Actors Perform Stories Written by Local Prisoners
Her daughter’s favorite color is yellow, the car that takes her across town is yellow, the suit she wears at the Northwest Arkansas Community Correction Center is yellow, and the “Prison Stories” project presented Thursday by five northwest Arkansas actors at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church put the audience focus on “yellow.”
“I wear the color yellow, but I am not yellow. It’s just the color I have to wear right now, because it’s all that’s given to me,” said Jordan Scott, one of the “Prison Stories” performers.
“Prison Stories” is a writing project started in Memphis, Tenn., by actress Elaine Blanchard in 2009. The project offers a small group of imprisoned women an intensive writing course. They use writing to look into the lives of incarcerated women and then they transform their stories into a theatrical performance. Volunteers act in the theater adaptations to allow the inmates to “develop a deeper trust in themselves and the power of their stories,” Blanchard said on the Prison Stories Project webpage.
“There are times when times are good and there are times when times are bad but time is all I’ve ever had and now it’s locked up time,” said actress Arianne Ellison from the stage, reading the poetry written by the inmates.
The writers are kept anonymous because of the sensitivity of the performance’s topics such as drugs, abuse and family.
Five performers sat in chairs on a dimly lit stage in the parish hall while poetry and dialogue bantered from actor to actor without pause. The script had a unique tone for each woman it represented and it moved rapidly through an array of delicate topics ranging from “meth” to “men.”
The performances grew increasingly personal as the stories progressed from life before prison to looking into the future outside the prison bars. Nearly 100 people packed into St. Paul’s and sat hushed until they erupted into an overwhelming, standing ovation.
Kathy McGregor, a professional storyteller, received a small Arkansas Arts Council educational grant to work with Blanchard for “a couple of weeks” and to eventually bring this project to northwest Arkansas, she said.
St. Paul’s assistant rector, Suzanne Stoner oversees the prison ministry at the Northwest Arkansas Community Correctional Center, which is why McGregor thought to have the performance in the parish, she said.
“I contacted Suzanne Stoner. Little did I know her passion and her love is being in the prison, so they jumped on the opportunity,” McGregor said.
Five actors took the stage Thursday and read the words that the nine imprisoned women spent four months writing. Their poetry, personal testimonies, letters, essays and array of literature reflected their lives before and while-in prison, McGregor said.
McGregor followed Blanchard’s prototype of working with the women twice a week for four months to establish the project in northwest Arkansas, she said.
“Elaine found, after a number of productions, that it took that long to develop trust and to set up a situation where you could go deep,” McGregor said of developing relationships with the women. “Trust is an issue with a lot of them, and four months is a reasonable time to establish that.”
McGregor brought in four artists from around the community to help with the creative aspects of the project: a folk musician, a visual artist, a poet and a screenwriter. These artists taught the women to write songs, create masks and write poetry. They were taught to write literature that could be adapted for the stage, McGregor said.
Katie Nichols was named the “resident poet” of the project, and she initially was scheduled to teach the women in prison twice, but she visited the women many times throughout the four months, Nichols said.
“It just felt right I suppose,” Nichols said. “Originally Erika said she wanted me to keep on coming because the women loved the exposure to poetry, and I could have a role in help them write things for the script.
“At first, I just brought in tools to get them writing abstract ideas, and then as I got to know the women, I would always try to bring in an arsenal of poems. I would try to pick certain poems out that really spoke to the women or individual issues that came up.”
Five actors were also recruited to perform the play at St. Paul’s. The actors had a little less than two days to rehearse the play, said Erika Wilhite, the playwright who adapted the women’s work into a full screenplay.
Wilhite compiled the screenplay from the writing produced by women in the program. She looked for common themes and put a majority of the work into sections, such as “normal days,” “men” and “mothers” for the script, she said.
“Beyond just writing their own stories, they read so much and they saw how sometimes your words just don’t serve and sometimes you need fragments, images and poetry to communicate these enormous emotions,” Wilhite said. “Something happens when you understand and you ‘get’ a poem. To have so many ‘ah ha’s’ with the literature was part of the project.”
Wilhite came to work at the prison a month after the project started, she said.
“I thought I was going to meet a bunch of hoodlums but I met a bunch of moms,” Wilhite said. “This facility is doing something very wonderful to their minds because they were so loving. My stereotypes were definitely broken down.”
The play was performed for the women involved with the “Prison Stories” project as well as the entire community at the Northwest Arkansas Community Correctional Center Thursday afternoon, McGregor said.
“These words on their own are so brilliant and so powerful. This is the best gift an actor could ask for, you just read it and it speaks for itself,” Scott said.
While writing the play, Wilhite paid special attention to punctuation to create identities through the writing. The play itself didn’t involve any action, but rather just the spoken word from the “Prison Stories” project, she said.
“I was so concerned about whether I needed a dash or a comma or a period,” she said. “It was like writing Shakespeare. I’m a professional actor and I never get nervous, but I hardly slept the night before. I wanted to do this right for the women.”
The actors also felt pressure to perform the play to the best of their ability, Ellison said.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting involved in when I said ‘yes.’ She just handed out the script a couple days ago; I realized how important it was, and I feel very lucky to be a part of it,” Ellison said.
This was the first implementation of “Prison Stories,” and McGregor plans to continue it with a different group of women every four months.
The long-term goals of the project are to reduce recidivism and to build a halfway house in northwest Arkansas for the women in the project, McGregor said.
“I don’t want to help these women; I want to empower them,” McGregor said.