In 1995, Dead Man Walking was developed into a major motion picture starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn and directed by Tim Robbins.  In 2003, Tim Robbins adapted his screenplay into a theater version of Dead Man Walking and offered it to schools and colleges throughout the United States for production. Known as “The Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project,” it is managed by the Ministry Against the Death Penalty and has been staged by hundreds of high schools and colleges nationwide.

Like the film adaptation of Dead Man Walking, the stage version focuses on Sr. Helen’s relationship with death row inmate Matt Poncelet  (a fictionalized combination of Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie) and explores  ideas about the justice system, sympathy, forgiveness, and resolution through a variety of perspectives.

In any dramatization or adaptation, the final product has a narrative and perspective that may be only a portion of what “actually happened.”  As you examine the primary sources in this set, think about how adapting them to live performance can be both powerful and problematic.

Supplementing Dead Man Walking

  • The character of Matt Poncelet is a blend of Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee In what ways do you think synthesizing two (significant) individuals into one character changes the overall narrative?
  • Examine the letters and images in the primary source With your understanding of the story and details presented in Dead Man Walking and these primary sources, how does the interpretation of the sources reinforce or differ from your previous understanding?

Questions/Discussion Prompts

  • Consider the primary sources collected What role do actors, producers, and writers play in communicating information from these sources to the audience?
  • Helen worked with Tim Robbins when he adapted her book for the film Dead Man Walking in 1995. How you think this relationship affected the adaptation of her book into a play?
  • More than a decade elapsed between the publication of Dead Man Walking (1993) and its first performance as a play (2004). How does this distance between original events, adaptation, and performance impact the understanding of the topics contained in the play (both about the individuals and about the topic of the death penalty)?
  • Unlike an unfolding dialogue/discussion in a classroom, theater invites audiences to view a performance and reflect along the How does performance create engagement? How can actors work to effect social change?
  • How would viewing a performance impact someone’s understanding of the story of Dead Man Walking? How would it affect their perspective on the larger topics it explores? How is theater uniquely suited to provoking these considerations?