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SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Hand2Mouth cast member Julie Hammond gets motivational with Coffee Creek Correctional Facility inmates during the theater groups recent performance at the Wilsonville prison. This was no ordinary stage production.


But then, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility is no ordinary venue for Portland’s Hand2Mouth theatre group —- and when they first stepped through the gates of the prison in Wilsonville on April 1, there were more than a little apprehension.

“I think it’s more when you drive up, it’s scary,” Jonathan Walters, the group’s founder and artistic director said prior to the show. “The fences and barbed wire, it’s way over the top, but being in here, it seems more like the inmates are like, ‘Who are these people?’”

It just took a few minutes to dissolve that anxiety, as the troupe quickly prepared for “Pep Talk,” its most recent show and one it has been touring the Northwest behind since last winter.

The interactive “celebration of coaches, teams and everyday heroes ... combines the bravado of Muhammad Ali, the gravitas of Vince Lombardi and the humor of ‘The Bad News Bears.’” But it’s nothing like your standard stage production —- which typically includes, well, a stage, lights and props.

Instead, cast members first “seed” the audience by chatting with them beforehand to get an idea of who might be receptive to “Pep Talk” and who might share personal stories of their own pep talks after the performance is finished.

Then comes the performance itself, in which cast members use the entire venue as their stage, running in and out of the audience, exhorting them to get pumped up and then telling stories of motivation in Hand2Mouth’s own unique manner.

On this night it worked well, as cast members Maesie Speer, Julie Hammond and Erin Leddy built up the audience with their routine, a condensed version of the full “Pep Talk” performance.

It’s part performance art, part therapy and part community building all in one package.

“It’s designed as this group pump-up speech,” Walters said. “And it begins to build this strong group energy.”

Walters said “Pep Talk” initially was written as a normal stage production. But not long into their Northwest tour, it became clear that the entire interactive nature of the play worked much better if the audience was already familiar with each other; it, not surprisingly, led viewers to be more open about sharing their own experiences as part of the play.

That point was driven home during a show in Troutdale where the audience was made up entirely of members of the nearby Springdale Job Corps Center.

“We realized that if people knew each other it can be a more powerful community-building event,” Walters said. “It’s about the power of community to change lives and offer positive encouragement.”

All that is well and good. But how did a nationally renowned theater group end up in Oregon’s only women’s prison on a rainy Wednesday night?

Walters credits Johnny Stallings —- founder of a nonprofit Open Hearts, Open Minds —- for planting the seed of prison outreach in his head. Stallings’ group performs the plays of Shakespeare in Oregon prisons using inmate actors. Walters said that his advice was to approach Coffee Creek in Wilsonville if he wanted to do something similar with Hand2Mouth. So he did.

The final piece of the puzzle, though, was the new drama class at Coffee Creek taught by Portland couple Carla Grant and Don Kern of Portland Story Theater. The group meets once a week and already has performed a show for their fellow inmates.

Kern and Grant were already acquainted with Walters and helped set up last week’s show.

Kern said he is inspired by the women he’s met at Coffee Creek who labor to create art even while incarcerated. The class itself serves as a pep talk of sorts.

“If I had a hat on I’d raise it to all of you for being there for each other,” Kern said.

One of the inmates in the audience said the play was entertaining as well as motivational.

“It’s just nice to give someone that pep talk,” she said. “To say ‘It’s going to be okay.’ And I try to give that talk as much as possible.”

For more information, check out Hand2Mouth online at hand2mouththeatre.org.


By Josh Kulla
Assistant Editor / Photographer
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SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Hand2Mouth cast member Maesie Speer gets motivated with Coffee Creek Correctional Facility inmates during the theater groups recent performance at the Wilsonville prison.

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Hand2Mouth cast members Julie Hammond (L) and Maesie Speer talk with Coffee Creek Correctional Facility inmates during the theater group's recent performance at the Wilsonville prison.

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Hand2Mouth Theater members (L-R) Jonathan Walters, Erin Leddy, Julie Hammond and Maesie Speer talk to inmates at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility during last week's performance.

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Coffee Creek Correctional Facility inmates share their own pep talks during the Hand2Mouth theater group's recent performance at the Wilsonville prison.

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