It was in 1998 that Sister Helen Prejean, whose bestselling memoir had inspired director Tim Robbins’ 1995 film, suggested he pen a legit adaptation of his screenplay. When he was finished, Robbins decided the material would reach its most significant audience far away from the Broadway stage.
Thus was born the Dead Man Walking School Theater Project. A collaboration between the Death Penalty Discourse Center and Robbins’ Los Angeles-based theatrical ensemble the Actors’ Gang, the Play Project (as it’s more commonly known) was designed not only to reinterpret the provocative film in another medium but also to stir meaningful discussion of capital punishment — and genuine passion for theater — among high school and college students.
“It’s probably the most exciting thing the Actors’ Gang has been doing,” Robbins says of the Play Project, which has appeared at more than 150 schools in the four years since its inception. Robbins describes “a kind of conglomeration of thought and debate that happens around the production of the play.”
For a university to mount a production of “Dead Man Walking,” two academic departments must agree to include courses on the death penalty, with Prejean’s book required reading. The play itself is supplemented by acting workshops, residencies and symposiums, often with attorneys and judges among the guest lecturers.
“One of the things that motivated us to accelerate this commitment is the decline in budgets for arts programs in our schools. It seems like the first things to go are music, art, theater and physical education — four of the most important things in expanding the mind,” Robbins says. “For people who are fortunate enough to have been given a leg up in this industry, it’s our responsibility to give back.”