AN ACTRESS on stage holds up a slip of paper with her former pimp's telephone number on it. She is trying to decide if she should call him and go back into the business. To tear up the paper would mean "playing it straight." To call would mean stepping back into a life of crime.

The prison audience -- whose crimes range from prostitution and writing bad checks to armed robbery and accessory to murder -- knows this world intimately.

From the crowd, a woman cries, "Don't do it honey. Don't do it! He's a loser, honey. Tear it up!"

The actress tears up the paper and 300 pairs of hands tear it with her.

The Fine Line Actor's Theatre recently spent two months at the women's Federal Correctional Institution at Alderson, W. Va. We performed Marsha Norman's play, "Getting Out," and taught six weeks of intensive acting workshops. "Getting Out" is the story of a woman whose life of frustration, rage and rebellion lead to her eight-year imprisonment for murder. After her release, she comes face to face with her past and struggles to make it in the outside world.

We experienced other examples of how the play mirrored the inmates' lives. Arlene, the central character, desperately wants to get her child back from a foster home when she gets out of prison. For the majority in our audience, getting custody of their children after prison is a constant concern. At a question-and-answer session after the play, one of the inmates asked -- demanded -- "Does Arlene get her child back?" In the past we've told general audiences that the playwright leaves that conclusion to the audience. We couldn't do that with this woman. It meant too much to her. If Arlene got her child back, perhaps she would, too. So Jane answered, "I'm not sure. I hope to God she does."

We thought we would find a lot of pent-up energy among the inmates. Instead, they were tremendously lethargic. They have a saying: A day is a week, a week is a month, a month is a year.

Our workshops were designed to free creativity and all the emotions -- joy, fear, rage. They included physical, vocal and relaxation exercises. On the first day we said, "Release a sound." We heard a tiny murmur. By the end of the workshop, these same women filled a huge room with sounds of terror and rage and joy. The purpose of another exercise was to develop an exaggerated and heightened movement. At first, nothing. After a few weeks, what we saw was a physical transformation. From the lethargy came energy.

After the workshops were over, we got a letter. "Dear Judith and Jane: I discovered the grave I had dug for myself so prematurely and I uncovered the still-warm, breathing life that had been laid to rest, unfulfilled . . . to perform with such intimacy, such raw emotion, to flaunt ourselves with radical honesty in front of staff and other inmates took far greater risks than any acts of heroism or insanity . . . I find I can move again like an animal in nature, rather than a steel ball in a pinball machine."

Another woman said, "Before, I made some mistakes and let myself get bogged down in the whole prison, criminal justice system . . . with you there were no questions of my being sick, maladjusted, or disturbed, a lost cause, sociopathic, no judgments about what I do or who I am. No good or bad, should or should not. Mostly, you have given me back to myself, a self I haven't been in touch with since I was a child and out of this has come a renewed faith in the human race, an interlude of peace in a confused world, but most of all an inner strength I never understood before. Maybe no one will believe or understand. So what. I know it! I know it like a drowning person knows that someone cared enough to jump in the ice cold water and drag her to shore, to life."

Our workshops at Alderson were like giving water to thirsty people in the desert. Other workshops, by comparison, were like inviting somebody in to tea.