"I watch these guys change and they have become a blessing to me. Growing up, being a different person, I've learned that you don't judge the book by its cover."
Every theatrical production has its challenges and rewards, as Dawn Abrahams of Moundridge knows. She’s spent years volunteering with the dinner theater performed by Ellsworth Correctional Facility inmates.
The program started when Elyria resident Larry Temple was asked by a chaplain to bring a production into ECF's Spiritual Life Center. When inmates showed interest in doing their own show, Temple agreed to direct, bringing Abrahams along to help.
Not knowing what to expect in a prison, Abrahams was apprehensive. She wondered how a group of male inmates would treat her as a woman — and a dwarf.
"I was petrified," Abrahams said.
After 10 years volunteering at ECF, the only thing she worries about now is whether the show will go on.
"If anything is missing, if one of the guys misbehaves, if a visitor of theirs comes and crosses the line, they could shut you down," Abrahams said. "You could work on this for three months and never do it."
One inmate was pulled from the production a few days before performances started.
"We give second chances, but not third," Abrahams said. "It makes them behave."
Some inmates have never been on stage before.
"You put them on, and it's like all of a sudden, they're a human being," Abrahams said. "I watch these guys change and they have become a blessing to me. Growing up, being a different person, I've learned that you don't judge the book by its cover."
What started as a show put on for fellow inmates without sets, costumes or lighting has grown into a full-fledged production with two weekends of performances open to the public.
"They seat up to 130 people in the dinner theater, and we've had sold-out crowds every time," Abrahams said.
Abrahams and Temple have put on western melodramas and classic comedies, leading a team of 60 inmates as actors (in male and female roles), set builders, lighting technicians, cooks and servers.
"We did 'Arsenic and Old Lace,' that was huge," Abrahams said. "As we progress, we get more and more professional."
Many ECF inmates, who have worn their uniform of blue t-shirts and jeans for years, relish the chance to wear a costume. Costumes and props are a security risk, and each item has to be inventoried. Being unable to run out to pick up safety pins or other last-minute supplies forces Abrahams to think ahead.
"I have to call everything in before I take it in. Anything I bring in there, I'm responsible for," Abrahams said.
She was allowed to bring in fake blood for a play, but could not bring in capsules to contain it.
"If the capsules fell into the wrong hands, they could use them for drugs," Abrahams explained.
The drive to ECF takes Abrahams 90 minutes each way, but it is time well spent.
"Some guys we've worked with for years, some guys we only get to work with for one year, and they'll say this made all the difference," Abrahams said. "It's just a good feeling to be able to help somebody turn their life around."
The inmates, after three months of rehearsal, look forward to seeing their parents and other relatives at the performances.
"You see moms and dads come for the first time to see their son in something, and their son has never done anything like this before," Abrahams said. "I've had dads come in and they've told their sons how proud they are of what they're doing here. That's why I do it."
Abrahams fell in love with theater in high school and dreamed of going to Hollywood.
"When I left college, I was bound for California, but was offered a job in McPherson," Abrahams said. "I never got where I wanted to go. I always wanted to walk a red carpet. I had my Academy Award speech written up."
When Abrahams was selected as the ECF's 2016 Volunteer of the Year, she told the inmates and prison staff they were her Hollywood.
"It was really emotional for me, because I'm doing what I love to do. I'm not getting paid for it, but I don't care," Abrahams said.
The inmates are appreciative of Abrahams' work on her behalf.
"Dawn is the mother to all of us when she comes in here," said an inmate who prefers to be known only as Joe.
He has participated in the theater program for seven years. Joe plays a leading character in this year's production of "Treasures," which was written by Temple.
"It's one of those scripts that it's all about the characters," Joe said. "Judging by our first couple of rehearsals, it's going to be a great one."
"Treasures" is the story of a husband and wife who are trying to raise money by having a yard sale.
"Things get sold, and there are treasures in there. These people don't realize what they have," Abrahams said.
Being in plays has given Joe a chance to work with other inmates he would have otherwise never spoken with.
"You find yourself all together working on the team," Joe said. "It's hard to say something's a lot of fun in prison, but it is. It allows us to not be prisoners for a little bit."
Having to set aside their differences challenges inmates to work together as individuals.
"You're in prison, you have people that are affiliated with gangs who would just as soon kill each other as look at each other," Joe said. "In this environment, you're treated like a person, treated like a man."
That treatment brings about a change in the inmate's attitudes and behavior.
"Being involved with this, you have to keep your nose clean," Joe said. "For the guys that do get involved, this is kind of a test. The guys that are given that chance usually rise to the occasion."
With 800 inmates in the prison, it is not unusual to find some of the men already have skills useful for theater. Joe used his talents to help construct flats for the sets and has learned how to run a sound system.
"Of those people, you have artists who, regardless of their crimes, they have skills," Joe said. "In turn, they can pass those skills on to others."
This is Joe's last year at ECF, and the first year his family members are coming down from Chicago to see him in a play.
Seeing an inmate working with others on stage while being served dinner gives visitors a look at prison that is different from what is depicted on TV.
"Every person who comes to see this is absolutely flabbergasted. It's not what they thought," Joe said. "It's changing people's view of inmates."
After his release, Joe plans to continue volunteering in theater. He would like to do so at ECF, to remind himself where he came from and to "pay it forward" to other inmates,” he said.
"You have to come in and see it," said Chaplain Dale Bailey. "I'd say it's almost as professionally done as community theaters."
Many people have family or close friends who have been incarcerated and there are false perceptions about the system that the theater program dispels.
"The play is tremendous help with that," Bailey said. "The neatest part is the families that get to come and see it. They see the anger is gone and that's just huge for family relationships."
"Treasures" will be performed at 6 p.m. on April 21, 22 and 29, and at 1 p.m. on April 30 at Ellsworth Correctional Facility, 1607 State St., Ellsworth. Tickets are $20 and include a dinner. For more information, call 785-472-6212.