From Papers to Performance: Drawing Inspiration from the Sr. Helen Prejean Collection

When most of us think of lucky breaks, a stage probably comes more readily to mind than non-descript grey archival boxes in closed stacks in a library. But for DePaul Theatre School student Brennan Jones, the materials found in the Sr. Helen Prejean papers “might have been the luckiest break I’ve ever gotten as a theatre practitioner.”

In his role as dramaturg for the Piven Theatre Workshop’s production of Dead Man Walking, Brennan was searching for backstory on the death row inmates on which the book and play are based. An internet search produced a photo of Robert Lee Willie, credited to DePaul University Special Collections and Archives.

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Photograph of Sr. Helen Prejean and Robert Lee Willie

Brennan became a fixture in the Special Collections and Archives reading room for the better part of two weeks. He explored the collection, looking for primary source materials that could be shared with the production’s designers and actors. Brennan relates that the primary sources “inspired and guided all aspects of our design process: Costumes, Props, Scenic, Lighting, and Projections. Our actors have been able to portray their roles with more truth and dimension by reading primary source documents by and about their characters.”

Special Collections and Archives has worked with high school student actors preparing for a Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project production, who were moved by their time with materials. We’re pleased to be able to extend this experience to the Piven Theatre Workshop designers and actors as well.

While a selection of materials from the Sr. Helen Prejean papers are viewable online in the “In Deeds and Words: Sr. Helen Prejean’s Ministry Against the Death Penalty” exhibit, these are but just a small sampling of the wealth and breadth of materials in the collection. With correspondence, photographs, newspaper clippings, artifacts, posters, and audiovisuals arranged and preserved in 152 boxes, the online exhibit is just a gateway for those with an interest in Sr. Helen and her work. DePaul Special Collections and Archives is open to the community and researchers are welcome to visit our reading room to use the Sr. Helen Prejean papers.

If you missed Sr. Helen at this weekend’s Piven Theatre Workshop events, be on the lookout for details about her April 21-26th visit to Chicago.

To learn more about the Sr. Helen Prejean papers or social justice collections at DePaul, contact Special Collections and Archives at 773-325-7864, or archives@depaul.edu.

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