Voices and Ideas

ΦBK Student Helps Bring Performing Arts into Prisons

By Kevin Douglas 

The University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI) has made waves in the U.S. incarceration system. Director of DU PAI Ashley Hamilton established the program in 2017 upon her arrival at the University of Denver as an assistant professor. She has been working in prisons the past eight years, primarily in New York before her move to Denver. In that time, she has brought creative practices such as movement, poetry, and theatre to incarcerated men and women.

Hamilton’s work has engaged the University of Denver community in new and exciting ways. Last February, she brought the university’s theatre production tick, tick… BOOM! to Sterling Correctional Facility, where students performed the musical for 150 incarcerated men. DU PAI has expanded its outreach since then – the program has provided workshops and developed full-fledged theatrical productions with numerous prisons in the past two years, and it currently has relationships with ten correctional facilities in Colorado. As we speak, three major productions are underway within these facilities: the Greek tragedy Antigone at Limon Correctional Facility; the smash-hit Andrew Lloyd Weber musical Jesus Christ Superstar at Fremont Correctional Facility; and an original interview-based play, being created and formed by her students at Sterling Correctional Facility.

In September 2019, a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was put on by Hamilton’s students at Sterling Correctional Facility. The production was performed at Sterling for visitors from the public. It was also taken to other nearby facilities for a 10-show tour the likes of which have never been seen before. Most of the cast were comprised of the incarcerated men at Sterling, but two crucial female roles were taken on by University of Denver student actors. Reanna Magruder (ΦBK, University of Denver) played Nurse Ratched in the production. A senior in the university’s theatre department, Magruder has been involved with productions at the university, but nothing she did before compares to the experience she had at Sterling. 

Reaching out on behalf of Phi Beta Kappa, I had the chance to sit down with Magruder and chat about her experience with DU PAI.


How did the opportunity to perform in Cuckoo’s Nest come about?

MAGRUDER: After working with applied theatre on a trip to Zanzibar, I knew that’s what I was meant to be doing. So I asked Hamilton if I could be on any project she was working on. After training and approval, I began going to Sterling Correctional with her. I sat in on a workshop, participated in family events, and observed the auditions and beginning rehearsals for Cuckoo’s Nest. Very soon after the start of the process, I took on the role of Nurse Ratched.

What did you learn from your fellow actors while rehearsing and performing the show?

MAGRUDER: Simply from an acting standpoint, I saw a level of dedication and willingness to dive in that I, quite frankly, have scarcely seen on the outside. Far more important to me, however, is what they taught me about us all, as humans. They taught me what true courage is. They showed me what it means to have a fully open heart. Through the process of creating Cuckoo’s Nest, we created a family. Despite having lived through harder situations than most of us could imagine, they stepped up to the plate to be their best selves and shine light into this world. To me, that was one of the greatest lessons. We have no excuse to show up in this world with anything less than readiness to be our best, open our hearts, and share the love and compassion that we are all capable of. My fellow actors taught me the raw, complex, absolute beauty of humanity.

How do you believe the arts enrich the lives of incarcerated men and women in the United States?

MAGRUDER: I believe the arts, ultimately, are about creating connection and empathy. My experience with Cuckoo’s Nest has only further solidified that belief. Bringing arts into prisons enriches the lives of those directly participating, and additionally has an immense ripple effect. A change in one person’s outlook on life can change an entire community (i.e. other incarcerated individuals, correctional officers, their families, and so on). It is all interconnected. These individuals feel developed senses of empathy, purpose, and connection with their communities – and society reflects these values back toward them. If this truly happens – if we can see the humanity in us all – it is absolutely a win-win situation. There can be healing, growth, forgiveness, and giving back to each other on all fronts.

Reanna Magruder as Nurse Ratched and Brett Philips as Randle McMurphy.

DU PAI creates a space for men and women to pursue their creative endeavors despite the difficult circumstances that have led them to incarceration. The opportunity to immerse oneself in the arts can be both therapeutic and rehabilitative. Prison education programs have been proven to reduce recidivism in the United States. DU PAI speaks to a greater commitment to the universal pursuit of the arts and humanities. As a ΦBK member, Reanna is proud to be a part of this remarkable program.

If you’d like to learn more about Hamilton and DU PAI’s current projects, tune in to the podcast With(in), co-hosted by Hamilton and two of her incarcerated students, Denise Presson and Andrew Draper.

Kevin Douglas is a senior at the University of Denver majoring in theater and English. The University of Denver is home to the Gamma of Colorado chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

(Posted on 3/23/2020 )