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Minnesota play draws on experiences of people involved in prison system

Show producers cast pro actors alongside former inmates and prison employees to add authenticity

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Co-Artistic Director Leah Cooper works with cast members at the Wonderlust Productions rehearsal studio space in St. Paul on May 5. The local theatre company's newest production, "The Labyrinth and the Minotaur: The Incarceration Play Project," deals with topics of incarceration and corrections systems in Minnesota.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News
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ST. PAUL -- At a recent rehearsal, Noelle Faye runs through some of her lines. Faye, 34, who is playing the narrator in the production, had only been in two plays before — “The Wizard of Oz” and “A Christmas Carol” — both which took place while she was a prison inmate.

“It was something to take my mind off what was going on around me,” Faye recalled. “It’s actually very healing in the sense that trauma is real. It affects you mentally and physically when every day you wake up with the same things on your mind.”

For “The Labyrinth and the Minotaur: The Incarceration Play Project,” Wonderlust Productions co-artistic directors Alan Berks and Leah Cooper incorporated the experiences of people involved with the state corrections system who participated in story circles: from inmates and their families, to corrections officers, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, and policymakers. Common points and conflicts emerged to inform the playwriting.

Berks noticed many people compared the corrections system to a maze or a labyrinth. That is why the play weaves in real-life stories of the prisons as it reimagines the ancient myth of Theseus and his quest to kill the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull trapped in a maze. Berks said professional actors and community members often learn from each other throughout the process of preparing to perform for an audience.

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Cast member Noelle Faye, who was formerly incarcerated, stands for a portrait at the Wonderlust Productions rehearsal studio space in St. Paul on May 5.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

“There is something to be said for the simple authenticity of people who understand what they are talking about,” Berks said.

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In this production, Faye has the lived experience to inform her performance. Some of the stories in the play bring up raw emotions.

“There is a scene where a woman is talking about her bare feet walking in the grass after being locked in a room all day, or just having a very terrible time, not being able to stop and stand and everything falling down around you,” Faye said. “And she could just put her bare feet in the grass.”

Cast member Rebekah Nelson has spent 20 years working in the corrections system on and off, she describes herself as an introvert who has not been in a play since middle school. Nelson learned about the opportunity to participate through a Facebook post.

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Cast member Rebekah Nelson, who has worked in corrections on-and-off for 20 years, stands for a portrait at the Wonderlust Productions rehearsal studio space in St. Paul on May 5.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

“I showed up and they said ‘You’re in’!”

The experience has allowed Nelson to express herself about a career field that usually requires her to be very controlled.

“All sides are represented. You see the other perspective, the perspective of the therapist, the nurse, the politician,” Nelson said. “All collaborating in the end to try to solve an almost unsolvable issue.”

Wonderlust Productions has incorporated people and their lived experiences in the past with “The Adoption Play” in 2016. The pair started preparing to write about prisons in 2018. The United States has long had a history of higher rates of incarceration than most other countries. In Minnesota, Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanics are in are seated at disproportionately higher rates than whites in Minnesota.

“We engage with a particular community that matters to everybody and work with them from beginning to end in a heightened artistic way,” Berks said.

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Noelle Faye said learning about others in the corrections system besides inmates has also been a healing experience.

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Cast members rehearse together at the Wonderlust Productions rehearsal studio space in St. Paul on May 5.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

“It is a beautiful thing to be able to see someone who is a corrections officer shift their thinking and it's beautiful for me to be humbled by what they have to say because it is real, that’s their experiences,” Faye said. “And like we say in prison, your time is your time no matter how many days you have or how you’re spending it.”

These days, Faye is spending her time as a legal fellow helping give free legal aid to the currently incarcerated.

Faye hopes everyone who comes to see the play will leave having learned something and felt something new.

“Sometimes it’s hard to be made aware with statistics and rules and law books, it’s hard to understand it through the media when the media sometimes doesn't portray everything in the right light,” Faye said. “So when people do decide to come I just hope they can be made aware and educated and walk away asking questions and wanting to know more about what is going on and at the very minimum enjoy the play.”

“The Labyrinth and the Minotaur: The Incarceration Play Project” opened Friday and runs through May 22 at Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis.

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This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

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