''These human beings (inmates) have stepped-on imaginations,'' says Geese Theatre Company director John Bergman. ''They've been told they're not creative. ''We try to get their imaginations working again,'' he says. ''We tell them that they've got one. And they believe it.''
The troupe - sponsored by the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Coalition for the Arts and Human Needs, which funds arts programs for special-needs groups - recently spent two weeks training 15 inmates in Wisconsin's maximum-security Waupun Correctional Institution to write, produce, and stage plays.
One such half-hour play, ''The Circus of Humanity,'' drew a standing ovation from an audience of fellow inmates, financial backers, and townspeople.
The plot, as described by one observer, deals with life as seen through the eyes of an abused child in a world where people are incapable of relating to each other. All the people live in a circus, and they all come together on ''the day before the end.'' The child sits on a hill, and the hill is a metaphor for all of their problems. Each must eventually come to the child and resolve the problems.
The child is left alone at the end, reviewing the remnants of the circus, when a jack-in-the-box (the character who plays greed) pops up out of the ground. The child just looks at it, and leaves.
Hilary Kruger, program director of the funding coalition, views the program as the most remarkable effort her organization ever sponsored.
Deeply moved by the inmates' performance, she calls it ''the most incredible half-hour of my life.''
''They were good,'' she says. For some of these men, she adds, it may have been the first time they'd ever had a chance to do something creative and be appreciated for it.
Waupun had a riot a week after Geese left; proof, admits Kruger, that the project is not a cure-all. But she's heard from a few of the inmates since the riot, and says ''they're hoping against hope that they'll be allowed to continue.''
She still believes ''that maybe there are 15 who won't go back to prison (once they're released).''
Having talked at length with inmates after the show, she says that even the most hardened convicts ''were like little kids again.
''At least for that two-week period,'' she says, ''they were absolutely brand new.''