Troupes of amateur thespians use the stage to gain self-respect, practice cooperation and find joy in trying surroundings. They aren’t high schoolers, they’re the inmates of Prison Performing Arts.

Actresses residing at the women’s prison in Vandalia feature in the documentary “The Voice Within,” presented last Friday at the St. Louis International Film Festival. The film follows their production of the program’s first commissioned play, “Run-on Sentence,” which was written after the playwright, Stacie Lents, held a two-week theater workshop at the prison. Along the way, the women describe what led them to be incarcerated and their hopes for the future as they learn more about themselves through theater. Their stories range from hard lives of poverty and substance abuse to simple lives turned upside down by a single mistake. They all see the program as a chance to reinvent themselves and envision their futures.

Prison Performing Arts is a literacy and performing arts program for youth and adults in Missouri’s justice system. The program intends to inspire personal development and foster discipline, teamwork and communication skills to help participants re-enter society.

Producing a successful play takes all of those skills as more, said “The Voice Within” director, Lisa Rhoden Boyd.

Boyd finds the theater to be a transformative place, and that’s what she wanted to capture in the film while humanizing the inmates through their personal stories.

“I think Prison Performing Arts, you as an actor, you have to break through your own stuff in order to get to the character you’re trying to portray,” Boyd said during the Q and A after the film showing. “That forces you to deal with your choice, why you are where you are. Just experiencing two weeks with them inside, I saw their transformation through their exercises and my one-on-one with them, and finally the performance, I was just so blown away.”

The climatic performance of “Run-on Sentence,” which included elements inspired by the inmates’ lives, moved many of their family members to tears. The feeling was shared by those watching the documentary at the film festival.

Several audience members voiced their appreciation for the film and program.

“It’s wonderful to see a movie like this and to see something wonderful going on in the prison system so that people can rebuild themselves,” said a festival goer who was released from incarceration in 2007. “People have the chance in prison to rehabilitate themselves by doing some programming and trying to become a better person and be a productive person when they reenter society.”

The program has produced a wide variety of plays, from traditional selections like “The Tempest” to an adaptation of “Animal Farm” and a modern twist on a classic with “Hip Hop Hamlet.”

Participating facilities also include the City of St. Louis Medium Security Institution, Family Court’s Detention Alternatives Program, Hogan Street Regional Youth Center, Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, Northeast Correctional Center, St. Louis City Justice Center, St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center and St. Louis County Juvenile Detention Center.

There is also an alumni program to help recently freed participants build a community and

They’d like to expand the program to every prison in the state, Artistic Director Christopher Limber said.

The public can reserve a space in the audience after a background check. Friends and family members of the inmates are encouraged to come watch the performance and build support networks with other family members.

“We have as many as 150 people travel to the prisons that we work with, and they come and see the performances. Anybody is welcome, and we’d love to have you,” Limber said.

Several film festival attendants had also attended Prison Performing Arts performances in the past said it was a moving, enlightening experience.

The next scheduled Prison Performing Arts performance is “Hag-Seed,” an adaptation of a novel by Margarat Atwood, who also wrote “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Lents continued working with the program to adapt the story for the stage. A staged reading is planned for January at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, and the complete performance is scheduled for June. For more information about the program and future performances, visit prisonartsstl.org.