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A Heart Behind Bars: Preparing for THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

By May 22, 2024May 29th, 2024No Comments

As the curtain prepares to rise on Barter Theatre’s latest production, The Shawshank Redemption, an intricate journey begins beyond the footlights and into the foothills of Tennessee. With an unwavering commitment to authenticity, Artistic Producing Director Katy Brown leads the cast and crew on an exploration of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, seeking not just the echoes of its storied past, but the beating heart of humanity behind its walls. Driven by a desire to understand and to empathize, they delve into the depths of history and culture – weaving personal experience from the past and present into the fabric of their performance.

“Back in the fall when (Scenic Designer) Derek Smith and I began talking about designs for The Shawshank Redemption, I was driving down the highway and saw this big billboard that said ‘Museum. Distillery. Restaurant. Penitentiary’ and I thought, that can’t all be in the same place, what is that?” Brown begins. “I found that Brushy Mountain Penitentiary (in Petros, TN)  had become a museum.”

The infamous Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was once a high security state prison, much like what Shawshank would have been like, run from 1896-2009. 

“You can go up and tour the prison, and down below there are other facilities,” Brown said. “But the part that is so meaningful is you are in one of the most beautiful valleys I’ve ever seen in my entire life and you have this fortress in the middle of it where there has been so much human suffering. There’s this juxtaposition between how dark and terrible the inside of the prison is and how awe-inspiringly beautiful it is when you walk outside – it does something to you.”

Brown said that she and Smith had a vision for the direction of the show and the scenery prior to visiting Brushy Mountain, however that vision shifted a bit once they experienced being behind the walls of the prison. 

“When you’ve got the beautiful material that is the novella The Shawshank Redemption, and all the images that you get from that, and then you go and you’re actually in that space, it affected the texture I imagined. It didn’t just affect the texture of the set, but how 3-Dimensional I wanted these people to be,” Brown said. “It really affected the way we are thinking about light. The light in that place is so fascinating. There’s incredible gorgeous light and then you step inside and it’s immediate darkness – it’s so striking.”

Brown explained that the reason she wanted to take the cast and crew to Brushy was to get a sense of the way it feels, and to see what it was like being inside the cold walls of a prison.

“There were some things that fit the image that was in our head and some things that were surprising,” she said. “I wanted them to get that same feeling. We had two tour guides, one had been incarcerated at Brushy Mountain for years, and the other used to be a guard at the prison. Because we have both inmates and guards in our cast, they were able to ask questions of the guides and hear from people who really lived there what it was like.” 

When picking the productions for the season, Brown knew that she would be able to integrate the theme of The Shawshank Redemption into Barter’s theme of “Home” – and it was one of the first shows she knew she wanted to do.

“Of course, it’s such an incredible story and beloved film, but the script is so excellent and theatrical; it doesn’t wish it was the movie,” Brown explained. “The nature of ‘Home’ in this respect is a home that none of these people want, and yet in some way it becomes home for them. One of the big themes is that you might never get out, but if you do, you might feel so institutionalized at that point that you don’t feel able to be in the outside world. So what does it mean to build homes and relationships and what is it to try and rebuild a home for yourself in a world you’re not used to?”

Adding to the conversation is Barter Connects, which is a series of post-show discussions designed to connect audiences with the play on a deeper level. One of the things Brown feels is important about the Barter Connects series, is that when an issue is brought up by a play, who is out there really doing something about that work? With the Barter Connects series, Brown hopes to answer that question.

“If you feel so compelled to go do something about something you’ve just seen depicted on stage, you know right away who you can go and talk to,” Brown noted. “People’s Inc. Case Manager, Chris Snipes will be talking with the audience on June 23 about the work of rehabilitation for people through Virginia CARES and re-entering society in a way that’s healthy for people.” 

Ron Carson, founder of the Appalachian African American Cultural Center will also be speaking to the audience on August 8th for a discussion with Barter’s Director of Black Stories Black Voices Terrance Jackson about what freedom meant for the first to celebrate the 8th of August and what it means for the Black community today. 

The Eighth of August is a pivotal point in American History as it is the date that Tennessee Military Governor Andrew Johnson freed the enslaved people in 1863.

“We are using this topic to expose our audiences (primarily white) to the history of the August 8th celebrations in our region. With the purpose to educate and also encourage them to take part in future celebrations,” explained Jackson. “Ron Carson has an annual August 8th celebration in Pennington Gap, VA. We’re also using this topic to look at what Freedom in the play means and then looking at the struggles for Freedom for Black Appalachian Americans in History.”

Also joining the discussion will be Vince McGill who plays Red in The Shawshank Redemptiongiving a voice to the role he played as a Black inmate of Shawshank.

Tackling such mentally and emotionally intense material also brings to the forefront those that will be portraying these characters with such depth. According to Brown, when they returned from Brushy Mountain, the cast and crew sat down together and unpacked what they had just experienced.

“One thing we’ve put in place for the characters as well is the major action of this play is about how do you find humanity and joy in a place that makes it impossible?” Brown said. “The image we keep coming back to is how the main character Andy has this tiny Bic lighter he keeps in his chest and he is engaged with keeping that alive no matter what. And by doing that, it helps keep hope in others around him.”

With rehearsal processes comes a familiarity to life at Shawshank, where you have so much joy and then so much deep stuff you have to deal with. 

“The way the play is written and you walk through time, you’ll be right up against these guys ribbing each other and having the best time, and then right up against that you’ve got death and sorrow,” Brown said. “When I think of Shawshank I think of darkness with these incredible rays of light in it, and that’s the way rehearsal has been too. Everybody is so excited. It’s hard hitting but also a story people love.”

Overall, the main theme and message Brown hopes the audience takes away from The Shawshank Redemption is it is possible to continue to have hope and reach forward no matter how bad things get. 

“I don’t know of another story that paints that so clearly. You watch somebody with a small light descend into this real darkness,” Brown said. “The fact that because he is able to rise despite those things, it makes other people around him want to do that too. If only one person feels there is something heavy descending on them, if they are able to walk through that and get to the other side because of this production, that’s why we do this.”


The Shawshank Redemption runs June 15 – August 17 on Gilliam Stage. Content Advisories: (IL, SV, V) – This play is set in a maximum security prison and includes strong profanity, violence, and a theatricalization of sexual assault.

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