Photograph by Whitney Curtis
Every week, Agnes Wilcox drives 85 miles to Bowling Green and Vandalia to direct convicted thieves and killers in—well, so far they've done Hamlet, Julius Caesar, The Gospel at Colonus, Macbeth, Richard III and A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's a far cry from the dinner theater at the foot of the Cumberland Plateau where she directed musicals and the work of George Bernard Shaw; a far cry from The New Theatre she founded here to bring contemporary American drama to St. Louis; a far cry from the sweet suburban acting students she taught at the Webster University conservatory.
But the productions staged by Prison Performing Arts, the nonprofit Wilcox founded 17 years ago, are full of comedy and tragedy—onstage and behind the scenes. One of her Hamlets had shot two people and left them for dead; he understood the violent confusion that throbbed inside Hamlet. When the man who played the ghost spoke, it was as if the man he'd murdered was talking through him, using Shakespeare's words. And Derrick "Big Hutch" Hutchison, serving time for armed robbery, drew himself up to announce, "I play Horatio, the scholar." A huge man, bald and full of menace, Hutchison told a reporter for public radio's This American Life about the prison hierarchy, saying scornfully of his fellow actors, "These guys are minnows." He was the blue whale who told the killer whales what to do, he announced. He called Horatio a chump and Hamlet "a minnow, too," for hesitating to avenge his father's death. "If you rape my daughter, I got to do you, man," Big Hutch said.
His performance in the play was sensitive, emotionally nuanced, pitch-perfect.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST DECIDE TO DIRECT THEATER? When I was 7, because all the kids in our neighborhood did performances, led by a girl two years older than me. [Tilts her head back and infuses a little drama.] Her name was Mary Gjetson. And I wanted to be like her.
WHY? She brought disparate things together. And she made a "show" of what we could do. We're talking backbends, trampolines—this is primitive child performance. We charged our mothers a quarter. They were fleeced.
WHATEVER MADE YOU WANT TO WORK IN PRISONS? I'd visited a women's prison when I was a teenager—my mom was on the Wisconsin governor's board of health and human services, and we went inside the women's prison at Taycheedah. And everybody looked like me.
ARE THE STEREOTYPES STILL GETTING CHALLENGED? A while back, at The Walls, the maximum-security prison in Jefferson City, we performed A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, and after the play there was a short discussion. This giant guy [she reaches up as high as her arms will go] with gray hair in a ponytail and a bandanna says, "Can I talk to you?" I said, "Let's just go over here" and moved to a quiet place. He said [she musters a tough stance], "How come nobody talked about denotative and connotative language?"
YOU STARTED OUT PERFORMING IN PRISONS, THEN BEGAN TEACHING ACTING TO JUVENILE DETENTION AND INCARCERATED WOMEN … The women, many of whom had suffered physical or emotional abuse, seemed to have real trouble living inside their bodies. And for the young people, physical was basketball. Now we have a class in Afro- Caribbean dance, and their definition of physicality has changed, and they have learned a whole new kind of stamina.
SO HOW'D YOU GET TO THE HARD-CORE MALE PRISONERS? A young man named Manuel Johnson, who was incarcerated at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Mo. Every time we brought in a TNT [The New Theatre] production, he said, "When are we going to make a show?"
AND YOUR ANSWER? Oh, I put him off for years. But Manuel was a very determined man. For six months I met every week with a local actor and producer named Debbie Dawson to puzzle this out. And one afternoon, Debbie said, "Shakespeare. That's the only option." Which terrified me. She said the characters were universal, and all the emotions were contained in Shakespeare. So I said, "O-kaaaaayyy."
HOW'D YOU GET COSTUMES? For the first act [each was staged separately], we were able to use period costumes from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and they were gorgeous. But when we went back to ask about Act II, those costumes were out on rental. I panicked, but Stacy [Snyder, OTSL's wardrobe director] suggested men's formalwear. And they looked so beautiful. Oh my God, they were gorgeous. Some of them had never worn formalwear. One man said, "I need to have a picture taken in this get-up. My mother has never seen me like this."
THE INEVITABLE QUESTION: DID DOING THIS CHANGE ANYBODY? One man, a guy named Jackie, stayed out of solitary for one entire semester, and when I said this to an associate superintendent, she said, "That couldn't possibly be." She looked it up on her computer and realized that yes, indeed, Jackie had stayed out of trouble for almost five months—which was unheard of.
SO WHAT'S THE MAGIC? THE EGO OF PERFORMING? We're all performers. We all seek recognition; we all want to experiment with parts of ourselves that we don't show other people. Big, rough, scary guys turn out to love playing scholars. I also think that if people have an opportunity to express themselves, to see themselves as noble or positive characters and to develop a sense of self, they are better able to deal with the problems of everyday life.
HOW MUCH OF THE PAST DO YOU HAVE TO UNDO? A horrifying number of the people with whom I work have been told they're stupid. They were finally convinced and did very poorly in school. Then they started acting and realized they could memorize long passages of difficult language. One man was in the chorus, and he wasn't picking up the line I gave him to sing. He said, "My teacher told me I couldn't sing; when we did the Christmas pageant, she told me just to mouth the words." I said, "You have no choice here. You've got to sing."
YOU'VE CALLED WHAT YOU DO "STEALTH LITERACY." I love when a new man comes into the group and he's having trouble reading, and three or four guys will say, "Oh, don't worry, it gets easier. You'll be fine in a couple of weeks." There's a member of our company currently who has great difficulty reading and pronouncing words. When we are in a circle reading, Kevin reads very slowly and relies on someone next to him to help him with the difficult words. And every man in the room waits.
LOGISTICS HAVE TO BE TOUGH IN PRISON— ONE OF YOUR HAMLETS GOT ASSAULTED, AN AMISH PEDOPHILE GOT RELEASED BEFORE THE PERFORMANCE DATE, PRISON OFFICIALS AREN'T ALWAYS THRILLED … Yes. We'd never do this if we didn't have the warden's backing. But the tough sell is usually with midlevel staff. As with all programming coming in from the outside, we require paperwork, extra time from the officers, careful inspections of every costume. It's a commitment. But I think often staff members are genuinely moved by what they see—there are officers who come to watch rehearsals.
THESE GUYS MAY HAVE BEEN ACTING A ROLE ON THE STREET, BUT THEY'VE NEVER ACTED PROFESSIONALLY. HOW IS DIRECTING THEM DIFFERENT? Professionals have technique, which means it's easy for them to produce a second, third, fourth, fifth time the brilliance of a moment. Some amateur actors can do that; others can't.
WHAT DO YOU TELL THEM ABOUT ACTING AND THEATER? That a truthful actor is compelling. That if you're thinking about a career in theater, you shouldn't quit your day job. That you are the conduit through which the play is revealed to the audience, and if the audience doesn't understand, it's our fault.
HOW GOOD ARE THEY AT COLERIDGE'S "WILLING SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF"? Brilliant. If we were in a room of ordinary adults, they would probably not be as good. Prison, although it's dull, is a very intense environment, and I think it allows inmates to go further into an imagined situation than your average person.
WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE TEACHING EXERCISE? A game I may or may not have made up called "0 to 24." The title comes from the marks on the floor of the gym at the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center. An actor stands at 0, and between 0 and 24 is an object you would call a chair. It may or may not be a chair; that's up to the actor to decide. He or she is required to walk from 0 to 24 dealing in some way with that object. At Vandalia, a woman slipped out of her wheelchair at 0, crawled over to the object and used it to cover her. She was obviously in some kind of wartime scene, and she crawled with the object on her back all the way to 24.
HOW HARD ARE YOU ON YOUR ACTORS? They must say the words as written. They must understand what they are saying. They must what I call "act to the end of the line." Many young actors, in trying to make Shakespeare sound contemporary, take pauses that screw up rhythm and meaning. They have learned not to take pauses in the middle of a line. They have also learned not to speak like a radio announcer who says "swords and daggers." You don't stress conjunctions.
HOW DO YOU TEACH—OH, WHAT WAS IT? Iambic pentameter. They learn to stomp. Rather than beating out iambic pentameter with their hands, they stomp it with their feet. And they learn it before we name it. Once they can do it, then we tell them it's iambic pentameter, because high school has ruined Shakespeare for many people. You should try stomping. It really makes a difference to have it in your whole body.
IF WILL WERE ALIVE AND SITTING IN YOUR AUDIENCE, WHAT WOULD HE SAY? He was a businessman. I think if he was getting royalties, he wouldn't care who performed! Also, we know he wrote for regular people, and that's who we are.
I WAS STRUCK BY IRA GLASS' COMMENT ON THE CHICAGO PUBLIC RADIO SEGMENT [THIS AMERICAN LIFE, AUGUST 9, 2002] ABOUT YOUR PROGRAM: HE POINTED OUT THAT WHAT THE ACTING REQUIRES—EMOTIONAL VULNERABILITY—IS EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A SUCCESSFUL INMATE. Yeah. I just wish Will and other audience members could see the transition at the door of our rehearsal room from being alert and self-protective into being vulnerable and collaborative. I don't think I could do it.
AND GLASS IS COMING TO ST. LOUIS? Yes, September 27 at The Pageant. This American Life called to get an update on the program, and I kept saying, "I wonder if he'd come," and they said, "Ask him!"
HOW COMMON ARE THEATER PROGRAMS IN PRISON? Every California prison used to have an arts program, and studies showed that they reduced recidivism and increased staff safety. The results were astonishing. But the legislature stopped funding them.
WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE COMMENT FROM AN INMATE? After a performance for outside guests, one of the men said, "Nobody has ever applauded for me before."