- Prison Performing Arts
MEET CARL OVERLY, JR.
We sat down with Carl to talk about his role as a Teaching Artist with PPA Youth Programs and to learn how he ties social justice work into his life as a stage actor.
What made you want to bring advocacy and social justice work into your life as a performer?
I had been working with Rachel since 2015. We would do performances and shows together and would take them to the detention centers and perform for the youth there. I was also involved as a producer for the Every 28 Hour Project in 2015 & 2016—one in Ferguson and one in Grand Center. All of the shows were a minute or less and were dealing with the issue that every 28 hours, a black man is killed by police. After that I decided I really wanted to stay involved with that kind of work.
When did PPA come into the picture?
Back in 2015, Rachel brought in about 6 or 7 of us teaching artists to read To Kill A Mockingbird with the Hogan Street students. I’ve been teaching there—and at the St. Louis County Juvenile Detention Center—for about 4 years now.
What was it like at first?
At first, it was a lot of observing. I wanted to see how everything flowed. It can be intimidating to bring the arts in. Not many people had read To Kill A Mockingbird, so it was really interesting reading it with them. It’s all set in the deep South, and of course there are a lot of words said in the prose and dialogue that make a lot of them go woah, what?
The class was about teaching them that in history, this is what was said. It was all about being honest and truthful. So we talked about the history and what went on; after all, it’s one of the most popular plays, so with us actors reading, we could offer a lot of different perspectives.
What is it about acting, theatre or performance in general that’s so transformative for the justice-involved youth?
Specifically, with acting and portraying characters— there’s such a craft to it. And you know that when you’re doing something on stage, you get an automatic reaction from the audience that means something—either they recognize the message and get it, or they learn something new. They always have ah-ha moments. Portraying different characters and living different lives makes you feel totally free and totally vulnerable at the same time.
What do they students think of at first when you talk about “acting”?
What happens a lot is, when you’re talking about acting, they think of movies. They learn that besides being on the “big screens,” there’s acting on stage and stage work. They get to hear about the stage performance process. A lot of them start off thinking it’s just about memorizing lines. But to go through rehearsal and props and settings and lights, costume design and set design… it really shows them the whole picture.
Do you have any favorite plays you’ve done at Hogan?
Last Winter, we did The Grinch. It was split up between 3 different classes. We went in and assembled a Christmas tree, and we built some Hoo hats — some of the students built the props and parts of the set. When you’re putting on a play, there’s something for everyone. Some of them were like, Wait, you can do this for money?
Did anyone pursue art after getting out?
There’s a young gentleman who is really into music. A few weeks ago, he did an open mic night in Tower Grove. Rachel and I went to see him together, it was really cool!
What other art forms do you explore besides plays? We just started doing adventure stories. We watched The Goonies from the 80s. They were really into it—they’d never seen it before. Then, one day, Rachel was like, Oh, there’s this show out, Stranger Things. Literally, the guys are obsessed with Stranger Things and have watched the entire series. We’d watch an episode, write together, watch another… and then one time they were like, Yeah, we’re on Season 3. They really caught on to the storytelling and all that. I don’t think they would have seen the show that way if it wasn't for our class.
What’s the difference between classes at Hogan Street and the St. Louis County? Hogan Street is all guys. The group that I work with in the County are female teenagers. The biggest difference is that at the County, there’s a fast turnover rate. But with Hogan, we can do curriculum work. In the County, I see new people almost every week.
What kind of classes do you teach in the County?
Well, there’s usually no more than 3 or 4 girls. There’s usually one student who’s the leader. My whole approach is to get to the leader, get them to participate, and everything else falls into place. I start a lot of theatre-style warm-up improv games. They get up and move around. I bring in scenes for them to do and we write monologues. Sometimes, we just have conversations about life and how to use theatre to make things easier in everyday life.
Like what things?
We talk about how theatre can help with practical skills—like how to think on your feet or how to perform in an interview. And how being on stage opens you up and lets you be vulnerable. Getting in front of people and speaking is not the most enjoyable thing to do, but it’s a good skill to hone.
Are the students more excited or nervous when they start working with you?
Since I’ve been doing performances for them, a lot of them were familiar with my face. I would go in so much that they would start to recognize me. You know… I’m coming into their space, their arena. You never want to lay it on too thick. The guys are very easy seeing through the BS—like who wants to be there, and who’s there because someone else wants them to be. It’s important to be yourself. With any group of young people, they like to see how far they can push at times.
What has challenged you in this role with PPA?
You really want them to get excited about what you’re teaching. You want to make sure you’re making things interesting, being creative and not doing the same thing over and over. You want to really challenge them and make sure they’re not bored. I will say... Stranger Things really got us bonding. They were really into the sci-fi elements… they literally loved everything about it. They would compare it to The Goonies.
Ok, so, you’ve been cast in Metro Theater’s It’s A Wonderful Life—who are you playing? How can we get tickets?
It opens this Sunday! It’s an adaptation and it’s really adorable. It’s a play within a play, set in St. Louis in 1949 on Christmas Eve. A local station is about to do a live broadcast, but the actors have food poisoning, so everyone in the studio has to put it on themselves. I’m the announcer for the radio, Chester Collins. We have someone who’s doing live Foley Artist work, making sounds like grinding gravel when we walk in the snow and sounding a 1940s police alarm.
You can get tickets to It’s A Wonderful Life here—the show runs through December 15th. We are so grateful for Carl and our amazing team of teaching artists! Click here to learn more about our youth programs. ABOUT CARL OVERLY, JR. Carl Overly, Jr. hails from Maysville, KY and is a local actor/director who has worked with numerous theater companies including, The Black Rep, Metro Theater Company, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, SATE, Theatre Nuevo, Mustard Seed Theatre, ERA, Upstream Theatre, West End Players Guild, St. Louis Shakespeare, Magic Smoking Monkey, YoungLiars, Solid Lines Productions among others. He recently made his directorial debut with RS Theatrics production of "The MotherFu#&er with the Hat". Carl is also a teaching artist with Prison Performing Arts. Carl is a recepient of Theatre Communications Group(TCG) Rising Leaders of Color and is a 3 time St. Louis Theater Circle award winner. Carl was an intern for the Black Rep (2005-2007) and also 3 years with Girls Inc of St Louis as their drama teacher. Carl recently stage manager "Four Little Girls" at Coca and can currently be seen in Metro Theater Production of "It's a Wonderful Life" and will be a part of "Two Trains Running" at The Black Rep in January.