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Actor Patrick Keating shares real-life prison experience in one-man show

Actor Patrick Keating has sometimes been guarded on the subject of the nearly three years he spent in prison in the 1980s for bank robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery. However, there is no hiding now.

That's because Mr. Keating's latest gig is a one-man show called Inside/Out: A Prison Memoir, which is about his experiences in Canada's justice system. It is playing until April 12 at the Little Mountain Gallery at East 26th Avenue.

Those prison experiences came about after, desperate for cash to feed a heroin addiction, Mr. Keating and some associates were ready to hit a bank one day in 1986. They were nabbed by police who were trailing them. Mr. Keating had earlier robbed a bank. He also faced a weapons charge. While in Matsqui Institution, university outreach courses sparked an interest in acting that led to roles on TV's The X-Files, Fringe and Da Vinci's Inquest.

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Mr. Keating, 60, says work on the play began after fellow actors encouraged him to take his stories beyond conversation. He took two years to write the script, working with Stephen Malloy, who teaches acting and directing in the University of British Columbia's theatre and film department.

What is Inside/Out about?

It's about choices everyone makes during their life. I made certain choices that led me down a path of getting onto drugs and eventually into the penitentiary, and eventually made a choice to stop that life and get into a life of theatre. It's also about seeking a community, whether it is a community of a criminal lifestyle, a drug lifestyle or a theatre community.

Have you ever done a one-man performance before?

No. In an ordinary play, you have a character you can sort of hide behind. But this is me. For the most part, it's me telling the stories, and that's hard. Also, I am revealing what I have been quite guarded about. It has been a challenge. It takes a lot of stamina. I really have to focus very hard in order to get through this.

When some people hear about the crime you went in for, I imagine they have a sharp reaction. What do you say to get past that reaction?

I'll let them know, at that time, I was a heroin addict. It was more drugs that fuelled me to commit crimes – not that that's an excuse. It was me that made the choice to do those things. There's only so much you can say to people. I can let them know I regret the things I have done, that I feel guilty about it. I feel embarrassed about it. It's nothing I can change. I have done them and they're part of me.

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What was your experience in prison like?

I am not a very large man. I avoided confrontations and I just tried to keep a very low profile. I kept quite quiet and kept to myself quite a bit. And I got through it. It wasn't a pleasant experience.

What are you hoping people will learn about you and the prison experience from your play?

When I was in theatre school, a voice teacher noticed I hadn't opened up to anybody.

She said, "Why are you so guarded?"

I tried to explain it a little bit. She said, "You have a wealth of experience you can draw upon as an actor. As long as you use your past with honour, there should be no shame."

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Is that something you convey in the play?

I try to. Yes.

Did you learn anything about acting by being in prison?

Oh, yes. I didn't know it at the time. In certain situations, everybody has to wear certain masks. In prisons, you're extremely guarded. You have a façade that's like steel. You can't show weakness and you very rarely show emotion. And if there's any emotion, it's anger.

That taught me a lot of how to keep myself in check, how do I want others to see me. I learned to try to become invisible almost, to fade away into the background. When I started in theatre school, I was able to think back and think, "Oh, right. I was already doing those things. I didn't know it at the time." Through training, I was able harness my emotions.

Crime and punishment are likely to be big issues in the federal election campaign. What do you make of such discussions?

In prison, it's a very small percentage of people that are Bernardos or Olsons. The rest are just broken people. You don't want to lock them up and throw away the key because everybody gets out unless it's a Bernardo or an Olson. You want them to come out with a bit of knowledge, education. You want them to come out better than they were. And I fear that some of the legislation is not going to do that. It's going to make more angry, more hardened people. And you don't want that type of person coming out and being beside [members of your family].

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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