Sister Helen Prejean, an internationally acclaimed human rights activist and the author of “Dead Man Walking,” first conjured the idea in 1998 after reading a New Yorker magazine article that said Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman,” had been performed a million times. Every day, Miller’s play was performed somewhere in the world, according to the article. Sister Helen realized that if “Dead Man Walking” could be made into a play, it could also be reproduced endlessly, thereby expanding its impact.
Sister Helen called her friend, Tim Robbins, who wrote, produced and directed the film adaptation of her book, and invited him to write a stage play of her story. Tim accepted the invitation and challenge, soon crafting a powerful stage adaptation. Tim wrote about the founding of the School Theatre Project in his afterword for the 20th anniversary edition of Dead Man Walking:
For a solid year Helen kept sending me messages: “Tim! Tim! What if we had a play of Dead Man? Just think, every time the play is performed, it will bring reality close to people and lead them to deep reflection, and you, Tim, you’re the one to do it, you gotta be the papa of the play.” I adapted the screenplay, had a reading with an eye to a Broadway production, but it didn’t seem right. I didn’t want to re-do the experience. As much as I tried to imagine directing this play, I couldn’t get it into my head how I could direct two actors to approach the perfection of the performances that Sean and Susan brought to the film. I called Helen and said, “What if we did it the other way, in reverse. Let’s start with universities and maybe in ten years we’ll offer it to regional theaters, and then eventually get to Broadway?” And so the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project was born—a stage play entrusted, not to the commercial theater, but to young people. It continues today, having reached over two hundred universities and high schools in the United States and abroad. I trust young people. It is they who are the bearers of new consciousness into the future.
The film, the album, the play—each an art form with the potential to power to jolt and stir consciousness, to provoke debate. Art is the most respectful way I know for a society to test out ingrained opinions and cultural beliefs and consequentially grow in tolerance and compassion and justice. And Sister Helen gave life to all of this potential by writing this book.
Since the launch of the project in the fall of 2004, more than 240 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.
- Pay a one-time participation fee;
- Pay a royalty fee per performance;
- Involve at least two other academic departments (law, sociology, humanities, campus ministry, art, etc.);
- Sponsor creative art and music projects on the issue (the Dead Man Walking Soundtrack, a compilation of music written and recorded for the movie, may spark the imaginations of musicians and future composers);
- Provide feedback on the production of the play, creative initiatives on campus or with other schools or community organizations, suggestions on how to expand the discourse, and what worked or did not work;
- Do not produce the play for commercial gain.
I am concerned that parents or community members may feel this production is not suitable for our students. How do I address their concerns?
Capital punishment is an issue that many people disagree on, and one that warrants civil discourse. We use the words ‘conversation’ and ‘discourse’ rather than ‘debate’, which implies an end or resolution. Note that the play has been performed in diverse communities across the country, with participants from Grade 9 to college level, and the response to the experience by participants, educators and audiences has been overwhelmingly positive.
We recommend listening to this radio segment from Radio West KUER 90.1 addressing resistance to the production of Dead Man Walking at Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah. The program highlights responses from educators, community members, and former National Director, Greg Callaghan.
Discourse reflects such qualities of human engagement as respect, freedom, curiosity, openness, non-competitiveness, trust, and simply the delight in the free-flowing exchange of ideas and wisdom. Discourse reflects an engagement with ideas, which often calls for a response and for action. Discourse is an ongoing commitment to engagement with each other, and the issues of our community, for the sake of resolution.