Several days a week, Agnes Wilcox, artistic director of Prison Performing Arts, drives nearly four hours to prisons in Bowling Green and Vandalia, where she leads classes in theater and poetry for the inmates. “They may be mentally ill, they may have made really bad decisions, but they have to live with that. I see people who have to try to forgive themselves every day for the damage that they’ve done to other people. And that is a burden I’m not sure I could bear,” she says.
Wilcox often chooses classic Shakespearean plays, filled with the universal drama of power, loss, and violence, for the inmates in her classes to perform. She has directed “Hamlet” several times, a play rich with family trauma and the psychological weight of revenge. In a video clip of an early production, an actor in a velvet cape recites impassioned dialogue to the silent ghost of Hamlet’s father, advancing towards him with an intense stare. Behind them is a tall chain-link fence, reinforced with barbed wire. Jack Hitt of the podcast “This American Life” interviewed several of Wilcox’s students about the production, and she heard the man who played the ghost, Danny Waller, describe how the play helped him process the crime he’d committed. “[He] talked about how important his character was to him. He said, ‘The body up there was mine, but the spirit was that of William Pride, the man I killed,’” Wilcox remembers.
Prison Performing Arts began as an outreach program of The New Theatre, a small professional company Wilcox founded in St. Louis. Drawing on her experience as an educator, she compares prison to a dark version of junior high. Inmates are told when to wake up, when to eat, and where they are required to be at all times. “You are told everything about your daily schedule, and you are very limited in your decision-making,” she says. “Being able to make decisions is very powerful. It makes a person feel like a human being.” In her class, the plays she chooses require her students to make choices about their characters’ motivations.
“I have the advantage of knowing people as they are now. Because they’re not the people they were before,” she says. Many of her students, especially female prisoners, who have abused others have often been abused themselves. “That is palpable. And I cannot judge them. That’s one of the lessons that prison inmates teach, and that our alumni teach. You cannot judge. There is no way you can put yourself in that person’s position.” A few weeks ago, she brought a poem by Emily Dickinson into one of her classes at a women’s prison. None of the students could decipher its central image, until a new, shy student finally spoke up and guessed the poem was about a snake. “Well, if you look at this sequence in the poem she talks about how frightened she is of it. I was trying to think of things that would frighten me in the garden,” the student explained. Wilcox was moved. “That woman, who had, I presume, been abused verbally or physically, was able to figure out something that all these older people, even some very educated people, could not fathom,” she says.
When Wilcox was a teenager living in Wisconsin, her mother was a civilian member of the Governor’s Board of Health and Social Services. The board visited all state institutions, including prisons, and one day Wilcox was allowed to take a short tour of the Taycheedah Correctional Institution–a high-security women’s prison in Fond du Lac, WI. Inside the bleak grey buildings, she found women whose lives had begun much like hers. “I realized when I was quite young that people who were convicted of crimes were just like me, but they had made very serious mistakes. And they were paying for it. Which didn’t take away how much they were just like me. So I’ve always felt comfortable in prison, and I’ve always felt safe in prison.”
As a child she remembers acting in backyard plays, directed by an older girl in her neighborhood. “I got hooked,” she says. She studied theater through college and graduate school, earning a B.A., an M.A., and an M.F.A. “Some of us had long childhoods where we were allowed to play. A number of people who are in prison had very lousy childhoods, and were not allowed to be kids and play. So the joy of play is something that we use to remind people of all the goodness in them,” she says, describing the improvisational exercises and theater games she uses to unlock her students’ sense of self-worth. “I’ve taught at New York University and at Webster and at Washington U, but this is my life’s work.”
Wilcox encourages her students to work together as they struggle to understand the difficult, poetic language of classic dramas. “I believe every person has a right to respect, and prison is not an environment that fosters that,” she says. She has worked with students who were functionally illiterate, who couldn’t pronounce words longer than two syllables, and were now tasked with memorizing Shakespearean dialogue. “But the understanding, which doesn’t even have to be spoken, is that we are now working at that person’s pace,” she says. She tells upset students that if they want their classmate to read more quickly, they should teach him or her how. “Theater is a place where we work communally, and prison is a place where it’s every man or woman for themselves,” Wilcox says.
Inmates can only gather in large groups if they are in the presence of someone officially certified to work in the prison, like Wilcox. “So if they’re going to do a play, they need me or someone with my credentials,” she says. When she is leading a class, she rarely faces open conflict with an inmate. “People know that if they don’t want to be in the room with me, they should leave. Because I have to be there for the project to go forward.”
Not every inmate is ready to commit to the intensity of her class. “Theater’s not for everybody,” she says. “If in the course of pursuing excellence I am harsh, it’s because I’m pursuing excellence.” Years ago, one of her students told her that he felt more invested in her class than he had been in anything else in his life, including his marriage. “He wasn’t, in my mind, all that committed to class,” she says. “But he began to understand the rewards of committing. And that may have helped him pull his life together.” She finds herself explaining her goal of excellence most often to people outside the prisons, not her students. “We are doing Shakespeare. We are not doing some cheesy whatever. We are doing a play by the greatest writer in the English language. And we can do it.”
Wilcox’s students joke with her that she changes her staging directions so often, they have to write in pencil. “I try to be very gentle, but very demanding,” she says. She remembers one student who took the time to sit beside her and watch the production from her perspective. He told her, “I never understood why you were so detailed–like, ‘No, you need to move two feet to the right.’” Watching the show as an audience member, he began to understand. “I see that now. I see the pictures that you’re making, and how those two feet make such a difference,” he said. Many of her students have never attended college, and Wilcox says most audiences come to their performances expecting an amateur production. Instead, they witness the inmates express an intimacy with their characters that often comes as a surprise.
Wilcox brings in an array of costumes and props for each production: a tunic with bright embroidery, a feathered hat, realistic-looking swords which the actors cross in a salute and then sheathe. Wilcox remembers being approved to give them a toy gun, which was then disapproved when she brought it to class. Decisions that might seem minor, such as whether or not inmates can use highlighters in class, are intensely scrutinized and debated by prison officials, and their decisions can change without warning. “I have signed a document for the Missouri Department of Corrections that says that I will obey all rules–the present rules and any future rules that are made–whether or not I know about them,” Wilcox says. Working within the legal system has taught her to be adaptable. “I learned it kicking and screaming. But it has been very good for me.” Although she is still frustrated by some aspect of the system at least once a week, by her own estimate, she has learned patience from her students. “When the system is rolling over us, they say, ‘There is nothing to be done. Don’t waste your energy being angry, frustrated, impatient. There’s nothing you can do.’”
In one of Wilcox’s first productions of “Hamlet,” she asked a group of students to invent their own entrance for a particular scene. She chose one younger man, who had previously been disinterested in the class, to lead the group. “He was sort of a nuisance,” she says. After brainstorming together, the group reappeared, rapping a song for their entrance. Wilcox told them that she liked it, but it wouldn’t work for the scene. They retreated, then later appeared on cue for their entrance with an energetic chant. Wilcox repeats it now, clapping her hands: “Hail the king! All hail the king! Hail the king!” In a video clip of the performance, the actors dance through the doorway in a line, shrugging their shoulders to the beat. “Now that was a gorgeous moment,” Wilcox says.
“I’ve been convinced again and again that great literature is for everyone, and that a person who does not understand Shakespeare has simply been badly taught or has seen bad performances, because it is all there,” she says. Recently, she began working with a new class at the men’s prison in Bowling Green on another performance of “Hamlet.” This particular class was initially hesitant about producing the play, or any work by Shakespeare, but Wilcox believes her students will come to relate with their characters. “It’s a great deal about them,” she says. At the heart of the play is a man dealing with a violent uncle, an unreliable mother, and an unstable girlfriend–common characters in her students’ own lives. “It’s great for my students to discover their stories on stage,” Wilcox says. “Very often the people with whom I work have been isolated geographically, they have been isolated from many of the good things in life, and now they’re isolated from society. So an opportunity to be part of Western culture, or even to see part of Western culture, is very comforting. Because it illustrates again and again–we are not alone.”
To learn more about Agnes Wilcox or Prison Performing Arts, visit here.