PPA in the Greater St. Louis Humanities Festival

I've seen a few shows recently with Prison Performing Arts, and I've been nothing but impressed. I come in not knowing what I'm going to encounter, and I walk out always feeling like I can take on the world.

PPA's Alumni Theatre Company in the 2014 Greater St. Louis Humanities Festival photo by Jane Martin

PPA's Alumni Theatre Company in the 2014 Greater St. Louis Humanities Festival
photo by Jane Martin

Theatre is a great way to gain an understanding of others around you, as well as yourself, and I have thanked PPA many times for challenging me to understand others in a way I never imagined. PPA's production of Going Home in the Humanities Festival last month offered that same kind of discovery. Walking into The Stage at KDHX, I figured the play would be one that was like any usual production - beginning, middle, end, maybe with a Q&A. What happened, however, was quite different.

Before my eyes, I saw qualities that have been sadly lacking in some professional performances today: sincerity and enthusiasm. No one was announcing to me who they were, no one trying to prove to me that they were some kind of professional. Instead, each person was up there doing what theatre is supposed to do in the first place: tell a story. And what a story did they tell!

Through humor and reflection, PPA's Alumni Theatre Company shared with us the difficulty adjusting to everyday life after returning home from prison. It made me realize how much I take for granted: the simple handshake of trust between two people, the look of approval someone gives when hiring one for a job, and the ability to grow as a person and grow with others as a team in this big, crazy world. Each scene presented a unique perspective and opened new doors to my understanding.

There is another important lesson I learned from Going Home - everyone has the capability to change. Sometimes the person you thought you were is not always the person you really are or who you can become. That was one of the biggest realizations for me. I may think one way now, but I may have a different view on life in the next five to ten years. And if I want to change for the better, or take a brand new path in life, who is to say I can't?

At the end of the day, no matter what I do in life, what is the most important is that I keep one path near and close to my heart: the path going home.

Mollie Amburgey
Insight Theatre Company

 photo by Jane Martin

Ten Years of Courage, Collaboration, and Hip Hop

You Have a Week...

photos by blueShadow Photography

photos by blueShadow Photography

It was really moving to be a part of the 10 year celebration and share the stage for a brief moment with the kids as a "performer" after being in the role of "staff" for so long.  I've performed outside of the JDC setting many times, but it was special to read one of our kid's poems knowing what they go through before, during and after their stay with us and how we ask them to crank it out on a page while they are here during this project.

For some of them, they are writing, reading and performing something for the first time ever in this program.

The emotion and energy are always two things that audience members say they are blown away by each year.  Who wouldn't be - as the kids tell us true tales of love, hate, abuse, struggle, pain, pride and success. 

I'll never forget James' mom standing up and just bursting with emotion and pride as her son read "Black Woman" to the crowd in 2011.  Secretly (or maybe not?) I have held back a tear on many occasions at a Hip Hop performance, but that was one that probably squeezed out. 

Or how about Saturday night when Rachel read Miko's poem and then triumphantly reported that he had accomplished his goal of going to college just as he stated in his 2012 poem "Shift in Spirit."  Powerful.

We always talk as a team during the week about how the flow of the project will go with movement of kids in and out of workshops, how to structure the classes and show, and planning our diligent efforts to get kids to re-engage and get back in there.  Most of the time it works, sometimes not, but those are our roles reaching these young men and women where they are while they are with us. 

We have such an experienced team of teaching artists now that the teamwork needed to pull off this huge task in just a week's time just comes naturally.  You can see it in the everyday operation though as each person takes care of his/her part.  That speaks volumes to the curriculum that we have for the kids and the seasoning of our teaching artists who want to come back each year and be part of this.

Of course, the superstar of this whole production has become PPA's Rachel Tibbetts.  She does not get enough credit.  I was touched to see the youth explode into a cheer when her name was mentioned at the end of the show.

She deserves every bit of that including the impromptu hugs from four kids.

When you have that kind of support behind you, you aren't afraid to bare your heart and soul to a room full of strangers, your parents, peers, and the staff who are in charge of you every day.  That kind of audience would intimidate anyone - but these kids, untrained and full of talent - find that courage thanks to Rachel and our teaching artists and staff every single year.

I'm not really sure of any Detention Center that has a partnership like what we have with PPA through the Hip Hop Project.  We are very lucky.

They go above and beyond to ensure that our kids get the best arts experience they can while they are under our care.  It's a special thing to know this program is alive and well right here in St. Louis.  To see our youth have such a success after a goal has been set before them and a week of hard work is behind them is an incredible thing to witness.  I am truly grateful to be a part.

Nathan Graves, Assistant Superintendent
St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center

photos by blueShadow Photography

Transforming Lives with Shakespeare & Poetry

The Vandalia Women’s Theatre is a resourceful group with an intrepid leader: cast members may disappear, actors may have to take on roles just days before the performance, weather and lock-downs may interfere with rehearsals, and hundreds of lines of Shakespeare’s verse may stump even the most willing actor—but the show must go on, and does—powerfully and inspiringly.

Last Thursday’s performance of Julius Caesar, Acts I & II was an ardent, at times luminous display of dauntless teamwork, joyful energy, and flashes of real talent. One audience member new to PPA called the performance and poetry “inspired and inspiring.”

The actors form an authentic “troupe.” For example,  “Cassius” (Nikki) who had reluctantly taken on her enormous role just a few days before, and forced to read from her script, did so with understanding and clear diction.  Her fellow actors offered her support by carrying their scripts, (though none needed to consult them as they moved and spoke with confidence).

One actor and poet, new to the troupe and initially head-duckingly shy, read her poetry and responded to the Q and A with visibly increasing confidence and enjoyment. What we witnessed that evening was a meaningful portrayal of Cassius’ treachery and Brutus’ self-deception, inventively set in prison and performed authentically by women who are all too familiar with treacherous gossip. But more than that, we witnessed the wonder of personal transformation, connection, pride, and—remarkably, given the surroundings—joy.

In addition, the poets' work was heart-stopping last evening. Agnes Wilcox must be teaching the heck out of that poetry class.

Who would think that a trip within barbed wire could be so uplifting? (The sadness only comes when one steps out the front door, leaving behind these vibrant, talented women.)

Meg Sempreora, Volunteer in Corrections for PPA since 2001

PPA Announces the Election of Three Board Members

Prison Performing Arts is pleased to announce the election of three new members of its Board of Directors and Board Executive Committee: Steve MastinTara Nealey, and Karen Werner.

"PPA has put great effort in the last year in developing and strengthening our staff and Board," said Winston Calvert, Board Chair. "With the election of Steve, Tara, and Karen — each one bringing unique talents and a shared passion for PPA's mission — we are well-positioned for a very successful 2014."

Read about our new Board members below:

Steve Mastin, Treasurer
Steve has more than seven years of experience as a Chief Financial Officer, with particular expertise in designing consumer-finance programs and crafting turn-around strategies and plans. The former CFO of St. Louis-based NFP, Steve serves as a Board Member, Executive Committee member, and Treasurer for SMOTJ and as a Board Member for the Center for Head Injury Services. 

Tara Nealey, Development Committee Chair
A registered patent attorney specializing in life sciences technologies, Tara is a shareholder in the Science and Technology Practice group in the St. Louis office of Polsinelli PC. She holds a Ph.D. in Physiology (Neuroscience) from the University of Rochester School of Medicine. Tara has served for more than four years on the Creve Coeur City Council, contributing as a member for Ward II and a liaison to and member of the City Employee Pension Board. She has provided pro bono representation for women seeking restraining orders against domestic abusers, and she has served as pro bono guardian ad litem representing minors whose parents or guardians sought orders of protection on their behalf.

Karen Werner, Board Development Chair
A conservatory-trained actor, Karen has for years served as a Teaching Artist for a variety or arts organizations, including Shakespeare Festival St. louis, COCA, and The Disability Project. Her belief in the transformative power of art — and that human development can benefit from drama education and sensory awareness — led her to PPA. Beyond theatre and her community commitments, Karen is a somatic practitioner and Doula in private practice.

Marcia's Poem: "Sound Advice"

One of PPA's many current projects is Vandalia Women’s Theatre Spoken Word Project. In July, PPA Artistic Director Agnes Wilcox assigned the Vandalia women a range of New York Times articles on famous and not-so-famous people; each PPA poet read her article and wrote a poem in the voice and attitude of the famous person, giving advice to other people. Below, PPA poet Marcia responds to the NYT profile "Kacey Musgrave's Rebel Twang,"  with her own piece, "Sound Advice." Marcia tells us, “This is my 2nd semester with Spoken Word. I love the class because it is an outlet for creativity and my imagination.”

"Sound Advice" 

Aim high
Follow your arrow
wherever it points
Sing your heart out
Love who you love
no matter what
Do what the hell you want to do
since everyone will have their
opinion either way.
Push the envelope
all the way to the addressee
Don’t let judgmental people
or your own inhibitions
throw you off track
Make lots of noise
Kiss lots of boys
or kiss lots of girls if that’s what you like
but love yourself
because it’s better to be hated for 
who you are than loved for who you are not.