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‘St. Louis is full of adventurous artists:' Prison Performing Arts founder Agnes Wilcox looks back

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Agnes Wilcox

Agnes Wilcox founded Prison Performing Arts 23 years ago. Last year, she retired as director of the organization, which involves inmates and former prisoners with theatre.

A few days from now, on January 25, the Arts and Education Council will award her the lifetime achievement award in the arts for her work with the organization and other contributions to the St. Louis arts scene.

Interested in stories like this? Read this: 'I cry during sentimental movies' — prisoners use personal stories to reflect on mass incarceration

On Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” host Don Marsh discussed Wilcox’s long career in the arts with her and what the next chapter holds.

"I owe so many people so much, whether it was the people with whom I was working or the people I was working beside, or the people who support my work in so many ways," said Wilcox. "I think the artists in St. Louis are incredibly adventurous. I think the audience at times is a little less adventurous. ... I think it is very important that major facilities have that sense of 'yes, you don't know this, but boy are you going to love it.' St. Louis is full of adventurous artists."

Wilcox said that when she moved here she was initially disappointed because she felt like every show that came through town had already been done in New York. She thought there was a lot of contemporary work by younger artists that could be showcased in St. Louis. That’s when she founded The New Theatre.

Prison Performing Arts, the organization Wilcox calls her most meaningful work, was as an outgrowth of The New Theatre. The program partners with prison inmates and teaches them theatre. Ultimately, inmates participate in plays.

“The programs serve adults and young people,” said Wilcox. “We are in St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center, the St. Louis Regional Youth Center and we’re part of the diversion program that Judge Jimmy Edwards established. In adult institutions, the one in Pacific, where we began, and then in Bowling Green and Vandalia — two men’s prisons and a women’s prison. Working with medium to high level prison inmates makes for a very stable activity because they are there for a while. Many are older, they’ve figured out they screwed up and they want to change their lives.”

If you would like to learn more about the experience of inmates involved with Prison Performing Arts, listen to this fantastic segment by This American Life from 2002

What’s next for Wilcox? She says she’s working on a young adult novel about a young man in prison. She would also like to continue to boost up the St. Louis art community.

“I would like to be able to educate, especially community leaders, who think that the arts are secondary,” Wilcox said. “The arts in St. Louis brought in more money than the football team. A different kind of prestige, I’ll grant you. … This community could take advantage of their arts organizations, promote them and find all of the virtues that come back to the community because of them.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.