Robert Mentzer column: 'Theater alone changed my life'
Published in The Wausau Daily Herald on April 17, 2013
Megale Taylor stepped out of Racine Correctional Institution almost exactly three years ago, on April 14, 2010. The next day was his 40th birthday.
From the time he dropped out of high school at 17, Taylor lived a life of petty crime and drug addiction, no structure, no goals. He started smoking marijuana as a teen but by the time he was in his 20s he had graduated to crack cocaine. In 2002, he was arrested on charges of battery and cocaine delivery. In the end, he served six years in prison for his crimes.
“Everything came into focus in that six-year stint,” Taylor told me in an interview last week. “I realized, I’m too old for this. I have to change my life. ... And I just got tired. I got tired.”
Re-entering society is hard and Taylor did struggle to find his footing. But he avoided falling back into drugs and crime. He found God in prison, he told me, and he connected with church families in Wausau when he got out. And he felt he knew himself in a way he never had before.
“I had a new beginning when I got out of prison,” said Taylor, whose first name is pronounced like “Miguel.” “I looked at myself with new eyes.”
On Monday, Taylor turned 43. He has a year left before earning his degree at Northcentral Technical College as a computer support specialist. He has a sense of life goals, a sense of what he wants his future to be that he never had before. This weekend, he will appear in the River District Theatre group’s production of “The Death of Innocents,” a play by the anti-death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean.
And in a way, Taylor’s path back to society began when he was introduced to the plays of William Shakespeare.
'Theater has opened my eyes'
Taylor is a graduate of the Shakespeare Prison Project, a program in the Racine prison that was administered by Jonathan Shailor, a communications professor at University of Wisconsin-Parkside. In four years, Taylor played The Fool in “King Lear,” the scheming Roderigo in “Othello,” the drunken butler Stephano in “The Tempest” and, his most intense role, Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar.”
“Theater has opened my eyes to humanity,” Taylor said. “In fact, theater alone changed my life. It opened my eyes to humanity, emotional intelligence, empathy.”
For inmates, being involved in a theatrical production works on many levels, Shailor said in a telephone interview. There’s the simple act of working as a team, learning to trust others and overcome obstacles. There’s the sense of accomplishment for the men at being part of something larger than themselves.
But it’s more than that. Theater teaches things that another discipline can’t, Shailor said: It’s empathy and humanity, but it also provides illustrations of how decisions have consequences. Theater invites actors to identify with the characters — their own, of course, but also others in the play — and also demonstrates the way each individual character’s actions affect the rest of the play’s world.
“It’s an ethics lesson, an opportunity to practice empathy or understanding, to look at conflict from a holistic perspective,” Shailor said. “And it stretches you beyond yourself.”
Shailor worked with the inmates for nine months per play in what he called a fairly intensive program that helped them master each play, make it their own. That is a real accomplishment. It’s scaling a mountain.
When he entered the program, Shailor said, Taylor “had some issues with self-esteem, with feeling that he couldn’t get along with other people. It was really something he grappled with, and I saw him get better at dealing with it.
“When he played The Fool, he was not sure of himself at first,” Shailor said. “Then something clicked with him in his ability to speak the language, to feel comfortable speaking the language. ... He confronted his demon and I think he overcame it.”
A love for people
On Friday, Taylor will take the stage for the first time since he left prison. In “Death of Innocents,” he plays Dobie Gillis Williams, a poor black man from Louisiana who was executed in 1999 for a murder that Prejean, in her life and in the play, contends he did not commit.
The play, which runs through Sunday — or call 715-298-9250 for tickets — is heavy, and in some ways it’s written to make viewers uncomfortable.
“I can see the injustice that’s taking place within the play, and I can dig deeper into that character and what he’s going through,” Taylor said. “It’s a really emotional role.”
Taylor is not nervous; he’s on a mission. He feels he has a story to tell and a desire to tell it — through theater itself and by talking about and sharing his own experiences.
“I really have an ambition and a love for people,” Taylor said. “I love people and I want to help people accomplish their goals, like I’m accomplishing mine.”