Act V

I sat crying in the Ursinus College parking lot to day. I had just listened to a pod-cast of an episode of my favorite public radio show, This American Life. This episode is called “Act V” and is about the work of the Prison Performing Arts project and the extraordinary Agnes Wilcox.

Agnes believes theatre can change people’s lives. Not only those who see it, but also and especially those who make it. So – after racking up an impressive career directing professional regional theatre – she began working with inmates. That’s right, the incarcerated. “Act V” describes Agnes’s production of Hamlet in one of Missouri’s maximum security prisons. Because prisoners are not allowed to congregate for any reason longer than one hour, Agnes decided to do one act every two months or so. She cast four Hamlets and had a full supporting cast. She could only meet with the prisoners for brief times, and each prisoner had to be strip-searched before coming into rehearsal and when leaving. Jack Hitt, the TAL writer presenting the show, was given a “screamer”: he carried in his pocket a small black box with a string to pull if he was attacked, whereupon guards would descend from all directions.

She was rehearsing Hamlet with murderers, child molesters and rapists. Or was she?

One of the most compelling aspects of “Act V” is that it asks the question: are we forever defined by one act we commit, no matter how hideous? And do we actually believe that human beings can change for the better after committing such an act? And if we think someone has been deeply and profoundly changed, then what? And these men were deeply changed as a result of their work with Agnes. Acting changed them. Shakespeare changed them. And they changed themselves.

What is prison for?

If you listen to “Act V” I hope you will be convinced, as I am, that the ultimate purpose of prison must be rehabilitation. Another affecting part of the story is hearing the inmates talk about working on Hamlet, and with Agnes. Many of the comments are along the lines of “she made me feel human again”. Even more astonishing is how this most high-brow of high-brow plays is illuminated by actors who have actually experienced violence, the giving and the receiving of it. The discussions they have with Jack about Hamlet, about character motivation, about the meaning of lines (an encounter with fog is “scarfed in my sea-cloak”) are as deep as any I’ve had with students in my 15 years of teaching in higher education.

Many of us struggle with how to bring more meaning to our lives in the theatre. This was Agnes’s solution. It might be mine too.