Remembering Prison Performing Arts founder Agnes Wilcox, who died unexpectedly while vacationing
Updated September 1 with St. Louis on the Air remembrance –
On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the life and legacy of Agnes Wilcox, who died unexpectedly in Canada earlier this week.
Among the many people who could talk about Wilcox, the founder of Prison Performing Arts, three joined us:
- Christopher Limber, Director of Adult Prison Programs, Prison Performing Arts
- Chris Harris, Board Member and Member of Second Acts Ensemble, Prison Performing Arts
- William Roth, Founder and Artistic Director, St. Louis Actors Studio
Original story from August 29:
Agnes Wilcox, founder and longtime artistic director of a St. Louis organization that brought theater to prison inmates, has died.
Wilcox, who founded Prison Performing Arts (PPA) in 1999, died suddenly on Monday in Ontario, Canada. She was vacationing with her husband, local theater critic Bob Wilcox.
Wilcox, 70, formed the prison-focused organization as an outreach program of her first St. Louis theater company, The New Theatre. She retired from PPA in 2014.
Christopher Limber, one of three people who now head PPA, was shocked to learn of her death. Limber recalled how Wilcox pushed against regulations that might have kept others from bringing drama to those behind bars.
“Agnes is unstoppable,” Limber said. “She walked in and said ‘I want to do this’ and made it happen, and convinced everybody that it would be advantageous not only to the creative process of the individuals involved but would also be highly educational.”
Funny, charming, witty and creative
Wilcox went swimming on Monday, according to Gerry Kowarsky, Bob Wilcox's partner in their "Two on the Aisle" theater program on HEC-TV. She stayed out longer than her husband expected and he began searching for her, but it was the police who found her body. It was a complete shock, Kowarsky said.
"She was in very good health," Kowarsky said.
Wilcox surprised many when she chose Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as the first production in which to cast inmates, at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific. Limber said she knew Shakespeare’s themes of justice, revenge and guilt are all issues incarcerated people grapple with.
Putting together a play entails teamwork and negotiation, helping prisoners learn valuable skills, according to Limber. But the process was also a way to bring joy to people behind bars, even for a short period.
“Agnes was great, great fun, very funny and charming and witty and creative,” Limber said. “And all of that makes a tremendous difference in the week of a prisoner.”
The program serves 1,000 inmate actors and audiences every year. Limber said a Missouri Department of Corrections study found that people who participated in PPA were 20 percent less likely to return to prison.
In 2016, St. Louis' Arts and Education Council gave Wilcox its Lifetime Achievement Award. Of the award, Wilcox told Don Marsh of St. Louis Public Radio’s St. Louis on the Air program:
“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 supported my work in so many ways,” Wilcox told Marsh. “I owe this community, big-time.”
The news of her death shocked members of the local theater community. On Wilcox’s Facebook page, posters called the news “a gut punch” and called this “a sad day for the arts community.”
Black Rep founder and artistic director Ron Himes told St. Louis Public Radio, "Agnes will be sorely missed."
"Agnes was smart and spunky," Himes said. "I watched her work really, really hard, trying to do good work in prisons. No one else was doing that in St. Louis."
Others across the country also mourned her passing. When Ira Glass of the “This American Life” public radio show heard the news, he tweeted about her appearance on a 2002 episode.
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