After approving Stacie Lents’ on-stage adaptation of her 2016 novel, Atwood makes plans to attend the prison performance
Christopher Limber couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw an email from “M.E. Atwood.”
Just a few weeks earlier, he had stamped and mailed a personal letter to Margaret Atwood, the Canadian author best known for her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale.
The letter was a simple request. Limber had read her 2016 novel, Hag-Seed, and wanted to bring it to stage—in prison.
“A friend of mine asked me if I’d heard of Hag-Seed,” he recalls. “They suggested I read it because it’s Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but set in a prison. What’s amazing is The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play. It’s the story of Prospero, the Duke of Milan who was usurped and banished by his brother.”
In Atwood’s book, Prospero is named Felix—a Canadian Artistic Director who gets fired while he’s directing The Tempest. After being fired, he joins a Prison Arts program to produce the play there.
Limber currently serves as Artistic Director of Prison Performing Arts and has directed The Tempest in prison; aside from the firing incident, he thought the parallels were uncanny. So, upon finishing the novel, he sent the letter to Atwood’s publisher.
“I thought, well, she’ll never write back.” And then she did.
“Developing a play for Hag-Seed would be a wonderful idea!” Atwood wrote in her email response to the letter. “I can't do it myself but would give permission and so forth, and consult if needed — it should really be developed by an in-house team, as it is in the book. It would be somewhat complex to do, however. You'd need the Felix story and then the Play within the Play.”
On that fateful day in July 2017, Limber committed to adapt Hag-Seed as the second script written under their New Plays Initiative, a multi-year program that places nationally-recognized playwrights into Missouri state prisons to create totally new productions.
Limber’s original goal in launching the New Plays Initiative was to enlarge the audience that sees PPA’s work. “It’s not always easy to get people to travel to prison performances,” he says. “We do an excellent job filling the audiences but they are small because of space limitations. There’s also a limit to the time that inmates can commit to performing in a prison. I wanted to create new plays of high artistic work from published public playwrights that could then be marketed to professional theatres after they run in prison.”
As Atwood suggested, the challenge of adapting Hag-Seed for stage—especially inside a prison—is not for theatre novices. Award-winning playwright Stacie Lents, who wrote the first New Plays Initiative original, Run-On Sentence, agreed to come on board to write Hag-Seed.
Though Lents’ Run-On Sentence told the stories of women in prison, it was not a biographical play; it was a fictional play with elements of real experience. Limber explains: “When Run-On Sentence premiered in prison, the incarcerated audience recognized the characters and the setting—the prison in which they existed. The play has real integrity and truth. Stacie is adapting Hag-Seed with the same attention to detail and truth for the men at Northeast Correctional Center. She and Atwood are currently collaborating to ensure the world of the play is authentic to a believable prison environment and faithful to Atwood’s adored bestseller.”
Lents, Atwood and Limber are working to ensure the world of the play is authentic and true to Atwood’s intention in the book.
“It’s tricky and fascinating work, and Stacie’s exceptional and is loving working with the generous and creative Ms. Atwood. She’s talking frequently to Margaret, and Margaret is contributing ideas, and generously making justified changes to help the books narrative work as a play,” says Limber.
"After meeting and talking with Chris in St. Louis, I found the project concept and the organization’s reputation excellent,” says Atwood. "Chris’s plan to study The Tempest in its entirety and then to work with an excellent playwright and the NECC men in the program is both educationally and artistically sound."
Ultimately, The Tempest is a play about forgiveness, identity and redefining one’s life. The themes of Shakespeare’s original and Atwood’s translation will resound in prison. Hag-Seed is slated to debut at Northeast Correctional Center (NECC) in Bowling Green, MO in a staged reading at the Northeast Correctional Center on January 2020. Rehearsal and performance of the finished adaptation will be at the prison as well and slated for June of 2020.
Performance dates and registration links for Hag-Seed will be made available on the Prison Performing Arts’ website. Margaret Atwood plans to attend the show in person and meet the cast of incarcerated artists.
The third installment in The New Plays Initiative is coming soon after Hag-Seed. Pamela Sterling, previous Executive Director for the Muny/Student Theatre Project in St. Louis and Professor of Youth at Arizona State University, is writing and developing “No Plan B” with the men of Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC) in Pacific, MO.