MAY 5, 1997
Peg Phillips, actress and founder of Theater Inside.
Peg Phillips is best known by the general public for her character Ruth Anne, the Cicely, Alaska shopkeeper in the TV series Northern Exposure.
At Echo Glen Children's Center, a correctional facility in Snoqualmie for serious juvenile offenders, Peg Phillips is best known for founding and directing the Drama for Locked-in Kids program, now in its tenth year.
An energetic 79-year-old, Phillips is balancing her acting career with a campaign to raise funds for Theater Inside, the non-profit, tax-deductible organization that Phillips founded to run the program.
"While I was getting my drama training, I found I was homesick for working with troubled kids," said Phillips. "I got the idea that the child most deprived of the joy of participation in the arts might very well be the kids in a locked-down prison. I called Echo Glen and was connected to the volunteer coordinator, Patti Berntsen, who asked me for a proposal," said Phillips. "My plan was immediately approved."
In 1987, Phillips started the program by recruiting drama teachers and researching curriculum. "Then I got acquainted with the cottage staff, the people who really made this program possible," said Phillips.
"Eighty to ninety percent of all the kids we work with have been sexually and/or physically abused. We bring in drama teachers, one for each four students. Our method is entirely improvisation and miming with mirroring, role changing, and other skills. We work with the six housing units at the facility and offer two-hour classes for four consecutive Saturdays. It is voluntary for the residents. We operate March through October" she added.
Phillips and her teachers use the facility's chapel where students perform in the center, pretending it is a stage. The first three classes prepare the students for the fourth class where the class splits into groups of three and is handed a scenario given to them by a teacher. The group's assignment is to make up a five-minute play based on the situation. They have to make up lines, assign roles, and rehearse the play, that must have a beginning, middle, and end.
"The group performances are videotaped. After the class session, all the teachers are invited to the cottage where the tape is shown, certificates of graduation are handed out, and teachers have lunch with the children in the cottage. There is no criticism, only applause from the teachers and fellow students. The students also put on an annual performance. It is a series of skits I write based on the kid's hopes and dreams. It is quite a challenge, since you always have one or more actors and actresses paroled or put into a drug or alcohol program before the performance," said Phillips.
Why drama classes in a lock down prison? Phillips believes there are four reasons. "There is cooperation training, relationship building, self-esteem training, and there is imagination development. We don't pretend to know the long-term effects of our program, but we do see the immediate effects. It is amazing to watch kids who never have had an opportunity to succeed get into character and experience success."
"Lamar, a gang leader convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, took part in our program reluctantly. By the time he learned improvisation, he was up on the stage and 'into' the whole thing, devising skits and relating to his scene partners and being an ordinary kid," said Phillips.
"In the late 1960s, I was living in San Francisco and initiated a volunteer program for the street kids in the Fillmore District. I was involved for eight years with the program and developed my love for working with children at risk," said Phillips.
"I always wanted to an actress," said Phillips. Her responsibilities of raising three daughters and son alone required her to have regular employment and she chose accounting as career, she said. "It wasn't until after raising my children, helping raise my grandchildren, and starting to enjoy my great-grandchildren, that I was able to enroll at the University of Washington Drama School in 1984. I was 65 years old."
As a freshman, Phillips hired an agent and has worked ever since in films, character parts in seven movies, commercials, and voice-overs. Last week, she was in Los Angeles for the final shoot of her cameo appearance in Steven Spielberg's new film, Mouse Hunt.
"We don't work with 'at-risk' kids, we work with kids who have risked it all and lost. These kids will be released someday and I believe our program plants a seed for success." said Phillips, whose Quaker faith commits her to service.
"I am very content to be working. It's a good life. I work for a few weeks at a time and then come home to Woodinville to my family, my old house, and beautiful flower garden."
Theater Inside needs $10,000 to continue its work. Bill Rudeen of Woodinville is heading a local drive for funding. Donations can be sent to Theater Inside, P.O. Box 321, Woodinville, WA 98072.
(Inside scoop. What happened to Northern Exposure, set in Alaska and filmed in Redmond and Eastern Washington? "It was wonderful, one of the best shows ever written. I was on the series for the entire run of five years. We had the best writers and editors in the business. We were all disappointed when CBS pulled the plug. We never learned why," said Phillips.)