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New Play On Incarceration Has The Fingerprints Of Real-Life Prisoners

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

What happens when a couple of Tony-nominated theater artists go to a medium-security prison in upstate New York to lead a storytelling workshop? A transformative experience for all involved. And that experience has been turned into a play called, "Whorl Inside A Loop." The show opens off-Broadway tonight, as Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: A whorl, W-H-O-R-L, inside a loop is a rare fingerprint pattern. Co-authors Sherie Rene Scott and Dick Scanlan learned that when they got fingerprinted before entering the Woodbourne Correctional Facility four years ago. They had come to lead a one-day master class, says Scanlan.

DICK SCANLAN: And we were blown away by the work, the writing, the acting and authenticity that even the less-gifted guys brought to the process - the process, really. And at the end of the day, it seemed they'd felt the same way 'cause they had asked us if we could come back on a weekly basis and build it into a show at the prison.

LUNDEN: Even though co-author Sherie Rene Scott felt entering prison was more foreign than any foreign country she's ever visited. She says the inmates she and Scanlan worked with surprised them with their honesty, humor and real commitment to rehabilitation through writing and acting their personal narratives.

SHERIE RENE SCOTT: I immediately saw men doing work on themselves and taking responsibility for their life and their choices and telling their story honestly, when outside in the world that I was living in, people with every resource available to them and every support system were not doing that.

LUNDEN: Both Scott and Scanlan were so invigorated by the work happening at Woodbourne that they wanted to turn it into a play and use some of the prisoners' own words.

Rick Norat was locked up for two decades and says this workshop forced him to confront the worst parts of himself.

RICK NORAT: And I started writing. And you really don't know how you feel about it until you actually start taking it from your mind and putting it on paper. And sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, I literally at times cried - because you don't know the damage you've done to the world. By putting all that on paper, it took me somewhere that I knew existed and I didn't want to go and I avoided for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WHORL INSIDE A LOOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As prisoner) Whatever happens in this room, guys...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As prisoner) What happens in here stays in here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As prisoner) I'm saying it better.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As volunteer) Hey, it will 'cause we'll make that the rule. What happens in this room in prison stays in this room in prison.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Character) That's a long rule.

LUNDEN: Co-author Dick Scanlan says he and Scott tried to meld fact and fiction and find a balance between comedy and drama in the piece.

SCANLAN: One of the questions the play is asking - one of the big questions - is are you the worst thing you've ever done, are you the best thing you've ever done, are you both at the same time, and if so how do you reconcile that within yourself and how do you reconcile that with other people you meet?

LUNDEN: So Sherie Rene Scott plays an ethically-challenged version of herself, a Broadway actress who is trapped in prisons of her own making. She's leading the workshop as part of a community service plea, even if she's stealing the prisoners' stories for her own use. But the fiction serves both the play's dramatic action and its themes.

SCOTT: The constant choice of forgiveness and redemption, and how it has to be earned and given and re-earned and re-given, and to make that really complex.

LUNDEN: The play's been staged as if it takes place in a prison meeting room, even though many scenes take place in the outside world, like this one at a dinner party. Scott shares the stage with six African-American actors in orange jumpsuits who play all the other roles.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WHORL INSIDE A LOOP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As lawyer) OK everybody, which is worse - a black kid whose mom gets arrested so he falls in with the wrong crowd, and he's really high when he kills somebody...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) They're always kids.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) They're always black.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As lawyer) ...Or, someone like us - upper-middle-class, white and she, who is not a kid.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As volunteer) Or he.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As lawyer) ...Has a few too many, like we do from time to time, and she decides to get behind the wheel while intoxicated...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (Laughter, as character) Who hasn't done that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As lawyer) ...With a kid in the back seat.

LUNDEN: Actor Nicholas Christopher plays a Secret Service agent, a female theater producer and a fictional version of Rick Norat.

NICHOLAS CHRISTOPHER: There's a great line in the show that is, what you do to get into prison is the punishment, what you do while you're there is the rehabilitation.

LUNDEN: The real Rick Norat has been out on parole for the last two years. He's clean, has a full-time job and is able to experience things like live theater for the first time in his life.

NORAT: Life is beautiful, and I sometimes think to myself I blew half of my life, but I can't think that way. So what I intend to do is make the rest of my life the best of my. I got time.

LUNDEN: And, Norat adds, he'll be at the opening of "Whorl Inside A Loop" with several of the other men from the prison workshop. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.