Brett Phillips sauntered onto a stage, swagger in full display as he introduced himself as Randle Patrick McMurphy in the production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Phillips’ character quickly turned his attention to the play’s antagonist, Nurse Ratched, provoking her into anger as the audience delighted in his bold antics.
Despite his natural charisma and stage presence, Phillips is no professional actor. He’s serving 38 years in the Sterling Correctional Facility, one of the state’s highest security prisons, for second-degree murder.
The 49-year-old inmate was one of more than two dozen felons performing in the production Tuesday at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Organizers said it is the first prison theater production in the country to take a show on tour.
It’s all part of the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative, a 2017 program to bring arts into Colorado prisons as a way to reduce recidivism, and promote community and humanity with a segment of the population often stigmatized by the outside world.
“There’s a stereotype that people in prison aren’t artists or empathetic or creative,” said Ashley Hamilton, director of the DU initiative — and an actor in the play. “But they very much are.”
Phillips had never acted before his cellmate signed him up for the ensemble class. Hamilton, he said, convinced him — no, forced him — to try out for the leading role, played in the movie by Jack Nicholson. He quickly embraced the opportunity to star.
“I caught the bug,” Phillips said with a smile. He dropped all other extracurricular to nail the part.
“It’s surreal to me,” he said. “My friends are like, ‘Who is that guy up there?'”
Tuesday’s show marked the tour’s finale, which included stops at the Limon Correctional Facility and Sterling.
Ryan Long, warden of the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, said one of the goals of the arts initiative is to change perceptions about what actually goes on inside the state’s prisons and give a better sense of who actually lives there.
“These are not just warehouses,” Long said. “This isn’t ‘Orange is the New Black.’ We are trying to provide a new sense of normal.”
The choice of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was hardly a coincidence, Hamilton said.
“I honestly never thought they’d let me do it,” she said.
Based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, the story takes place at an Oregon psychiatric hospital and involves themes of power, control, freedom and individualism. McMurphy, a new patient at the facility, shakes up the institution by challenging the manipulative Nurse Ratched.
The offenders didn’t just rehearse the play, Hamilton said. They had in-depth discussions about institutionalization, mental health and how the themes apply to their lives.
In his 16 years in prison, Douglas Micco had never acted until the DU program came along.
“I had been waiting for this, hoping and praying that it would happen,” Micco said.
He played the narrator, Chief Bromden, opening the play in a fur vest and a long black wig, bounding onto a black box to deliver a stirring monologue. Micco produced all the music and sounds for the show in addition to his acting role. All the sets, props and costumes were made by inmate performers.
“This has changed my life,” Micco said.
Studies have found that an arts curriculum in prison can reduce violent incidents, increase self-esteem among inmates and promote a stronger sense of self. Hamilton said she kept strict behavioral criteria for the cast.
“I had guys leave gangs in order to join this play,” Hamilton said. “Some guys stopped doing drugs so they could participate.”
Inmates from the women’s facility whooped and hollered throughout the show, clapping and reveling in the production. A few were moved to tears when Chief Bromden mercifully killed McMurphy after the instigator received a lobotomy.
After the show’s end — and a rousing round-of-applause — the cast held a discussion where the audience could ask questions.
“How do you get the courage to perform?” a woman asked.
“Well, we’re all people, right?” a performer answered. “It’s true you’re a prisoner, but you’re also a person.”
The crowd erupted in unison: “Amen!”