Local prison stories performance set for Nov. 15, group develops new longterm goal

Inmates at the Northwest Arkansas Community Corrections Center listen during a performance of Stories From the Inside Out during last fall’s NWA Prison Stories Project in-prison performance

Photo by Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

The power of storytelling will be on display once again this week during another performance from the NWA Prison Stories Project.

Stories From the Inside Out, adaptations of true stories told by women at the Northwest Arkansas Community Correction Center in Fayetteville, is set for Friday, Nov. 15 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

The four-month-long project takes place twice each year with a new group of about a dozen inmates. The women volunteer for the program, which includes twice-a-week courses with a team of local artists. During their time together, the women explore their own personal stories through poetry and creative writing.

Once their work is complete, it’s shaped into a script to be performed by stage actors. Each production is performed twice – once inside the prison for the entire inmate population, and once for the public.

Stories From The Inside Out

What: Performances of true stories told by local incarcerated women
When: Friday, Nov. 15 – 7 p.m. reception, performance at 8 p.m.
Where: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 224 N. East Ave. in Fayetteville
Cost: $10 suggested donation
More info: nwaprisonstories.com

The project is a variation of a concept developed by Elaine Blanchard, facilitator and founder of the Prison Stories Project in Memphis. The local version was spearheaded by professional storyteller Kathy McGregor, and is supported in part by a $4,000 grant from the Mid-America Arts Alliance.

The Northwest Arkansas team also includes local poet Katie Nichol, along with theatre artists Erika Wilhite and Jonny Schremmer. The crew has also worked closely with a variety of other local artists including JoAnn Kaminsky and singer-songwriter Shannon Wurst.

McGregor said there is something very powerful that happens when we listen with full attention to each other’s stories.

“What’s unique about this project is that the women who participate have an opportunity to hear their stories told back to them, and there is potential for extraordinary healing to begin when that happens,” said McGregor, who noted that the majority of inmates who participate were abused as small children.

The project’s initial goal was to explore whether the power of storytelling could reduce recidivism by helping the women to understand how they ended up in their situation in life.

McGregor said after three seasons, the project has developed a more tangible goal.

Participants work during a writing workshop.

“We quickly learned that there is no halfway house in our community for women paroling out of prison, and that some of them parole out to the same situations that set them up for prison in the first place,” said McGregor. “So now what we’re focusing on is creating housing to allow the women to begin the process of reintegration with society.”

McGregor said when she learned that St. Paul’s Episcopal Church had a prison ministry, she began working closely with Suzanne Stoner, the church’s minister of pastoral care, who has a deep passion for women in prison. Aside from providing a home for the group’s public performances each season, McGregor said the church has become a strong partner in establishing the project’s new goal.

Last month, McGregor, Nichol and Rev. Stoner attended a conference in Nashville, Tenn. presented by Thistle Farms on how to replicate the Magladene model of residential housing for women coming out of prison. That trip, McGregor said, was the catalyst for earnest discussions at St. Paul’s about the need for a local halfway house as part of the church’s current stewardship campaign.

For those who have attended previous performances, there are some new additions this time around.

Portraits of this season’s participants by local photographer Andrew Kilgore will be exhibited before being given to the women as they parole out. Limited edition chapbooks, which include original work chosen by each of the inmates, will also be available for a special donation to help with funding the halfway house.

A silent auction and reception are planned for 7 p.m. The performance begins at 8 p.m. with a suggested donation of $10 for entry. The show includes mature content, but childcare will be provided.

For more information, call Kathy McGregor at 479-871-4875 or visit nwaprisonstories.com.