19 August 2019
Rowan Mackenzie is a PhD Researcher at University of Birmingham and since early 2018 has been helping to bring Shakespeare behind bars at a number of prisons. Today we hear from Rowan and from the Gallowfield Players, a theatre company at HMP Gartree, about their experience editing, rehearsing and performing the Bard behind bars.
The Gallowfield Players is a theatre company with a difference – of the 15 members of the ensemble, 14 are serving time inside HMP Gartree. I (Rowan) have the pleasure of being the 15th member, Artistic Director of the company whilst completing a PhD on Creating Space for Shakespeare in non-traditional settings. I work in a number of prisons and started in HMP Gartree in spring 2018. The ensemble took a number of months to form a core group and our first performance was a heavily edited Macbeth in October 2018. We then grew in numbers from men watching the performance and tackled Julius Caesar, with two performances in June 2019. We act entirely as a cooperative endeavor with all participants having an equal voice so it seems only right that this article is in their words. Here the Players tell their story.
From humble beginnings
I still remember when drama was just a six-month project with three of us in a room. Now a cast of twelve tries their best to entertain this community, twice a year, with Shakespeare performances, we have come a long way. There is an irony that a drama group creates less drama. Prison is not a nurturing environment and I never thought that I would be in a play; to suggest it would have sounded insane. We have faced challenges in terms of prison regime, rehearsals being cancelled, creation of props and costumes within the prison, and countless more. Yet, despite that we have flourished. It affords us a rare chance to break through the cultural glass ceilings and knock down the barriers that are so often put in place in the penal environment. In our humble drama group we’ve found a sense of living life again, not just doing life.
We have faced challenges in terms of prison regime, rehearsals being cancelled, creation of props and costumes within the prison, and countless more. Yet, despite that we have flourished
Our Friday mornings in the library create a community where the men all look out for each other and given the five decade of age ranges, multiple nationalities and religions and a transgender participant, that sense of community cannot be underestimated. Our rehearsals involve much creativity, laughter, empathy, unending support and love for each other as we adapt a play and prepare it for performance. The rehearsals are every bit as important as the end result and each Friday is the highlight of the week, leaving us smiling for the weekend. It’s the camaraderie, the trust, the way as a group we work which is a ray of light in a very bleak world. We are a family; who can discuss, resolve our issues and develop together whilst for a few precious hours we forget that we are in jail. Rowan treats us all equally and she has the attitude that failure doesn’t exist. The support is immense whether for learning lines or dealing with personal matters and it is the one place in prison where no persona is needed – we can be ourselves.
It’s the camaraderie, the trust, the way as a group we work which is a ray of light in a very bleak world. We are a family; who can discuss, resolve our issues and develop together whilst for a few precious hours we forget that we are in jail.
A week-long lock down cancelling rehearsals and our Caesar being rushed to hospital the week of performance would have phased a professional acting company. But the Gallowfield Players simply adapted and recast the day before performance so whilst nerves were jangling as we donned our togas it was ‘break a leg!’ One performance for inmates and staff and then another for families – both warmly received and a chance for those involved to be not prisoners but actors. A few lines were missed but the sense of enjoyment and fun created a tangible physical energy. The production really changed what we felt was possible for our time inside and created a desire to do something more with life. During the performance to our loved ones I forgot that I was in prison, forgot that I was a prisoner so much so that when it was over it made me think of my first day in prison. A heartfelt speech and a stunning drawing of Rowan and the cats she herds each week in rehearsals left many people emotional at the end of the family performance.
We are already working on an adapted The Merchant where Shylock is ostracized not for his religion but as a released lifer. Balancing pathos, heartbreak, honest introspection and humour we tell the story of how challenging being released can be for a prisoner and their family. Our aspiration is to perform this within the prison but also seek funding to make this play available outside of prison, encouraging people to think differently about those who have been convicted. We challenge ourselves to improve with each production and have a wish list we are working on to ensure this happens but the skills we have learned are already numerous and give us confidence to strive for greater things; whilst quoting Shakespeare on every wing!
In this group we have been given a voice, we are no longer shadows in daylight but people once more.
There is such a magic in these plays, every time we talk about it, hold onto these moments we get the excitement, the buzz, it’s addictive, it’s powerful – it’s what life used to be like before prison. How very different things could have been yet in every cavern there may be a diamond and this is mine. My own little precious jewel that needs to be nurtured. I am proud to say that my identity has changed from being Gallowfield Player and I can’t picture my life without it. In a place where there is judgement and violence at every turn there’s also a place of peace, fun and tranquility – The Gallowfield Players. Rowan is the pillar that anchors us, guides us and provides us the space to be ourselves. In this group we have been given a voice, we are no longer shadows in daylight but people once more. This is a gift indeed.
This is part of the Prison University partnerships blog series, which shines a spotlight each month on an example of prisons and universities working in partnership to deliver education. If you would like to respond to the points and issues raised in this blog, or to contribute to the blog yourself, please contact Helena.
© Prisoners' Education Trust 2021