The power of creative expression

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As a former high school drama kid, and devoted lover of the arts, I often see the impact of theater firsthand.

In college, I worked at Colorado Ballet in a variety of roles. Seeing joy on a child’s face as they walk into their first dance class, or as they watch their heroes perform on the big stage, is simply indescribable.

Stepping a little further back in time, each year in high school I performed in the spring musical. I moved from ensemble to speaking lines in productions of “The Wiz,” “Anything Goes,” “The Music Man” and “Oliver.” I learned a lot about myself by being someone else. I also learned a lot about friendship. Spending hours backstage with your fellow performers bonds you in a way that few things do.

Although I didn’t continue working with my love of theater, I do continue to work in the arts through writing. Creative expression has always been a powerful force in my life.

In this issue you will find a story that speaks to how theater and creative expression has impacted a very specific group of people: Colorado inmates. The story is on a budding initiative by the University of Denver that brings different arts into prisons, such as theater, podcasts and newspapers.

As a journalist, it is part of my job to bring transparency in how I write stories, and I made a very conscious decision in the way I wrote this story. I did not ask the inmates what got them in prison.

To me, this story is about people using available resources to better their lives. For the men and women in prison, those resources can be scarce. In speaking with members of the cast and crew of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” run by the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative, I learned that many of them saw this production as a ray of hope.

Few people have the privilege of stepping into the shoes of another person, even temporarily. For incarcerated men and women, the opportunity is even more rare.

Ashley Hamilton, the director of the production and director of the DU initiative, said these men and women are reminded of their crimes every day simply by being where they are. It’s something she and the performers cannot ignore while they work on projects, but, she added, the crimes themselves are something they rarely talk about. For each inmate, it can be a personal, and often shameful discussion.

Hamilton said that while the harm caused is not something she wants to ignore, she does want to help guide inmates in having the tools to move forward, and to teach them “that they can be free while still living inside.”

This was not a decision I took lightly. On the drive to the Women’s Correctional Facility to see the performance, I was still grappling with the idea of asking inmates what happened. But as I heard them begin to describe what this program meant, I realized it was also their second chance to be a new person.

These men have been judged for their crimes. This story is about what they are doing to improve themselves and their lives. For some inmates, it was also about paying those opportunities forward and teaching other inmates about opportunities through creative expression.

This decision was driven home for me when Christopher Shetskie McAllister talked about having the courage to take on this particular play during a question-and-answer session with inmates from the women’s prison. McAllister played Dr. Spivey in the show. He said that while you can’t let go of the past, you also can’t let it dictate who you are now.

“While it may be true that you’re a prisoner, you’re still a person,” McAllister said. “You’re still here, you’re still going.”

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