Play was penned with help of 200 who know the system from inside.

Wonderlust Productions is dedicated to telling untold stories of importance. In its forthcoming premiere, The Labyrinth and the Minotaur: The Incarceration Play Project, Wonderlust examines what happens in the Minnesota corrections system based on interviews with more than 200 people who are in the system—inmates and their families, correctional officers, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, policymakers and others.

“For many people, knowledge of the criminal justice system ends at the courtroom,” said Wonderlust co-founder and co-artistic director Alan Berks. “The last time they think about a convicted defendant is when he or she is led out a side door in handcuffs. We take the audience through that door and immerse them in what happens as (the accused and others) wend their way through our labyrinthine system.”

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Leah Cooper directs an early rehearsal of The Labyrinth and the Minotaur: The Incarceration Play Project. The world premiere by Wonderlust Productions will be staged May 13-22. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“Ours is not documentary theater,” said Wonderlust co-founder and co-artistic director Leah Cooper. “For our plays, we think about a story from mythology or literature that has stood the test of time because of its universal themes. When we find one that has parallels to what we’re seeing in the community—the same conflicts, aspirations, characters and archetypes—we use that to tell a bigger story.”

Berks, a Macalester-Groveland resident, was the principle writer for The Labyrinth and the Minotaur. Cooper, who lives in Ramsey Hill, directs the show.

“Leah was a successful software engineer before she moved full time into theater,” Berks said. “I traveled all over the world in my 20s, including a stint as a goatherd in the Middle East. We’re just voracious learners. The opportunity to work in the community the way we do is a blessed chance to ask questions about important things and meet wonderful people whose stories don’t often get told.”

Wonderlust was founded in 2014, but Berks and Cooper collaborated on a story about war veterans a couple years before. “We’d been at war in the Middle East for 10 years, and everyone had stopped talking about it,” Berks said.

Their first Wonderlust production, In My Heart: The Adoption Story Project, was performed in 2016. Berks and Cooper also adapted that play as a novel that was a finalist for a 2022 Minnesota Book Award in the Young Adult Literature category.

 

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“Incarceration is a big topic with a lot of complexity and nuance. Having a script crafted out of stories that were so generously shared by those who have experienced incarceration is a great way to approach the sensitive subject.”

The idea for The Labyrinth and the Minotaur grew out of Cooper’s and Berks’ work with Jewish Community Action on racial and economic justice. “Once the ‘Law and Order’ episode is done, most people think the person is just put on ice and that’s it,” Berks said. “But they’re not.” There are so many considerations for people who are incarcerated and for those who work in the system, he added, and these impact everyone.

Work began on The Labyrinth and The Minotaur in 2018. Wonderlust visited the women’s prison in Shakopee, the men’s prison in Stillwater, the Ramsey County Workhouse and the juvenile detention facility at Boys’ Totem Town. It held story circles with Ramsey County public defenders and prosecutors, employees of the state Department of Corrections, correctional officers at Oak Park Heights and such support groups as Power of People Institute, MN Prison Doula Project, Voices for Racial Justice, the Legal Rights Center, the Second Chance Coalition and We Are All Criminals. Some of the interviewees are in the production. In fact, over two-thirds of the cast of 30 are not professional actors.

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Tina Siegel (above) and other cast members listen as director Leah Cooper conducts an early rehearsal of Wonderlust’s production of The Labyrinth and the Minotaur, opening May 13 at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth St. in Minneapolis. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“COVID hit just two weeks before rehearsals were to begin,” Cooper said. “But there was never a moment when we thought about scrapping the project. We felt a responsibility to the people who had shared their stories with us. Some of our cast members are dealing with long-haul COVID symptoms. A lot of people in the incarceration system come from really difficult circumstances. Now they’re doing a play and dealing with unemployment, poverty, and mental and physical health challenges.”

A cast and crew from inside criminal justice system.

Among the cast is Geno Benshoof, who grew up in a suburb of Saint Paul with loving parents but got into trouble with alcohol and drugs. Eventually, Benshoof was sentenced to 74 months in prison for the possession of 3.1 grams or around $250 worth of methamphetamine.

“I got out on supervised release in 2018,” Benshoof said. “My wife was involved with Wonderlust during my stay inside and was a part of the story circles. I learned of the production and was excited to get involved with people making a difference in this world. My hope is to bring awareness about the struggle of addiction and alternatives to incarceration for non-violent drug-related crimes.”

Tina Siegel, a restorative justice professional, is also involved in the production. “It’s challenging to tell a story about incarceration,” she said. “It’s a big topic with a lot of complexity and nuance. Having a script crafted out of stories that were so generously shared by those who have experienced incarceration is a great way to approach the sensitive subject.”

Chelsey Tulgren, who teaches GED classes in a correctional facility, became involved in the production through the story circles. “I was able to invite Wonderlust into my classroom,” she said. “They were the first outside organization I ever brought into the facility. My students loved it and were still talking about it months later.

“It has been incredibly rewarding to give my perspective of working in incarceration, share my experiences and be deeply listened to,” Tulgren added. “I hope my participation will help people remember that all of us are human and worthy of being recognized as such.”

The Labyrinth and the Minotaur will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays from May 13-22 at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth St. in Minneapolis. Tickets are $5-$50, though nobody will be turned away for an inability to pay. For reservations or information, visit wlproductions.org.

— Anne Murphy

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