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Unorthodox cast brings new life to 'Old Masters'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 3, 2009 - Today - right here, right now -- Don Hake is a performing artist, taking a brief break from an intense rehearsal, just days before Saturday's opening at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

He is battling his nerves, worried about his lines, focused on what he describes as a performance that has already changed his life. For most of the yesterdays of his 48 years, Hake acknowledges, he was in a far different place than this here, this now.

"I've been in city jails, county jails, state facilities," he said, point blank, shrugging off any discomfort attached to the question. "My situation is that I became involved in drugs and alcohol from a very young age. That progressed into not being able to pay for that addiction. Stealing. Everything related to that. I was a completely different person than you see sitting here before you. I wasn't interested in art. I wasn't interested in anything except for myself. It was complete selfishness."

Hake is one of 20 performers participating in "Staging Old Masters: Former Prisoners Perform at the Pulitzer," an innovative program intended to help released prisoners and former homeless veterans develop skills for their future lives through art exploration. The actors will perform short theatrical pieces in the gallery space, before the exhibited works of renowned artists from the 14th to the 18th centuries.

The scripts for the hour-long performances are based on the observations and reactions of the actors to the art, the result of a six-week training and education program led by Agnes Wilcox, founder and artistic director of Prison Performing Arts. The program is a collaboration of The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, Washington University and Employment Connection, a regional workforce development agency that assists former inmates and homeless veterans.

For Hake, and most of the performers who range in age from 20 to 60, the experience has served as an introduction to a new world. Hake said he had never stepped into an art institution before visiting the Pulitzer with this group.

"I never had anything to do with art," Hake said. "The most art I've probably seen is graffiti. I can't remember anything else like this in my life, and I really believe it will never be the same."

In researching and studying the Old Masters, Hake said he found something of himself. He was particularly drawn to "Saint Jerome" by Jusepe de Ribera.

"I relate to St. Jerome an awfully lot," Hake said. "Of him being reborn. With all the temptation in my life, that's always there -- the beating myself up about having the temptations. He did the same thing to try to bring himself to accordance with God. And I've done tons of that throughout a lot of my life. More than I even like to think of. It kept me from going completely over the edge. I regret some of the things I've done, but it's how I relate with him. He's so much like me that it's scary to me sometimes."

Hake describes the art and theatrical experience as a million miles from his usual interests, although he said he has always had an interest in theater work. So, he took a chance, stepped out of his comfort zone - and went for it.

"I just love this," he said. "Right here. Right now."

'We're Building Bridges'

After six weeks, the cast has become almost family, Hake says, and there is an easiness among the actors as they run through the script, trying to get comfortable with their lines and stage directions.

Wilcox is a firm but cheerful taskmaster, directing her inexperienced performers with energy and patience.

"You know how someone always interrupts and says something dumb?" she whispers to a tall actor, standing on her tiptoes to get close to his face. "Well, that's you in this scene."

Wilcox is known for her work in Missouri prisons, directing Shakespearean plays at Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green and the Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia.

She has helped the performers learn diction, presentation and acting skills, but she credits them with helping her to see and understand the artwork -- through their eyes.

"The challenge has been in shaping the scenes," Wilcox said. "We have reams of fascinating material because we recorded the actors' responses to the paintings at every point in the process, from Day One when we could see very little in the paintings to Day Two when we saw new things. And we continue to discover things in the paintings we have not seen before. I say 'we' because they are teaching me - and all of us."

The actors, all graduates of Employment Connection, are paid for their participation in the six-week program that meets from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday to prepare for the performances. In addition to the art training, they are taught job skills -- but in a creative environment that encourages collaboration, cooperation and self-reflection.

"It is meant to be a job-training program that supplements the training and connections they receive through Employment Connection," explained Lisa Harper Chang, manager of community engagement at the Pulitzer, a position shared by the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. "It starts with basic things, such as being punctual. Staying in communication with your superiors or your bosses. Learning how to work well within a group. How to respond well to direction, to respond well to supervision."

The audience for the performances will be limited to just 15 people, creating an intimate setting that will offer a learning experience for all, Wilcox said.

"We've all committed to trying to break stereotypes," she said. "We know there are stereotypes of unemployed vets. There are definitely stereotypes about ex-cons. It's rare that you can be in a situation where you can observe someone who's had a very troubled past and to see them not only succeed but make brilliant and astonishing observations about high art."

Harper Chang adds that the performers may help some audience members, who prefer contemporary art, better understand the relevance of the art work of the Old Masters.

"We're building bridges to those Old Masters and really giving them new life by reinterpreting through these deeply personal reflections. Even the curators have been astounded by the insights and reflections from the group of performers - and their openness in sharing their life experiences."

Wilcox said she believes the actors have succeeded beyond their own dreams, and have gained a sense of confidence and self-esteem that they did not have when they first came to the project.

"I think many of these actors have been discouraged in their lives by other people," Wilcox said. "Few of them have realized how incredibly bright they are. How observant. How thoughtful. How insightful. How exciting they are as thinkers and as performers."

'I Feel They Care'

Hake is hoping that some of his family members will come to watch him perform. He grew up in St. Louis County, the eighth of 10 children; his father died when he was a young boy. He lives in a homeless shelter now as he rebuilds his life, inspired to overcome his addictions after the death of his mother, nearly two years ago.

She was the one constant in his life -- the one who always believed in him.

"I crashed after mom died," Hake said. "Then, it was like waking up almost and realizing what the hell am I doing? This isn't showing much reverence to my mother. This is exactly the opposite of what she would want. I started going back to church. I put myself into a very scary situation, moving from a household where I was secure to throw myself into a homeless shelter. And I just started fresh from that point."

Ironically, Hake says, he wasn't able to truly hear his mother until after she passed away.

"But it's OK because she's helping me now. A lot," he said.

Hake says that it will be sad for the actors when the program ends - because of the friendships made and the support shown by Wilcox, Chang and the program staff.

"They've given us so much to take with us -- that's how much I feel they care about us," Hake said. "They're actually doing much more than I think they even expected they would do themselves. They put so much into us, and we're trying to give back the same amount."

Hake said he's nervous about performing but believes the audience will help the performers build confidence.

A year from now, his goal is to be gainfully employed as a tax-paying citizen. But, he adds, he would like to continue his involvement in the arts.

"Because I want more and more of it right now, and I hope to keep that fire going," he said. "And the only way I can do that is to continue to visit museums to experience new things -- to put myself in that situation the same way that I did this program."

Harper Chang said that the actors will be encouraged to find employment, and can cite the program as evidence of their commitment and ability to learn and grow. They will also be encouraged to stay involved in the arts and theater in their own communities - an important outlet to help them maintain social inclusion.

"We have very high expectations of all of them, and we haven't been disappointed," Harper Chang said. "I think in the past they've had the opposite experience where people expect nothing from them. Or, expect the worst from them. It's really about letting them know that somebody believes in them and really thinks they can do it. And expects them to do it. In that way, we hope this will be a life-changing experience. We know that six weeks is a short period of time -- a blip in a lifetime. But you never know what will click."

Editor's note: Emily Rauh Pulitzer, founder and chairman of The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, is a donor to the St. Louis Beacon.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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