Our Country is Good: National Theatre event

20 Oct 2015

This autumn, London’s south bank has embraced prisoners’ voices in its literary and arts season, with the annual Koestler exhibition at the Southbank Centre, an event for the London Literature Festival and a day devoted to discussion and performance of the arts in the criminal justice system (CJS) at the National Theatre. PET's Susannah Henty reports back from some of these events:

The latter event, ‘Our Country’s Good - The Transforming Power of Art’, showcased performances by Clean Break, Synergy theatre project and Open Clasp as well as examining key issues for the sector, including how theatre challenges one’s views of identity and the impact of the arts on individuals’ lives.

Playing prisoners

The first of three discussions throughout the day followed an extract from the play, which is set in an Australian penal colony in the 1780s and focuses on a group of prisoners who stage a play. Writer Timberlake Wertenbaker said she was inspired to tell this story after watching a Clean Break production, as she wanted to give these women a voice.

One of the main characters, Liz Morden, is based on a woman Wertenbaker met in a prison whilst researching her play. The woman was a repeat offender who had been saved by a supportive education officer.

Although the play was written in 1988 and is set in the past, its themes still resonate today, according to the Director Nadia Fall who says: “It transcends time and place.” Annie McKean, from the University of Winchester, agrees. She said: “The play makes vital and important statements about the criminal justice system today. History offers us a lens to interrogate the present.”

McKean has staged two public productions of the play in HMP Winchester, in 2005 and 2013. She said these performances, with prisoner actors, add further levels of complexity to an already complex play. She said: “Using prisoners in the production gives it an added authenticity which stems from their own experiences.”

She went on to describe the transformational experience of acting for prisoners and quoted one man, who said:

“When I came off stage after that monologue it was better than any drug I’ve ever taken, the buzz was unbelievable. For that time we were as good as the public. We were accepted.”

While another said: “This experience had given us something to focus on to feel good about ourselves.”

Fall added that whilst therapy is an important outcome of art, it is not the only benefit and personally, she has been inspired by working in prisons. She said: “Prison is full of talented people who have been failed by the education system, we can learn from artists in prison.” 

What's the nature of transforming power? 

As the panel considered the title of the event, Fall spoke about her experiences in the criminal justice system or schools where she had come across staff who had given up on young people with challenging behaviour. She said: “I’ve been to places where teachers or staff say, ‘that one, he's trouble’ but actually he is the genius. I've seen it happen time and again.”

For Wertenbaker language has the power to transcend one’s educational attainment, giving actors the freedom to speak through access to new words and vocabulary. She said: “The way we communicate is crucial to how we define ourselves and by giving someone the ability to communicate through someone else's words they will find their own words.” 

For McKean, theatre allows the space to critique notions of identity. By playing different roles and having to portray multi dimensional characters, prisoners can consider the possibility of forming a new identity for themselves. She said: “A person’s idea their of identity can be quite fixed, it might be constructed by their experience outside and inside prison. Giving them a chance to do something completely different pushes them to think about the way they perceive themselves.

"Identity is not rigid. This sows a small seed and the hope that things could be different for them”, says McKean.

Transcending prison walls

The second panel, with practitioners from Synergy, Citizens’ Theatre and Finding Rhythms, Guardian writer Erwin James and Clean Break graduate and actress Jennifer Joseph, further discussed the impact of theatre and music.

PET alumnus Erwin James spoke about his experience of discovering theatre, music and writing in prison. He said: “Before prison I didn't have the inclination or the desire to be creative. When I went to jail it was the last thing I was thinking about. But as years passed I found a way to live in prison and I gravitated towards the people who come to prisons and give hope.”

He described taking part in a musical and although he felt embarrassed to stand up and sing in front of an audience, he said: “afterwards I felt like a king”. Esther Baker, Synergy’s Artistic Director and co-founder, said one of the most transformative aspects of theatre is the validation actors get from the audience’s response.

Citizens’ Theatre said its projects in Scotland prisons, allow people to feel more human again in a de-humanising environment, by using play and fun to transcend the prison experience. In response, James said that he saw this as difficult for society to accept and the idea of people who have committed serious crimes having fun could create public outrage, however added:

"I'd been a coward and a crook all my life and I’ve been challenged in prison through art," says Guardian writer, Erwin James.

"No one specific thing one changed me, but access to creativity and people like this was one of the good things,” he said.

Jennifer Joseph has recently performed in a production at the Donmar Warehouse. She discovered acting after she left prison. Reflecting back on her sentence she said: “In prison I was not in the headspace to be interested in education, all I was thinking of was home and my children.” After she left prison she struggled to cope and then she discovered theatre, and it gave her a positive outlet. She said: “It woke me up. At Clean Break they allowed me to be me, they weren't rushing me; I enjoyed acting, putting scripts together - it was exciting so I pursued it.”

The panel talked about the various benefits of theatre and music, which give people a safe way to explore different emotions and express their thoughts, and voice contrasting opinions. They concluded with a plea for funding. Baker said that despite the power of these interventions which ‘transcend prison walls though imagination’, projects are often only funded for short periods and that it is important to have long term initiatives too.

The final panel focused on making the case for arts in prison, and discussed the different types of evidence that is required from funders to policy makers for showing the impact of such projects. Highlighting the range of evidence that is available, the audience recommended making use of the Bromley Briefings, the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice’s Evidence Library, the Justice Data Lab, and PET’s annual academic conference as opportunities to share knowledge.

Key Change

Over the lunch break, Open Clasp and Live Theatre staged ‘Key Change’ at the NT's Temporary Theatre, a production portraying the lives of a group of women in prison. Based on true stories, the play was devised by women at HMP Low Newton. As well as offering an insight into prison life, the play explores the reasons why women find themselves in the criminal justice system and the impact the experience has on their families.

At times heart-wrenching, thought-provoking and visceral, the play is also very funny and won the Carol Tambor Award for best production at the Edinburgh Festival.

Although the story revolves around two protagonists, Lucy and Angie and two lesser characters, there is a sense that they represent every woman’s story in prison.

Between them they experience child abuse, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, mental health issues and homelessness which lead to their crimes.

Originally written to take the women’s stories into men’s prisons, the five professional actors portray women as survivors, rather than victims of violence and abuse. The impact on those audiences was profound, according to Writer Catrina McHugh. One man at HMP Frankland said: “Brilliant performance and it really reminded me of the man I once was and the hurt I have caused others but also how far I have come and the man I am now.”

Particularly harrowing to the story is the experience of mothers being separated from their children. Lucy is severely beaten up during an altercation whilst she is queuing for the phone so she can contact her daughter who is truanting from school. And when she is first sent to prison, as she arrives in the prison van she sees a magpie, and the following recurrent poem becomes symbolises her loss: “One for sorrow. Snatched the babies. The mother fought, but it was too big and flew too high.”

The professional actors explained to the audience afterwards that they wanted to do justice to the women they had teamed up with in Low Newton. One said: “These women had been so brave telling their stories to one another and in front of prison officers, which made them vulnerable, but after showing the final version to them, all the women loved the play and said ‘that’s our story.’”

PET also attended the launch of The Koestler Trust's Re:form exhibition, which you can read all about here.