take a conflict that they may come across in the real world and improvise it. We also work a lot from Theater of the Oppressed and Augusto Boal. So we’ll give them a scene and they’ll have this big conflict, and then ask, what can we do to solve the issue?
What is the most rewarding part about being an arts educator in that capacity?
The most rewarding part is honestly when someone comes up to you and says, “I forgot that I was in prison for two hours.” But there are lots of moments. Some of it has very little to do with my job. I’ll have somebody come in and say, “Hey, I’m not going to be in your class anymore because I’m going home.” And it’s like, yes, don’t come back. I never want to see you again in the best way possible. Please don’t come back
Do you think, do you think teaching art in this way has made you a better actor?
Absolutely. Especially with improv. I don’t think of my good myself as a good improviser, but you’d have to demonstrate for these people who had never seen it, so it was a sink or swim. Getting in front of a hundred, 200, 300 people is scary, but try [improvising] in front of 20 convicts. They don’t have a problem telling you their opinion while you’re doing it. And I love it, it’s such a different skill. You have to learn how to capture their attention in a completely different way than expecting them to come and sit down and say, “ I paid for this experience — you are going to perform for me, and I am going to enjoy it.” That’s not it. You have to capture their attention.
If someone wants to work in arts in corrections, what organizations should they look at?
The Actors’ Gang would probably be one. Arts Councils, like actual City Arts Councils, can be a good way to do that. I’ve heard of The Strindberg Laboratory doing some stuff. Those are the only other organizations I know of in Los Angeles. There are not a lot of us that I know of that are doing specifically theater in in the prisons.
What is one piece of practical advice you would give someone about navigating the entertainment industry?
Search for, and being willing to engage in, community, and realizing that we’re all in this together, it’s not a competition. The people who have made it have already made it, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So who cares! Just connect with your fellow person. If you’re nice, and you’re kind, and you’re a hard worker, and other people see that, they are going to want to help you out. And don’t look at theater and auditioning as a competition. If you look at it that way, it’s a competition you’re going to lose.
What’s the game plan moving forward?
I would like to work with other organizations, and expand my organization and work in other prisons, or work in other yards in other prisons. I am so fascinated by doing theater for community, and not just in prison institutions, but for people, and how it is practical for people to use, not actors, people.
There’s been some great research on theater for disabilities, but none of it happens in the States. There’s this beautiful program at one of the famous theaters in the UK, where they’re doing Shakespeare with kids with autism. Something about the pattern in the speech, the musicality of the speech, was very helpful for them, and very therapeutic. Also, you have these Shakespearian characters who don’t have a lot of subtext, they’re saying what they feel, which for someone with autism, what that must be like, to be like, “Ah, I see what they’re feeling. They are literally saying it out loud to me.”
So I think there are a lot of different opportunities for theater for disabilities. I don’t know if I will be acting in a professional capacity for all of my life, but I know that doing theater for community and for people is something that I will be doing for the rest of my life.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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