More than 130 people, mostly residents of the Ellsworth area, packed an auditorium recently for a dinner-theater performance of the comedy “The Ransom of Red Chief” this past weekend. But they weren’t there to see some performance of a traveling drama troupe. Nor were they on hand to support members of the town in a community theater.
They were there to witness a performance by inmates of the Ellsworth Correctional Facility (ECF), men who in the past had been convicted of crimes serious enough to merit lengthy prison sentences.
“There aren’t a lot of prisons that open the door and invite the public in,” ECF Warden Dan Schnurr told the audience prior to the show. “It’s special for the guys, to see that you care.”
And from the minute they entered the doors of the facility’s Spiritual Life Center, the visitors were treated to first-class service by the offenders. They were led to their tables by waiters dressed in dark pants and white long-sleeved shirts. They were fed a Mexican-style meal prepared and served by offenders. And all the set, decorations and amenities were the fruit of the labor of the offenders.
The men of the facility are obviously proud. They’ve not only worked several months to see this project become a reality, but they know the audience is there to support them. Many of the men involved have felt little such support in their lives. And they know that the world expects little good from them.
“It’s special because it gives us an opportunity to show the outside world what we can do, that we still have a chance to be productive citizens,” said Robert, who performed the lead role of the unbridled 9-year-old who is kidnapped by incompetent con men in the early 1900s.
“We’ve taken so much from the world, and this is our chance to give back,” added Jerry, the mad-cap town constable. “It’s a small thing, but by making the audience laugh and enjoy themselves, we are giving a little bit back.”
Plays at Ellsworth’s Spiritual Life Center have become a tradition in the community – “The Ransom of Red Chief” is the sixth production in the past seven years. The three-day run April 26-29 brought in more than 350 viewers, with all the proceeds going to support the programs of the Spiritual Life Center. No tax money is used to produce the play or on any other aspect of the center, which opened in 2004.
“When we first started (putting on theater productions), people had no idea that you could do something like this at a prison,” said ECF Chaplain Dale Bailey. “There is so much talent here and these men are so proud to do something that is seen as good.”
Bailey said that the men involved in the theater must have a history of good behavior, be working faithfully in a job at the facility, and have shown they are responsible team-players. He said no one convicted of a particularly high-profile case, nor anyone from the Ellsworth area, will be cast in an on-stage role, in order to avoid distraction or controversy.
Performing a play in a correctional facility is not without its complications. One of the key actors in the play was removed due to poor behavior in areas unrelated to the theater. Another actor was transferred to a different location.
And a play performed by prison inmates has unique qualities. All the female roles are performed by men, their voices squeaking, their facial hair clearly visible. The classic The Ransom of Red Chief script is seasoned with jokes about members of the audience, as well as of reminders of the environment. (When someone is threatened to be sent to jail, they exclaim – “Oh no, not to Ellsworth!” The town constable is referred to as ‘the po-po.’)
It all lends itself to the good-natured, familiar quality of the spiritual program within a small-town. Before and after the show, members of the audience enthusiastically shake hands and hug each other, and the greetings are the same with the inmates. It’s clear there is a bond between the community and the Spiritual Life Center within the walls of the facility.
“This place runs because we have the best volunteers in the world,” said Chaplain Herbie Harris. “We get a lot of involvement from the community, people who are helping to change the hearts of these men. We are teaching them to set goals and helping them become successful, law-abiding citizens.”
Two of those key volunteers are Larry Temple, a veteran of amateur theater in the area as well as local farmer and educator, and Dawn Abrahams, an employee of a local bank. The two have directed every production in the history of the Spiritual Life Center, and Bailey described them as indispensable to the success of the theater program.
“The Ransom of Red Chief” is a high-energy comedy, and the offenders take to the slap-stick antics with zeal, smacking, wrestling and chasing each other throughout the night.
They inmates are getting to know each other, and the staff of ECF, as well as members of the community, see them in a different light as well.
“Some of the people watching are the officers who work here,” added Robert. “It makes them view us a little bit different. And we learn to respect each other by working as a team like this.”