By Stephanie Kidd
How do I get help? How do I get whole? How do I get home? How do I get held?”
The powerful lyrics to this song rang through the auditorium at Nebraska State Penitentiary (NSP) in June as a part of a special project, a collaboration between Anastasis Theatre Company (ATC), the prison and the prison’s 7th Step Club, a group of men who help each other develop new skills and better their community. (Anastasis is a Greek word meaning resurrection.)
The project is a play called “More Than a Number” with a cast of 15 residents of NSP. More than two dozen additional residents took part in the project to create the play.
The program for the play states “More Than a Number” breaks down the walls between incarcerated citizens and the outside world. Originally written and performed by a group of men at the Nebraska State Penitentiary this play shatters misconceptions and reveals the common thread of our humanity. Sharing glimpses of life before prison, crucial moments of choice, life inside and their hopes for the future, the play creates a tapestry of lived experience.”
Haas said the play does not have a typical narrative plot. Instead, it follows eight narrators from childhood through their incarceration. The stories weave in and out using multiple writing styles. Actors play a variety of roles throughout the piece.
“I am so grateful and feel blessed to have been part of this project, but furthermore I feel 7th Step Club is lucky and blessed to have Anastasis Theatre come and be part of this process,” one participant wrote in a letter about his experience.
Anastasis’ website says their mission is “to lift unheard voices in the community. Our plays bring together diverse groups to highlight the beauty of our differences and reveal the common thread of our humanity.”
“I am so grateful and feel blessed to have been part of this project, but furthermore I feel 7th Step Club is lucky and blessed to have Anastasis Theatre come and be part of this process.”
When given the opportunity to collaborate with the residents of (NSP), Artistic Director Haley Haas did not hesitate to create programming. “People confined in our correctional system have very few ways to participate in the wider community,” Haas said. “By providing them a platform to share their stories we validate their humanity and open the door for the wider community to see the real people behind statistics and headlines.”
The process was long. Haas and her writing partner Colleen O’Doherty began working with the men at NPS in 2018, meeting for classes where the men wrote stories and poetry. Soon it was clear that the writing needed to be turned into something more. O’Doherty and the men began to shape the written work into a structural play, with the intent to perform it for the other residents of the NPS.
But then COVID struck and the project was on hold for 18 months while NSP took precautions to keep the population safe.
In 2021, volunteers were welcomed back in, and Haas and O’Doherty returned. New men joined the program, and a performance date was set. Men stepped in and out of the project due to a variety of reasons.
Haas said she never lost hope that the play would continue. “Seeing them each grow in confidence, leadership, communication and writing skills was a gift,” she said. “Every week someone would surprise me with an amazing new piece of writing, or a breakthrough with their performance.”
Alissa Ries, who sits on the community council for ATC represents Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Lincoln. Because of the work she does with people who are currently and formerly incarcerated, she was able to watch the show at NSP as a pre-approved visitor.
“People hearing these stories and seeing, thinking about, understanding incarcerated people differently is why I do what I do,” Ries said. “It was an honor to bear witness to their stories as expressed through their creativity, allowing me to learn more about what people who don’t know need to know.”
That educational piece is exactly what Haas hopes will happen when the play tours this fall. The play will be a way for audience members to better understand life inside prison. The play will be cast with men who have been impacted by the corrections system, not current residents of NSP. Professionals from corrections, law makers and the community will be invited to participate in post-show community conversations and a forum on criminal justice reform when the play tours this fall.
Cast members perform “More Than A Number” at Nebraska State Penitentiary. Photo credit: Anastasis Theatre Company
Haas said she looks forward to the production this fall because of how positive the experience inside was for both her and the men.
“I have never worked with a cast that was more in tune with each other,” Haas said. “Creating theater with them was a joy and a privilege.”
One of the play participants echoed Haas in a letter.
“Now I have faith in our community because so often we are the forgotten stories,” he wrote. “We are those felons, criminals, scum or whatever demoralizing terms one may use. And thanks to Anastasis Theatre, those stories will be told. And they are our stories, and now truly we are more than a number.”
The production will tour this fall at Mission Church in Omaha at 3401 Patrick St. on Fri. Oct 21 at 7 p.m. and Sat. Oct 22 at 2 p.m.; at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church at 1200 S. 40th St. in Lincoln on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 10:15 a.m.; and at Holy Family Community Center in Omaha at 1715 Izard St. on Sat. Oct. 29 at 7 p.m.