DU theater program gives inmates tools for creative expression

Incarcerated men produced and acted in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest'


As cast members from the Sterling Correctional Facility got ready for their final performance of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” play director Ashley Hamilton lead them through exercises to help them get in character.

They went in a circle, with each man describing his emotions while performing a related action — nervous, excited, happy.

For many of the cast, traveling to the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility for the performance on Sept. 10 was the first time they had gotten into a car since being incarcerated.

The play was the first large performance from a two-year old initiative launched by Hamilton at the University of Denver. The DU Prison Arts Initiative aims to give incarcerated men and women access to theater. Later this year, the women’s group will be performing “A Christmas Carol.”

For the last decade, Hamilton has been working with inmates. Like so many hoping for a career in theater, she moved to New York with dreams of becoming an actress. While there, she found a group of people working to bring theater into prisons, and she was instantly hooked. For Hamilton, it was about “chances for growth and transformation.”

When she came to DU two years ago, it was under the condition that she could continue doing theater with inmates.

“I met folks who were working in this way and was really blown away by using the arts in a way to create spaces like this,” Hamilton said. “I’ve just seen on the ground how transformative it is.”

DU recently signed a contract with the Colorado Department of Corrections for the next three years. The program will expand into 10 prisons, with three to four large productions per year. Hamilton also said the program is expanding into other forms of creative expression. She hosts a podcast called “With(in)” along with one male and one female inmate. The initiative has also started a statewide newspaper with the DOC.

The power of art

For Vernon McKinnie, who played Henry Harry in the ensemble cast of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the initiative was an opportunity to explore the arts — something he said he has always been interested in. He first joined the program a year ago. Moving forward, McKinnie said he wants to continue working in theater for the rest of his life.

The Prison Arts Initiative taught him a lot about expressing himself, but it also taught him about the power of art.

“It’s taught me to always be hopeful,” McKinnie said. “Art can be expressed in the darkest of places.”

Inmates were behind the entire play, from acting to production to set and costume design. Cast members and crew members alike agreed that while the play has given them skills they can use for work, it also has taught them about relationships.

Many of the cast and crew went through an emotional process to put together the play. Stephen Sparks, 56, the stage manager of the show, said that for him, he sees the program as an opportunity to pay it forward. Many young men who are incarcerated in prison do not have any hope, Sparks said. Opportunities like this can bring that back. He hopes to continue being a leader and educating new prisoners as he serves his sentence.

“(Hamilton) brought humanity to us,” he said. “It opened up what we had hidden.”

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was written by Ken Kesey in 1962. It was later adapted as a play by Dale Wasserman. It follows Randle P. McMurphy, who is committed to a mental institution. McMurphy meets other patients at the facility, and tries to boost their courage, all while getting into a battle of wills with the facility’s head nurse.

For Sparks, the content of the play was particularly relevant to how society deals with mental health. When he was first incarcerated more than 30 years ago, men and women with mental health issues were told to “suck it up.” Now, it’s become a bigger part of the conversation, and many are receiving treatment. “I’m glad people have the ability to speak up,” he said.

Hamilton said that it has always been her goal to do this play in a prison because the themes between it and life in prison are so similar. But, “it also terrified me,” she said of the play’s content.

“The themes are really hard, they’re really complex, but I also think they’re really important,”Hamilton said. “We had to have a lot of really hard conversations along the way.”

While a quality performance is certainly a perk of the program, for Hamilton her goals go deeper. During a question and answer session after the performance at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, she said “the real intention of this is to create a space where you all get to choose who you get to be.”

Hamilton added that she sees herself as a guide in the growth process of the inmates. She trusts their instincts during a performance. Through a therapeutic creative space, she hopes these men and women will start to heal.

“There are whole groups of people that do not see them as just their crimes,” Hamilton said of the performances. “That is a part of their story, but not all of their story.”


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