Dead Man Walking Project Creates Personal View of Capital Punishment
While capital punishment can be viewed from a distant, societal level, the difficult issues of empathy and personal involvement are best considered up close. That’s why the creators of “Dead Man Walking,” the powerful 1995 film, have extended their work into a play created for presentation by and for high school and college students.
Using the slogan “Make Theater – Take Action,” the project uses the unique power of theater and academic study "to replace ignorance, apathy, and cynicism among students regarding the death penalty with information, introspection, and inspiration," according to the project web site.
The Fetzer Institute is partnering with the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project to explore the impact of the production and related course work on the students, faculty, staff, and audience. This project will further seek to explore the transformative powers of the arts, and how participating in a production of Dead Man Walking may bring awareness of the power and complexity of love and forgiveness outside the execution chamber. Live performances of the play and responses from the play’s community will be sourced to capture responses. These will be compiled into a collection of essays, poems, and reflections.
Sister Helen Prejean, an internationally acclaimed human rights activist and the author of "Dead Man Walking," first conjured the idea in 1998 after learning that Arthur Miller's play, "Death of a Salesman," had been performed a million times. Sister Helen realized that if "Dead Man Walking" could be made into a play, it could also be reproduced endlessly, thereby expanding its impact.
"Executions take place as almost secret rituals behind prison walls with only a few witnesses,” said Sister Prejean, “so most people are never going to get close to state killings — unless the arts take them there."
Sister Helen called Tim Robbins, who wrote, produced and directed the film adaptation of her book, which led to his crafting a stage adaptation.
Instead of taking the play to Broadway, Robbins turned to schools. He required that any school producing the play must also provide academic courses related to the death penalty and "Dead Man Walking." Art and music projects, discussion groups, prison visitation and other activities were soon added to the mix.
Since the launch of the project in the fall of 2003, more than 220 high schools and colleges across the country have produced the play, conducted academic courses on the death penalty, and brought the issue to life on their campuses through art, music, and public education and action events.
Seventeen-year-old Michael Woodruff told the Salt Lake Tribune that taking part in the play caused him to rethink his views on capital punishment when he visualized the psychic toll of arranging another person’s death.
"This play has taught me so much, Woodruff said in a published interview. “The play and the book are meant to help you think about the death penalty with arguments for both sides so that you can make your own decision."
This is a project of the Fetzer Advisory Council on the Arts.