Voices Inside theater project helps inmates reflect on lives, possibly change

Herald-Leader Culture ColumnistAugust 31, 2012 

  • 'Voices Inside'

    What: Reading of plays written by inmates at Northpoint Training Center as part of Pioneer Playhouse's Voices Inside program

    When: 8 p.m. Sept. 10

    Where: Actors Theatre of Louisville, 316 W. Main St., Louisville

    Admission: Free

    Note: This is planned as a monthly presentation by Actors Theatre's Apprentice/Intern Company. Additional dates have not been scheduled.

BURGIN — Actor Eric Hedlund is playing a criminal. He has a gun in his hand and is about to hold up a store.

Suddenly, his legs get wobbly, things start swirling around him, and as he struggles to maintain balance, a mysterious man appears holding a red umbrella.

When Hedlund asks the identity of the man, played by inmate Derek Trumbo, he replies, "I'm that little voice in your head that tells you you're about to do something stupid."

The scene is playing out in front of a room full of people who have done something stupid — and illegal. The short play, Second Chance by Nathan Wright, is being performed in the chapel at Northpoint Training Center, a medium-security prison in Burgin, in front of an audience of prisoners and invited guests.

It is part of Voices Inside, a writing and performance project run by Pioneer Playhouse in Danville.

For the third summer, actors from the summer-stock theater went to the prison several times a week with director Robby Henson and Danville playwright Elizabeth Orndorff to work with inmates on writing and producing plays. Some of those works were presented Aug. 13 in the program's performance showcase.

The plays already have traveled beyond the walls of the prison. An annual program in New York presents readings of plays from Northpoint by well-known actors including former Lexingtonian and Oscar nominee Michael Shannon. On Sept. 10, Actors Theatre of Louisville's Apprentice/Intern Company will present the first of a planned monthly series of readings from the program.

Prisoners' perspective

The plays range from comic to serious, all with one thing in common: They are from the perspective of men who have been convicted of crimes and are in prison.

"We think a lot about what we would say if we could go back, talk to ourselves and give ourselves advice," says Trumbo, who was convicted of two sexual offenses in 2006 and played the little voice in Hedlund's head. "We write what we know."

On the day of the Aug. 13 performance, his play, Conviction, presented something he wished he knew: the feeling of being paroled. Trumbo's own parole request had been rejected that day, but he went on with the show, playing several roles including the parolee anxious about returning to the outside world.

"Derek saved me with some lines," Hedlund says in the Pioneer Playhouse van as it left Northpoint after the performance. Actress Kimberly Shepherd adds, "Rob saved me with some lines," referring to inmate Rob Daughenbaugh, whose convictions include burglary and manslaughter in 1986, and escape and arson in 1991.

"Often, in class, when someone writes something, they want Rob to read it first," Henson says of Daughenbaugh, 54, who participated in some high school and community theater before going to prison.

The actors and directors agree that in the confines of Northpoint, they have found some inmates with genuine theater chops.

More than theatrical

Theater skills are not the only aim of the program, whose stated goals include "develop empathy, compassion and trust, and to nurture a desire to help others," "to develop literacy and communication skills" and "take responsibility for life choices."

"Sometimes this program can make them take a hard look at themselves," Northpoint warden Steve Haney says. "We're always interested in additional programming for inmates."

Haney says all scripts are reviewed by the prison administration, and some are not allowed to be performed, "usually because we don't want to present anything that would jeopardize security or upset anyone."

Security has been an issue at Northpoint, particularly after an August 2009 riot in which several buildings were burned.

Henson and Orndorff recalled that they applied for funding for the program from the National Endowment for the Arts a few days before the riot. "We were hoping nobody in Washington followed the news in Kentucky," Orndorff said.

The program has received a $15,000 grant from the NEA and also is funded by $1,500 from the inmate canteen.

Henson and the other theater artists acknowledge there was some apprehension about going to the prison, but that soon faded as they got to work.

"Sometimes you have to remind yourself you are in there with murderers and stuff," says actor Boaz Still.

Their comfort level has reached a point that Henson and Orndorff frequently are allowed to move about the prison grounds unescorted.

"In a way, I feel like if something happened, the guys would fight to the death to defend us," Still says.

Henson says he has heard from the victims of some inmates involved in the program and understands why they might not like seeing the prisoners in the limelight.

"We don't shy away from what they've done," Henson says. "But we also believe in helping people have second chances. Ninety percent of the inmates in the program are getting out, so society is better served by them participating in this."

Effort is appreciated

Among the inmates, there is appreciation for what the theater artists are doing.

"Robby is a movie director," inmate Daniel Gibson says of Henson, who has numerous film credits including The Badge (2002), starring Billy Bob Thornton and Patricia Arquette. "He doesn't have to come do this."

Gibson just this year became involved in Voices Inside (prisoners have to apply). He has used it to reflect on his criminal past and its consequences.

He was serving a 37-year sentence at Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange in April 2005 when he escaped while at a Louisville hospital. Gibson eventually surrendered after a standoff during which he had several hostages.

He wrote The Hole based on what he says were 67 months spent in solitary confinement after the escape. It tells of a belligerent inmate sent to solitary and the wise, long-time resident who calms him. There's a surprise twist at the end.

Being part of Voices Inside "makes me wish I took advantage of opportunities I had early in life," he says. "I came from a good home, and then I messed it up with drugs and stuff."

Gibson says writing has given him an avenue for reflection and something to do. "If I wasn't here, I'd just be in my rack right now doing nothing," he says.

Trumbo says he is amazed that he has written a play performed in New York by an Oscar-nominated actor.

"We may be in prison," he says. "But this gives us an ability to express ourselves."

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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