Cowboy boots and bandannas, sports bras for “boobage,” a wedding dress to fit a 6-foot bride—Dawn Abrahams hunts down “just-right” costumes for her actors in plays performed at Ellsworth Correctional Facilities.
“I want (the inmates) to feel good about their characters,” said Abrahams, in her ninth year as assistant director for the annual drama performances produced at ECF, which houses male-only prisoners at multiple levels.
Abrahams, who grew up in Hillsboro, graduated from Bethel College with a speech/drama degree and lives in Moundridge, said she’s found her niche at ECF.
“This is my place, I belong here,” she said, owing to her theater experiences there. “It seems funny to me that it took this long to find (my purpose).
Earlier this month, Abrahams was honored for her contributions at the prison as recipient of the 2016 Volunteer of the Year Award for Ellsworth Correctional Facility, presented to her by Gov. Sam Brownback in Topeka.
“This award means so much more to me than any Oscar ever, ever would,” she said.
Abrahams said she and drama director Larry Temple of Elyria, who began the annual program that runs four months out of the year, believe their efforts are making a difference in inmates’ lives.
“Watching the guys grow up and take responsibility and realize that there’s more to life than their past, you see it come on in their eyes,” she said.
“How the West Was Worn,” the most recent show, was performed for full-capacity crowds of 130 as a dinner-theater that included a meal cooked and also served by inmates.
The cast of 13, plus 15 others who worked on technical support, put on four sold out performances for “outsiders” and two shows for fellow inmates—one as a dinner-theater and the other only the play. The cast also performed for an event honoring employees of local Ellsworth businesses.
Abrahams estimated that about 60 inmates were involved in some way with the performances, which are held in the chapel of the Spiritual Life Center, a freestanding facility on the prison grounds that is funded primarily by donations.
Each performance for outsiders included family members of inmates in the audience.
“We have one guy whose mom and dad are divorced, and they both came, along with his two sisters and his grandma,” she said. “They had never seen him in anything like this.”
Abrahams also told about one mother in the audience who yelled out, “That’s my boy,” during the performance.
“And he heard it and he tipped his hat to her as he walked (off the stage),” she said. “And I talked to him afterward and asked, ‘Did you hear your mom?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, Dawn, and I tipped my hat. Do you think she saw it?’ And I said, ‘Oh, she saw it.’”
Beginning with auditions in January, Abrahams and Temple will travel some 90 minutes to Ellsworth twice a week to rehearse and prepare for the spring performances. In production, she said, they can be there three to four times a week.
“When I’m in Ellsworth, I’m in my groove,” she said. “It takes everything out of me for those four months. It kind of drains you, but it’s worth every minute.”
Inmates who choose to participate fill out a form that asks if they’d be willing to play a female role or shave their beard.
“Because of the sensitivity of (playing a female) in the place where they are,” she said, “we don’t want to do something they aren’t comfortable with. And what’s really funny is the female roles are kind of more wanted because when you play the female, people remember you forever.”
The questionnaire also asks inmates whether they would be willing to work backstage or help Abrahams with costumes if they don’t get a part.
“Nobody has ever turned my jobs down,” she said and laughed. “We don’t want to turn anybody away.”
Losing a character who’s playing a major role can cause havoc.
“We did ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ one year,” she said. “One of the old ladies got pulled because he messed up, and he would have been really good. So we were scrambling a month before (production) to find somebody. We’d already had a lot of practices and rehearsals.”
Fortunately an inmate who had participated in a past performance stopped by to see if his help was needed, and he agreed to take on the role.
“We felt secure in asking him to do this,” she said. “And we told him we realize he was coming up with the short end of the straw. And he goes, ‘I will do this and I will have this down for you.’ He did and he pulled it off and the people loved it.”
With auditions still months away for next season, Abrahams, who has taken early retirement, said she’s already started previewing and reviewing plays for their 10th season with performance dates set for April 21-22 and 29-30.
At the cast party following their most recent production, a first-time actor asked Abrahams when she and Temple would be back to the prison.
“And I said, ‘Well, we don’t come back ’til January,’” she said. “He goes, ‘Dawn, that’s a long time.’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s a long time for me, too, but we will be back in January. We’ll do this again.’”