Shakespeare lives behind locked doors at prison theater

Friday, January 13, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:11 p.m. CST, Friday, January 13, 2012
Johanna Parnell looks to the script in Director Agnes Wilcox’s lap during a Prison Performing Arts rehearsal for “The Tempest” on Nov. 10 at Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia. The program aims to help the incarcerated build skills such as teamwork and discipline that will help their re-entry to society.

VANDALIA — The actors file into the rehearsal room in two's and four's. Some smile at each other. Others glance around cautiously. They wear identical costumes of beige trousers and vests over white T-shirts. Some wear subtle makeup.

The director of the ensemble, a small woman with round glasses and a firm handshake, greets them, then pulls a roll of blue carpenter’s tape from her bag and passes it around. The women tear off little pieces and stick them to the floor to mark the perimeter of a stage. Together they transform the visiting room of the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center into a theater.

Attending prison plays

Anyone who does not have an outstanding warrant or prior felony convictions can attend Prison Performing Arts performances. Admission is free, but spectators must contact Prison Performing Arts at 314-289-4190 or and sign and return three prison entry forms well before the play. For instance, the deadline was Jan. 6 for the Jan. 23 performance of The Tempest. Theatergoers should arrive at least 30 minutes early, bring photo identification and leave all personal belongings in their cars. The website for Prison Performing Arts is

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The inmates-turned-actresses meet on Thursday afternoons in November for their once-a-week rehearsal of William Shakespeare’s "The Tempest," Acts III, IV and V.  They will perform, in full costume and makeup, on Jan. 18 and 19 for fellow inmates, and again Jan. 23 for family, friends and Department of Corrections staff.

Director Agnes Wilcox has been staging Shakespearean plays in prisons since 1995 through Prison Performing Arts, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that teaches performance arts in Missouri prisons and youth correctional centers.

She brought the program to the women’s prison in Vandalia in 2003. The performance group at the facility here, which houses about 1,500 minimum and maximum security prisoners, is open to all inmates, regardless of sentence or crime.

The Vandalia actresses have performed a few non-Shakespearean plays, including a Bertolt Brecht play and one contemporary piece about black women wearing large church hats. But the prisoners continue to ask for Shakespeare. They staged the first acts of "The Tempest" in July.

Wilcox says Shakespeare is popular with the women here because he tells their stories.

"We illustrate with our work that a lot of great theater is about us," Wilcox says. "A lot of people I work with are extremely isolated, and when they see themselves or their story on stage it makes a great deal of difference."

Why Shakespeare

LaWanda Jackson, 36, and serving a life sentence, will play the lead in this performance of "The Tempest." She is Prospero, or, as she’s been dubbed for this all-female version, Prospera.

"This is the only (role) that kind of meant something, I guess you could say," Jackson said.

Shakespeare's Prospero is a former king who was stripped of his power. He learns magic and now lives to control others and get revenge. Even so, he's a good character, sort of. He takes care of his daughter, and he forgives his enemies — after he's terrorized and regained control over them.

The story is about power and how people use – or abuse – it. It's also about punishment, imprisonment and the shadowy lines between good and evil. Finally, it's about happy endings.

In rehearsals at the women's prison, Prospera has been compared to the parole board for her controlling behavior and bargaining practices. It's a running joke when she makes an offer to free one of her slaves after "just one more job."

Even so, Jackson says playing an angry woman who cares about her child touched her on a different level than did her previous roles.

"I don't have any children, but I can relate to the whole thing from a family angle," she says. "When all you have is this person, you try to tell her, 'It's for a reason that I am the way that I am. And I'm trying to hold you near and dear. We kind of got screwed, but we've got each other.'"

Jackson says she empathizes with the character who makes tough choices for family. Prospera wants to take revenge on the people who caused her trouble — and she has to justify her actions to her daughter.

"She's got to try to make her understand: 'I'm not evil,'" Jackson says. "'I'm just where I'm at. It's just us.'"

Leaving crimes at the door

Actors have a saying that they leave their baggage at the door when they come to rehearsal. With Wilcox, actresses leave their crimes at the door.

Missouri court records show that some of these actresses have been convicted of murder, assault and domestic violence. Some have pleaded guilty, some not. Jackson is here for life without parole, for a crime she committed when she was 19.

But Wilcox doesn't ask about that. She says she wouldn't want to be defined by the worst thing she has ever done, and she doesn't want her actresses defined that way either.

Wilcox, who cites "theater reasons" when she will only say that she is over 50, has felt an affinity with prisoners since she was 17.  She visited a prison with her mother and saw people who seemed the same as her except they were less privileged. She started bringing plays into prisons in 1989 with The New Theatre, a St. Louis theater she co-founded.

When The New Theatre closed in 1995, Wilcox continued the prison program. She established programs in a men's prison, Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, and St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center. She expanded to the Vandalia women's prison in 2003.

The Missouri Arts Council, the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission, private foundations and individual donors funded her initial work as Prison Performing Arts, and the group is now funded through various public agencies, private foundations, investments and private and corporate donations. The group has a board of directors, four paid staff and about 75 volunteers.

Some actors joined Prison Performing Arts to learn to speak in front of other people. Others wanted a break from the monotony of prison life. Some have acted before, and some haven't. Almost all, though, speak of gaining confidence.

Wilcox calls the phenomenon "self-actualization" and says it is not exclusive to prisoner actors.

"Everyone is on stage at some point," she says. "I think it's the very best thing we have to offer — to give people an opportunity to be seen, to be appreciated, to be lionized."

She starts with exercises that connect the actresses to each other. At this rehearsal, the warm-up game is "whoop-kaching," which involves passing a clap around a circle in various patterns. Some actresses clap at each other with enthusiasm. Some clap less eagerly, glad perhaps just to avoid messing up. But all participate, paying attention and reacting to each other.

Prison is ill-suited to teaching the skills of acting: vulnerability, trust, self-expression. In prison, Wilcox says, being vulnerable is often equated with being weak.

"It's very difficult to be open when you live in a situation where that can be dangerous," she says. 

Her actresses work against peer pressure and prison restrictions. They aren’t allowed costumes, props or a stage platform until a week before performance. They must submit to a strip search to work in the visiting room, where they perform for people from the outside. And, due to work obligations, they can only meet five and a half hours a week for rehearsals and a spoken word poetry class, which is why they do Shakespearean plays one, two or three acts at a time.

Speaking in verse

On the taped-out stage, the actresses begin blocking their actions for Act III, Scene 3. Prospera's fairy slaves walk around offering platters of food to other characters, who watch and look skeptical. They speak Shakespearean verse with Midwestern accents.

"A living drollery! Now I will believe that there are unicorns..." recites one with a straight face.

Wilcox jumps up. "Everybody’s a little surprised," she says, suggesting characters' reactions. "What's the first thing you think?"

Someone mumbles.

Wilcox answers, echoing, "'What the hell?' Yeah!"

A few people chuckle, but Wilcox is the only one who cusses out loud throughout the rehearsal.

She has already been through the script, line by line, with the actors. But they still need permission and encouragement to express the emotions behind the words.

She tells them they need inner monologues; they should ponder at least five thoughts while considering the proffered food. The women hesitate and then, some loudly, some softly, voice their thoughts: "What's this?" "Who are you?" "Where did you come from?"

Several women speak with feeling about the beauty of Shakespeare's vocabulary and verse.

"The work we do is not easy," Wilcox says. "When people do Shakespeare, they realize they might be able to do other things in life they didn't think they could do."

Taking a step

Lori Greenwell, 52, stands with hand on hip and glares at the fairy slaves serving food. She has large brown eyes that usually looked more kind than indignant — "Pollyanna" another actress calls her — but in this moment she furrows her eyebrows and purses her lips. She is certain her character, a king, would not be pleased about being served last.

"What are you going to do?" Wilcox asks her.

"I'm—" Greenwell breaks off and starts over, this time in character, "Excuse me, I'm the king."

"Well, what are you going to do about it?" Wilcox prods.

Greenwell takes a step toward a slave with a tray, but looks at Wilcox before walking the rest of the way. "Am I going to go over there?"

"I don't know. Are you?" Wilcox asks.

"I don’t know," Greenwell says.

"Do it!" Wilcox says.

Greenwell stomps toward the spirit and glares.

Greenwell is new to playing the character of the king but played Gonzalo in the play's early acts last year. She says that, when casting parts, Wilcox seemed to know her better than she knew herself. That started to change through playing the role of Gonzalo, who allowed Greenwell to unleash her talkative and well-meaning nature.

"Look how lush and lusty the grass is, how green," she says, quoting a verse and gesturing to the pastel-colored floor tiles of the visiting room.

In addition to acting, some inmates choose to learn poetry through Prison Performing Arts. After play performances, members of the spoken word class present their own verses, often about prison life.

At youth centers, Prison Performing Arts staff and volunteers also teach hip-hop poetry, improvisation, dance anthropology, which is the study of other cultures through dance, West African drumming and capoeira, a dance developed among slaves in 16th-century Brazil. They partner with The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis on a Shakespeare for a New Generation youth program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. They teach performance art in St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center, Hogan Street Regional Youth Center and the men’s prison, Northeastern Correctional Center in Bowling Green and run a theater in St. Louis with alumni, former inmate actors.

Building bridges

Performing Shakespeare builds bridges, many women at Vandalia say, in an environment where openness is risky. It also gives them something interesting to talk about. After performing plays, actresses often are complimented by other inmates, or asked about acting or costumes. Fellow prisoners are a supportive audience, actress Patty Prewitt, 62, says: "Don't you feel like they're pulling for us?"

LaWanda Jackson joined the acting troupe after seeing Prewitt perform in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," one of Shakespeare’s comedies in which Prewitt’s character was turned into a donkey. Later, when Jackson saw Prewitt walking the outdoor track during recreational time, she ran after her to ask about the program.

Jackson wanted to know if people serving long sentences could join, as some programs in the women's prison are only open to short-timers. Prewitt says she wanted to laugh: she, too, is here on a life sentence.

Prewitt won't be eligible for parole until she is 86. These performances and poetry provide ways for her, a mother of five, to connect with her grandchildren.

"I've been locked up 25 years," she said. "I have 10 grandkids that I've never been home with."

After performing in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," she sent her grandchildren the donkey’s head costume so they could play dress up.

Chances to connect with family are limited in prison. Inmates can hug and kiss visitors once when they come in and when they leave. They may hold children, but others can only hold hands.

Kamorra Sneed, 35, also connects with her family through acting. She had no experience with acting, but joined the cast of "The Tempest" with a line-heavy role just two weeks before the performance of part one. The actor cast in that role had quit, and Sneed's cellmate encouraged her to step in.

Back home, two of Sneed's teenage children act. Her daughter debuted this year. Her son received roses from some girls after a performance. Sneed hasn't been able to see either of them on stage, but she is hoping they can make it to her Jan. 23 performance.

Leaving through double-locked doors

The rehearsal comes to a close near Greenwell’s line, "I cannot too much muse such shapes, such gesture and such sound ..."

The actors peel tape off the floor and pass back through double-locked doors to be searched and readmitted to their lives inside.

Wilcox leaves through another set of double doors to the outside. She eats dinner at a small cafe before returning to the prison to teach poetry that evening.

Wilcox has a bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Wisconsin, a master's in English from Vanderbilt University and a master of fine arts in Theater Directing from New York University. Since 1973, she has worked as faculty or director at various schools, universities and theaters. Since 2006, she has worked solely with Prison Performing Arts.

She plans at some point to work with actors outside of prisons again, but for now her goals are to expand Prison Performing Arts to serve all the prisons in Missouri.

She says her methods as a director are inspired by Viola Spolin, a director who created theater games and helped develop the idea of improvisational acting in America. Instead of fretting before performances, Wilcox says she watches her plays and decides she loves them. That helps her to direct positively.

It doesn't mean, however, that she takes it easy on her actors. She doesn't see a great difference between actors inside or outside — some people can speak Shakespeare well and some can't — but she thinks sometimes the actors inside have a more tangible understanding of Shakespeare’s high stakes.

"When I'm really distressed that people aren't working hard enough, I tell them they can either be convicts doing Shakespeare or they can be actors performing," she says.

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danny kohl January 13, 2012 | 12:20 p.m.

Being in the audience for a performance is a moving experience. The women reading their own poetry is even more moving. Do plan to attend the next one.

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