SLIFF 2019 Interview: Lisa Rhoden Boyd – Director of PRISON PERFORMING ARTS: THE VOICE WITHIN
PRISON PERFORMING ARTS: THE VOICE WITHIN will screen at The Missouri History Museum (5700 Lindell Blvd) Saturday, Nov 16 at 7:00pm as part of this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival. Director Lisa Rhoden Boyd will be in attendance and will host a post-screening Q&A. This is a FREE event
In PRISON PERFORMING ARTS: THE VOICE WITHIN inmates at the women’s prison in Vandalia, Mo., participate in a two-week Prison Performing Arts (PPA) workshop and take an unforgettable journey into the depths of each other’s lives. The film demonstrates the transformational power that creating art has for incarcerated individuals, offering a compelling validation of PPA’s long-standing mission. The documentary features portions of PPA’s first commissioned play, “Run-On Sentence,” and includes interviews with PPA’s late founder, Agnes Wilcox, playwright Stacie Lents, and PPA artistic director Christopher Limber. The film also movingly relates the stories of many of the imprisoned women and their mothers, sisters, and children. “The Voice Within” is directed by Lisa Rhoden Boyd, who was cited for Best Direction in the documentary category for “An American Tragedy” at last year’s St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase.
Director Lisa Rhoden Boyd took the time to talk to We Are Movie Geeks about PRISON PERFORMING ARTS: THE VOICE WITHIN.
Interview conducted by Tom Stockman November 6th, 2019
Tom Stockman: I want to ask you some questions about your film PRISON PERFORMING ARTS: THE VOICE WITHIN which plays at the St. Louis International Film Festival this Saturday at 7 PM.
Lisa Rhoden Boyd: That’s right.
TS: It seems to be almost a St. Louis-based story. A lot of the women in your film are from this area. Are you from here?
LRB: No, I’m from Southern Missouri, near the Ozarks.
TS: Did you come at this project more from a theater interest or a prisoner advocacy interest?
LRB: Yes (laughs). I come from a theater background, so I’ve been familiar with what’s happening with theater but also my main focus was to have a perspective on how transformative PPA‘s (Prison Performing Arts) work is, and how people who participate actually peel back their layers like you do with Theater. You pull back your layers in order to connect with a deeper sense of yourself to become a character. When you’re working with PPA, that’s basically what you have to do. It’s kind of a win-win. You end up you working on yourself at the same time that you were working on the characters. In that process you end up dealing with yourself and your past choices. My experience working with these women took me two weeks inside the prison during these workshops. I got to know them on a one-to-one level and I just really found myself connecting to them on a human level . The whole focus of my films is to bring humanity to incarceration.
TS: There are 12 women that are in this PPA program. Were they chosen, or did they volunteer?
LRB: These women must be on good behavior for a certain number of months to participate, so there’s a prerequisite list in order to participate. A lot of them reach out and participate after they see performances in prison. It started out small, but now it’s got to be a larger group. They’ve done performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Hip-hop Hamlet, Animal Farm. They are doing important literary works.
TS: And they’re talented too.
LRB: Yes, very talented. Lara Hulsey was an amazing performer She danced, she sang, she was an amazing writer and a great actress. All of the women were. Lawanda Jackson is amazing in the lead in the play Run On Sentence. Each of the characters in this play that Stacie Lents wrote is based on their lives. It was just interesting for each of them to have to slip into each other’s characters with their own personal stories. On that level, they ended up learning more about each of themselves within the group, which made them more dynamic as a theater company. With Christopher Limber leading the charge, Run On Sentence was a great performance and they were connecting at such deep levels because it’s their own personal stories. PPA is an organization that helps identify them with themselves, and in Run On Sentence, they really had to connect at deep levels because those were their stories.
TS: I remember some of these crimes from the news. Many of them got a lot of press. I recall Lawanda, the young woman who shot her boyfriend in the hallway at Sumner high school. I remember when that was in the news. It was quite a while ago. Also Tessa, the woman who let a college professor molest her child. I remember that horrible story in the news as well. During the midsection of the film, you interview six women about their crimes. What about the other six women? Did they not want to talk about their crimes?
LRB: It would’ve been a three hour film, so I had to pick and choose and those were the six that we focused on as far as their stories and backgrounds.
TS: And you even go back and visit some of their families. Was there anybody that you wanted to visit or interview that was not cooperative?
LRB: Not at all. I think putting a positive spin on incarceration is the focus, and I really wanted to bring out. There were a lot of programs, particularly in Missouri that George Lombardi, the retired Director of Corrections, put in place for the 30 years that he served. Before I knew anything about this, my close-minded opinion was that these prisoners committed these crimes and deserved what they got. Incarceration can be a positive, and of course a negative, but I think a prisoner can choose to do the time, or the time can do them. My whole focus was to show the humanity of what the PPA program offers. People can be transformed. People can become different people, especially if they learn to think differently about where they came from, their choices, and how they want to spend the rest of their lives. I’m going to be touring with Missourians Against the Death Penalty with my other film I did a year ago called AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. That film focuses on Jeff Ferguson and the crime that he committed when he killed Kelly Hall in Saint Charles. She was a gas station attendant. He kidnapped her, then raped and murdered her. He served at the prison in Potosi for over 25 years. The Department of Corrections in Missouri does not have death row. They have condemned prisoners but those are in general population. Missouri is the only state that does this. By allowing him to participate in general population, Jeff Ferguson became a different person. While on the inside, he created the first hospice program in the state of Missouri for dying inmates. He helped other inmates get their GEDs. Within this film, we discussed the many sides of execution and we get everyone’s perspective and allow the audience to make their own decisions about what did they thought or how they were affected by the story. The reason I mention this is that because I got to know Jeff Ferguson before he was executed. I saw what he was versus what he became serving inside through these programs that Missouri offers. It’s truly important, but getting back to PPA, I think it’s an important transformative program. I think more programs like this inside institutions across the country will be much more productive.
TS: When did you film prison performing arts?
LRB: We shot PRISON PERFORMING ARTS: THE VOICE WITHIN two years ago and I just finished it about one month ago.
TS: Are any of these 12 women out of prison now?
LRB: Yes, some of the women have been released and they are vital in their communities. Unfortunately, one of the lead characters in our film, Lara Hulsey, died in a car accident.
TS: Lauren was released in the middle of your film but was re-incarcerated just a couple of months later. Is she still in prison?
TS: Tell me about this play Run On Sentence, that was written by Stacie Lents. I assume Stacie got together with these 12 women, heard their stories, and then put together this play.
LRB: That’s how it worked out. Christopher Limber from PPA hired Stacie, who is from St. Louis, and brought her in to create this play based on these women’s lives. So within the two weeks of me recording the workshops with all of the vocal exercising, scenes, commercial work etc., we each did our own personal interviews to get to know the women on a deeper level. From those interviews, Stacie created Run On Sentence based on these women’s stories and their lives.
TS: Has that play ever been staged outside of prison?
LRB: Yes, I believe it was staged in St. Louis in a couple of theaters there and it’s getting a New Playwrights award.
TS: Who attends these plays that are staged in prison? It looked like they had several dozen chairs set up, and I could see some of the prisoners family members Could I go see a play in one of these prisons?
LRB: Yes! Anyone can go inside and see a play. I think it’s an amazing experience. When I first met Chris Limber, I was actually working in Jefferson City doing another project where I was working in the r-entry program, so I went to see the play Mr. Roberts and I met Chris there. It was my first experience watching a play on the inside and it was amazing! These men came together, they worked as a team , they did this production, and the languages under very difficult. They learned to work together, no matter if they’re black or white, or gay or straight,t or a Muslim or Christian. People come together and learn to work together as a goal. And that goal is the performance. You break down all of these barriers and communicate as human beings and as characters in a play, which breaks down their own personal issues and helps them forward. They learn about themselves and that’s the focus.
TS: There was a moving moment in your film where Lawanda Jackson sort of reaches out towards her mother, and sort of hugs the air, giving her a virtual hug. I assume the prisoners are not allowed to touch their family members when they show up for these plays.
LRB: That is correct. Lawanda and her mother are very spiritually bonded. It was truly a tragic story that I wanted to shed a light on, especially in this climate of bullying. I wanted to focus on Lawanda’s story because the bullying she experienced could be so vital and detrimental. She felt like she didn’t have anywhere else to turn. It’s like a lot of these people today, especially with all of these suicides that are happening because of bullying. She had nowhere to go, nowhere else to turn. She definitely did not have anywhere else to turn. She was afraid. What do you do when you’re in a situation where you were so put down and beaten.
TS: Yes, and she was really a child.
LRB: Yes she was a child. She started dating that guy when she was 16. I believe she was arrested when she was just 17 years old.
TS: Talk about Agnes Wilcox for a minute.
LRB: Agnes was an amazing and vital light. She was a petite, fragile looking woman, but she was as strong as an ox in her spirit and in her passion and in her abilities to communicate with the incarcerated. The men were so afraid of her because she called them out and told them what to do. They actually had to do what she requested and they wanted to not let her down. She expected a lot out of people and they stepped up. She created a great program and it’s transformed many many people’s lives. Not only be incarcerated, but the audience members. She was the founder of PPA
TS: You dedicate the film to her so I assume she passed away during pos-production?
LRB: Yes, six months after I interviewed her she died during a tragic swimming accident. She drowned.
TS: Will Stacie Lint be at the screening on Saturday?
LRB: I’m not sure. She’s seen a cut of the film and I think she liked it a lot.