In their rehearsal space located in a warehouse in St. Paul, the cast of Wonderlust’s production of “The Labyrinth and the Minotaur: The Incarceration Play Project,” began scene work under the direction of Leah Cooper. Along with the ensemble, former inmate Barbara Currin moved as if a sea wave while voices from within the incarceration system in Minnesota buoyed up to form a story.
A former inmate at a women’s prison, Currin is taking acting in stride. It’s her latest creative endeavor, after finding writing while she was on the inside.
Currin didn’t have access to therapy when her adult daughter died, because she was in prison when the tragedy happened. She was serving her time in a no-touch facility. She could shake hands or give high fives, but that was about it. No shoulder touching, no face touching. “No hugs,” she says. “Nothing like that.”
The rule has since been changed, but that didn’t help her at the time. In fact, she didn’t tell anybody about her loss except her “celly.” “I didn’t want people to pity me,” she says. She also didn’t want to go into segregation.
“If you let it out, they think you’re gonna hurt yourself,” she says. “Now you go to seg, you lose your room, you lose your job, you lose all your sanity.” Prisoners were allowed one day to grieve — but Currin didn’t take her day to be alone. She cried as quietly as she could as she went about her day.
During that dark time, Currin tapped into her creativity. Through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, Currin began to write poems and stories about her life and her experiences, and was able to process the pain not only of her daughter passing, but of her son’s death years before, and of other events in her life. Through MPWW, she met Emily Baxter, author of “We Are All Criminals.” The book of photographs and stories is a sharp look at how much race and privilege affect whether a person ends up in the criminal justice system when they make a mistake. Baxter has featured Currin in photographs shown at the Science Museum and in videos of her poetry on the We Are All Criminals website.
“I’m really excited about my writing,” she says. “I love it. That’s that’s what got me through my prison sentence.”
Since Currin has been back in the world, she continues working with a mentor at MPWW, and follows Emily Baxter’s emails. “She always tries to keep me updated on really positive things to get involved with in the community,” Currin says. One day, Currin looked at an email from Baxter about a theater company called Wonderlust Productions looking for people who had been involved with the prison system.
“I was like, “Huh, I’ve never acted before,” Currin recalls. She emailed the co-director of the company, Leah Cooper, who told the burgeoning writer about auditions.
She was cast in the play, a fictional story that uses the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur as a metaphor for the Minnesota incarceration system. It’s layered with stories drawn from 230 real people who have been touched by the system in some way — whether as prisoners, workers, family members, policymakers, survivors, lawyers, activists and more. Performing in the piece are 26 people touched by the prison system as well as professional actors. The show also incorporates choreography and puppetry by Masanari Kawahara, and original music by Becky Dale and Queen Drea Reynolds, who worked with the Voices of Hope inmate choir at the Shakopee Correctional Facility.
Currin doesn’t play herself in the performance. And yet, she’s found resonances from her own life as she plays the character. “So much of it hits home,” she says.
Being a part of the project has revealed to her skills that she never knew she had. “I discovered I can do it,” she says. “The best way to tell a story is to really bring it to life.” She also discovered a community of people that truly care about each other. “When you’re inside, you really don’t think there’s anybody that cares,” she says. Meeting people who work in the prison system through the play has shown her that there are people that do care.”
Alan M. Berks, who co-directs and co-founded Wonderlust Productions with Cooper, says the process the company uses to create the story is a combination of adaptation of classic plays and verbatim theater, drawn from transcripts of text created from story circles Wonderlust conducts. Berks wrote the script, with contributions from Carlyle Brown, drawing from the source texts as he organizes and remixes the material into a dramatically interesting through-line.
Often, Berks says, the company focuses on communities whose stories are often ignored or misunderstood. Past projects have taken on adoption and veterans.
Focusing on incarceration was suggested by someone from a community organizing group. The person said, “There’s no other community that is more misunderstood and ignored than the one that is designed to be ignored,” Berks recalls.
Wonderlust started conducting story circles for this piece in 2018, with plans to produce the show in May of 2020. The extra pandemic time allowed Berks more time with the script, and the company also conducted workshops with community members as well as parallel conversations around criminal justice and inequities.
Beginning with research, including reading books Like “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander, the Wonderlust team began the process by connecting with different organizations that focus on the topic of corrections and incarceration.
“We gather stories, and we make these plays in collaboration,” Berks says. “They talk to us, they give us more information that we need to know, and then sometimes they’ll help us organize a story circle with their constituents.”
Chelsey, who asked that her last name not be used, was involved in a story circle two years ago. She teaches GED classes and college prep classes in the prison system. At rehearsal, she wears a T-shirt that says, “decarcerate rehabilitate.” “It’s kind of questioning the idea of whether prison is the best option,” she says.
Having personal beliefs that go against what DOC is actually doing can be a challenge, she says. “I try to advocate for change and push when I can push, and it’s hard.”
Before she worked in prison, Chelsey taught adult education in the community for about three or four years. Then she did a job shadow in prison. “I walked in, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is such a great setting to really be a good teacher to people who could use a good teacher,” she says.
Chelsey found out about the story circles through a mass email from the Department of Corrections. “I loved it because I felt like it was like almost like a therapy session,” she says of the experience. “I could just sit and talk and have someone that was really interested in what I had to say. It just felt so great to be able to have that and to just like vent and share stories.” Later, Chelsey was involved in a rough draft reading at Macalester College, and then was cast in the fully staged production.
Through the process, Chelsey says she’s discovered just how interconnected everyone is. “I feel a big sense of community with the cast,” she says.
Another actor in the piece, Geno Benshoof, was encouraged by his wife, who had been involved in the story circles, to audition as a way to tap into his creativity and seek a new outlet.
The script carries elements of his own story portrayed in the piece. In one scene, the main character is asked to find some toothpaste at Walmart soon after he’s released.
“I remember being there, when I’ve been locked up for six years,” he recalls, relaying all the feelings of anxiety and motion sickness he felt as he drove to the store on a simple mission. “I’m standing in Walmart, trying to like decide from this entire row of options, and it’s just sensory overload,” he says.
Formerly incarcerated, Benshoof plays a correctional officer in the piece. “It’s a stark contrast to who I am, but I love it,” he says. “I like to try and think that I want to find his humanity. I want to find out that he is. He’s not this asshole that everyone sees him as.”
Benshoof’s neighbor across the street had also been a part of the story circles, and is a former corrections officer. Benshoof says he tries to channel the person he knows in real life into the character. “I just kind of want to find the humanity in it,” he says.
It turns out, Benshoof loves acting, and feels the show has given him a whole new outlet. “I never knew I could be so free and not be judged,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing to be in a space with people that are in such different roles in life. We’re just laughing and having a great time and being free. It’s pretty amazing.”
“The Labyrinth and the Minotaur” runs from May 13-22 at Mixed Blood Theatre ($5-$50, suggested ticket price is $25, $50 subsidizes a ticket for members of the community). Significant group discounts available. No one will be turned away for lack of funds. More information here.