More Than a Number on Tour

The cast of the More Than a Number tour.


Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter

The Daily Record

Coughs and throats clearing punctuate the heavy silence as the audience waits for the show to begin. The stage is clear except a few chairs, a couple of tables, and a mural landscaping the back wall. The mural depicts a collage of pictures in street-tag style, courtesy of artist Hugo Zamorano.

A cacophony breaks through the eager silence as several men enter from the back and move down the aisle. A group of men wearing hoodies and jeans shout and clang objects, mimicking commotion inside a prison. One of the men steps forward and speaks as the rest of the cast is silent.

This is how More Than a Number begins. Written by residents inside the Nebraska State Penitentiary (NSP) in collaboration with playwright Colleen O’Doherty and produced by Anastasis Theatre Co., More Than a Number shatters misconceptions and reveals the common thread of humanity. The play depicts glimpses of lives, from childhood to adulthood. Each character encounters situations and crises from life before prison to time spent inside. It’s a tapestry of lived experiences, and shares the hopes and determination of these men.

Anastasis Theatre Co. became a nonprofit in 2019. Founded by Haley Haas and Colleen O’Doherty, the objective is to collaborate with marginalized communities and share lived experiences through performance. It believes in changing community conversations through storytelling and ensuring unheard voices are in control of the narrative.

“Colleen was working with the Micah House and I was working with men in the Seven Step Club at the state pen,” says Haley Haas, founder and director, Anastasis Theatre Co. “We had similar missions and the timing seemed right to create this theatre company.”

Its first production, Stories: On the Brink, was put on hold because of Covid, but in September of 2021, it was able to premier the performance. Stories: On the Brink, developed from story circles and workshops, tells the story of a group of people spending time in a homeless shelter. It was written by Colleen O’Doherty and the cast included people impacted by food insecurity and who experienced being unhoused.

Since its inception, Anastasis works to lift unheard voices through creative expression. The process is collaborative from beginning to end. Usually, Haas starts with story circles, where participants share their lived experiences. Then, it’s determined what the best format is to share these stories. Do participants write their own play or monologues? Does a playwright create a performance piece with constant feedback? When it’s time to cast, story circle participants and others from a particular community are asked to be a part of the cast in addition to professional actors. Anastasis also pays all people involved with the creative process, including the cast.

“The theatre community doesn’t often make a lot of money, especially actors,” says Haas. “It’s important we include funding for this, because people are taking time out of their lives to share these important stories.”

More Than a Number follows this trajectory.

Haas spent five years working with residents inside NSP. She was introduced to men in the Seven Step Club by Teela Mickles. Mickles is founder and CEO of Compassion in Action, a faith-based organization providing support to men and women in prison, or confined, as Mickles says, and it assists with the re-entry process. The goal of Compassion in Action is to validate people without a voice, helping them identify where missteps happened and how to make healthier choices moving forward.

“We focus on the human-being,” says Mickles. “Our curriculum helps individuals discover triggers. We peel back the layers to the person they forgot; maybe the person they never knew.”

Haas is drawn to the work Compassion in Action does. The concept of valuing individuals and seeing through to their humanity is akin to what Anastasis hopes to accomplish through performance. Compassion in Action is a community partner of Anastasis’s, providing resources and support.

Mickles is clear that we can’t judge on personal experiences and biases. Valuing people as individuals, deserving of love and hope and companionship is crucial to the core of Compassion in Action and Anastasis. Mickles is firm that it takes a community.

“You need a voice on the outside to have hope,” Mickles says. “The community needs to be actively involved in the process. There will always be arguments about how and if systems should change, and it takes too long to change systems. But when the community understands and can provide help, it gives hope to people inside and helps with re-entry if that’s an option for people.”

According to its website, Anastasis is committed to giving new voices a platform to share their stories and shift the narrative that drives the community. It hopes to connect underserved communities with the transformative power of story-telling and theatre.  When new voices are given the opportunity to be heard, it changes what is possible for individuals and the community.

Drawing upon her experiences working for Respect as training and education director, and inspired by work from Cornerstone Theatre Company, Haas wanted to facilitate a creative project with these residents. More Than a Number blossomed from this.

“It was great and wonderful working with Respect, but it got to a point where I wanted to dive deeper,” says Haas. “I met Michael Garcés of Cornerstone Theatre Company at the Great Plains Theatre Conference, and he talked to me about his work, and my brain just exploded. I was like, that’s what I want to be doing.”

More Than a Number premiered in June 2022 inside NSP. Residents who wrote it also performed it. Held in the chapel, it was hot and muggy, but the men were determined to share the efforts of their work. Since a limited number of people were able to attend, it was important to the cast the play be showed on the outside. So, Haas took up the challenge and raised the funds for a local tour.

Relentless, with a fierce glint of determination in her eyes, Haas exhausted herself finding the funds and manpower to produce More Than a Number. Auditions were held in August and the tour kicked off October 21, 2022 in Omaha. Haas, director; Barry Carmen, assistant director; and a cast and crew assembled to bring this powerful performance to the outside.

Like Stories: On the Brink, More Than a Number is cast primarily by men who have been formerly imprisoned, and very few of them have acting experience.

“I was nervous, really nervous the first night,” says Aaron Maxwell, More Than a Number cast member. “It’s my first theatre experience, and I’m always worried I will forget a line, but I’m loving this so much.”

“I actually started acting in eighth grade,” says Fred Collins, Jr., More Than a Number cast member. “I stopped in high school though but did a little while at UNL. But when I heard about this play, I thought it might be a good way to get back into acting.”

It’s important to Anastasis and the cast that this play is toured. Each wants the opportunity to share the experiences of the men who wrote it, but also of cast members who have their own experiences with the criminal justice system.

“People fear what they don’t understand. We all hear stories in the media and with politicians, and we think we know what incarcerated people are like,” says Maxwell. “But I’ve been inside, and it’s made me a more compassionate person. These stories need to be told. I met some genuine, good guys inside. They made mistakes, but they shouldn’t have to pay their whole life.”

“A platform like this is important, because people on the inside are forgotten, and it shouldn’t be that way,” says Collins. “Ninety-five percent of people on the inside will experience re-entry, and we need to destigmatize imprisoned people, so they can find jobs and support on the outside. Right now, there’s barriers, because of the stigmas.”

In addition to sharing lived experiences and raising voices of marginalized communities, Anastasis practices radical hospitality for both the audience and cast. Pioneered by Mixed Blood, radical hospitality seeks to create an inclusive environment, so all participants can fully engage.

Haas likes to call it radical accommodations. It’s important all cast members feel supported and have the opportunity for full and equal participation in a performance.

“It started with snacks, and everyone was always tearing through them, but it was also a time to create camaraderie,” says Haas. “Then we turned it into dinner, and we called it family dinner, and it was such a beautiful part of the process.”

For Anastasis, supporting its cast might include finding transportation or providing childcare services. Ensuring communication can happen will include translation services and even assistance for those needing literacy help. And of course, filling bellies. It’s about supporting the cast in whatever way individuals need.

“It’s tuning in with people, making sure they feel comfortable asking what they need,” says Haas. “We can’t predict needs, but we can sit down and ask. I’m proud we’ve been able to make this piece successful.”

Anastasis Theatre Co. wants to change systems through creative expression. It believes art has the power to impact change.

“Systems can’t change until people change, and change doesn’t come from statistics or being horrified by something on TV, it comes from connecting,” says Haas. “That’s where theatre is such a beautiful tool. People watch a play and connect with humans, and they see themselves, and they can’t turn back and just see people as a statistic or headline.”

This is why Anastasis cast people with lived experiences. It brings an authenticity to the script and performance. It allows people within a community to uplift themselves. The cast of More Than a Number holds power previously withheld. Each performer has a tool to spotlight the humanity of people impacted by the criminal justice system.

“We are more than a number. We are people; we cry, we have heartache and feelings. We miss our moms, our kids, our wives,” says Maxwell. “We made mistakes, but we want to do better. We don’t need to be told of these mistakes our whole life.”

Anastasis Theatre Co. looks to make this possible. And it hopes to drive community conversations towards acceptance, inclusion, and equity. It believes that story has power to provide clarity, destigmatizing marginalized and disenfranchised communities. It’s website states that story is an essential part of the human experience. The stories we tell as a culture impact how we understand ourselves and others. Those who tell the stories of our community have the power to shape our knowledge of the past, our current reality and what is possible in the future. We are left wondering, who is telling our story, and whose voices still need to be heard?

Anastasis wrapped up its tour of More Than a Number on Saturday, October 29, but it hopes to revive the production soon, possibly performing it inside schools. In the meantime, it will facilitate a community forum to discuss the criminal justice system. It has invited people impacted by incarceration, law enforcement, correction officials, re-entry organizations, and law makers. The public is encouraged to attend. ATC will work to reimagine a better justice system in Nebraska and give community members ways to take action to make positive change.

The forum is Thursday, November 10, 7 to 8:30 p.m. at The Venue at Highlander, 2120 N. 30th St. in Omaha.

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