Voices Inside garners NEA grant for 10th year

Published 8:14 pm Thursday, May 23, 2019

Robby Henson says Pioneer Playhouse couldn’t be happier about their $15,000 Art Works grant, awarded for the Voices Inside program.

Henson, who is artistic director of the playhouse and founder of the program, says, “This is a program that gives back so much more than our staff gives.”

Apparently, the National Endowment for the Arts agrees, and wants the program to carry on — this is the 10th year in a row Pioneer Playhouse has been awarded the grant.

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Voices Inside works with prison inmates at Northpoint Training Center, teaching writing and performance skills in hopes of sparking creativity, hope and passion — and fighting recidivism. With using theater arts, Henson says they work to build the self-esteem and communication skills of inmates, in the hopes of enriching and humanizing their lives behind bars.

“I work with individuals, most from hard-scrabble backgrounds, and to witness again and again just how creativity can change lives —  it’s awe-inspiring,” he says.

The National Endowment for the Arts approved more than $80 million, part of the Arts Endowment’s second major funding announcement for 2019. In a release, Arts Endowment Acting Chairman Mary Anne Carter said, “Pioneer Playhouse gives people in an overlooked community the opportunity to learn, create and be inspired.”

Henson sees this first-hand, and hopes to continue seeing it. “We’ve had individuals who pass through our program, who have gone on to start theater companies and get masters degrees.”

Part of the program’s aim is for inmates to take responsibility for their life choices, including the crimes they committed and mistakes they made. Henson says it works to relate “universal themes in drama and comedy to their lives … including bringing past experiences, choices and future possibilities into the act of expression.”

And maybe most importantly, encouraging inmates “to speak the truth.”

Carter calls the NEA awards an artistic testament. “These awards, reaching every corner of the United States, are a testament to the artistic richness and diversity in our country.”

Henson’s colleague and sister, Managing Director Heather Henson, said the playhouse is extremely happy that the NEA is still around.

“And still able to fund this kind of life-changing program,” she said. “Without help at the state and federal level, places like Pioneer Playhouse, and programs like Voices Inside, will simply cease to exist.”

“This is the 10th year in a row we’ve received NEA funding, and that continuity is game changing,” Robby Henson says. It allows them to bring in teaching professionals to help with the program. 

“And to present a Pioneer Playhouse MainStage show in the prison yard each summer. And it allows us to tour five other prisons, presenting inmate-authored plays.”

He says theater arts have been proven to enhance reintegration into society, and reduce recidivism. So, he says, this program serves us all.

For more about Voices Inside, visit voicesinside.org; for the National Endowment for the Arts, visit arts.gov; for Pioneer Playhouse, visit pioneerplayhouse.com.