Theatre performance at Pentonville Prison
Flight of Freedom By Paper Dog Productions
A few weeks before Christmas a small group of young men from the Health Care Unit of HMP Pentonville attended a workshop under the illusion that they would be provided with some advice on how to develop their acting abilities. During the session they were informed that in fact in five days’ time they would be given the opportunity to explore, rehearse and perform a play in front of an audience.
Five days to put on a play in an ordinary setting is actually quite achievable; however throw in the inflexibility of the prison environment, the strict time restrictions of contact time and the rigidity of what can physically be taken into the performance space, the task ahead must have seemed, at best, ambitious, at worst, a recipe for chaos. Not forgetting court dates, unexpected transfers and release dates…. Five days actually translated into four hours each day split into morning and afternoon sessions. Twenty hours to learn, rehearse and execute a play. Even the most dedicated and hopeful directors would surely approach such a challenge with caution.
Having not previously been inside an adult male prison I was nervous as I arrived. Remembering some of the boys I have previously worked with discussing the anxious realisation that dawns upon them as they approach the landmark age of 18, because serving a sentence in an adult prison is like “playing a different ball game” compared to the supposed safety of the young offenders units. As we were escorted to the sports hall performance space I attempted to count the number of cells we passed. I lost count and thought it was more like a completely different sport.
The simple play revolves around a young man Marcus who attempts to cut his allegiances with his West London peers and the challenges he subsequently faces. The characters were undoubtedly brought to life by the performers; notably the two Latino women who attempted to lure Marcus into their affections, equipped with uneven sock shaped breasts. And the policeman with the pet puppet dog, Petal. Not even the harshest theatre critic could argue the young men did not completely commit to their characters.
The performance was, at times incredibly understated, subtle and unsettlingly genuine. The entire set was made from brown parcel paper, tape and cardboard. The poignant, haunting climax took place as a frustrated but persistent Marcus climbed to the top of his tower block and unexpectedly grew a pair of 20 foot brown paper angel wings, whilst the other performers sang Adele’s ‘Someone like you.’ Although the image may appear unoriginal, cliché and ineffective, it is actually an uncomfortably chilling moment I will never to forget.
Once the play had finished the performers engaged in a Q & A session and talked to us individually. Proudly displaying their scrap books, encouraging us to document our opinions, all whilst wearing the angel winged t-shirts they had been provided with at the start of the process. As we talked to the young men they recorded our critiques and spoke about the rehearsal process and how it had exceeded their expectations. For me, this was the fascinating part of the evening; where the men were able to engage with us as performers, musicians, actors, commentator, anything other than offenders.
Even though the success of the play was evident, the process of rehearsing, participating and collaborating to produce something positive is the core idea behind theatre practices in prisons. The large misconception is that projects will transform the participants into actors misses the point. The objective is to provide an opportunity to be a part of an exciting idea and for possibly the first time ever, allow the participants to be proud of themselves, their involvement and achievements; this is the key to change. The social, institutional and beneficial implications of theatre projects in prisons is under explored and yet to be recognised by the government and within the Criminal Justice System.
It is my adamant belief that exposure to theatre practices in prisons are a fundamental strand of an offenders rehabilitative journey because of the ability it has to alter perspective on ourselves and our own future. Unfortunately despite an incredible amount of therapeutic, crucial and genuinely life changing work being explored in this field, as with so many things in this economic climate, it is practitioner led, undervalued and inconsistent.
The adrenaline that would have been pulsating through the performers’ bodies as they returned to their cells, must have been an odd experience; the feelings of such excitement, release and dignity must be rare and simultaneously but silently longed for. As I put on my coat to leave one of the performers very calmly said “Thank you for coming to watch some prisoners perform on a Friday night… not many people would bother.”
My answer to that? If I could spend every Friday night witnessing young people being given the opportunity to finally become someone they are truly proud of, I would clear my schedule…
Paper Dog Production created by Lorraine Grout & Rachel Owens
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