Bard’s ‘Hamlet’ performed beautifully behind bars

“What am I doing here in prison?” I asked myself as the door ominously clanged shut behind me. It was 2002, and I was at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Mo., to see a production of Act V of Shakespeare’s Hamlet performed by inmates. Surreal? Absolutely, but wonderful at the same time. Fully costumed with sets built by prisoners, four of them shared the part of Hamlet while other roles were filled by men whose incarceration ranged from a few months to life. The gravediggers, Will’s comic relief characters, were portrayed by a short, stout fellow and a tall, lanky man, and they were hilarious. When I asked the chunky guy if he was a professional actor he replied “No, I’m a professional criminal.”

This Hamlet was a production of Prison Performing Arts (PPA), a nonprofit organization founded 17 years ago by theater director Agnes Wilcox. PPA uses the arts to help inmates learn the life skills that prepare them to be productive, creative, and law-abiding citizens. Over 80% of the people incarcerated in Missouri will be returning to our communities; PPA uses the performing arts to help prepare them for that transition. Currently Prison Performing Arts works with young men and women at St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center and Hogan Street Regional Youth Center in St. Louis City and adults in two Missouri prisons, Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green and Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri. Saint Agnes Wilcox drives 85 miles to the two latter institutions to “direct convicted thieves and killers in Hamlet, Julius Caesar, The Gospel of Collonus, Richard III and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”


I am not the only one fascinated by Prison Performing Arts. Ira Glass, National Public Radio’s tremendously popular producer and host of This American Life, created an hour long program on the making of their Hamlet. So intrigued is Glass with PPA that he will come to St. Louis, gratis I might add, for a benefit show on Saturday, Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. at The Pageant, 6161 Delmar. He will be joined on stage by members of Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre Company which is made up of actors who worked with PPA while incarcerated. Tickets are $35 for general admission and $60 for preferred seating and may be purchased by calling 314-289-4190 or visiting

According to Patti Teper, a PPA board member, “Ira Glass has almost a cult following. I am told that his numerous fans refuse to leave their radios on Sundays from 6 to 7 p.m. when This American Life airs.” The show had its premiere on Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ in late 1995 and is now heard on more than 500 public radio stations each week by 1.7 million listeners. The program has won the highest honors for broadcasting and journalistic excellence including the Edward R. Murrow and Overseas Press Club awards.

Meanwhile back at the prison on that fateful night of the closing performance of PPA’s Hamlet, the aforementioned tall, lanky gravedigger spoke briefly. I was so impressed I asked him for a copy of his remarks. He obliged by rummaging through the closest wastebasket and extracting a creased, much the worse for wear sheet of paper. Here is what this articulate lifer has to say about Hamlet and the PPA project. “I want to talk to you tonight about what this program has taught me. Not just how to deliver a line or hit my mark or who Shakespeare was. It taught me that, but it also taught me commitment, patience, dedication, tolerance, consistency, acceptance and determination. It has taught me to work with people, how to deal with a host of personalities and how to forge ahead when the easy thing would be to give up and quit. It has taught me one other thing which for me is the most important. It has taught me about caring. None of you in Prison Arts knew me yet you cared enough to donate your time, talent and money to bring a little culture into my life. You gave us words of encouragement. You let us know that you cared.” Agnes Wilcox, Artistic Director and the glue that holds Prison Performing Arts together, must still be adjusting her halo after hearing his words.