Reflection on Drake Hall Prison Theatre Experience
Before Vicky’s and Laura’s prison visit, each of us did individual research on female prisoners in UK, theatre practice within such prisons and information about Drake Hall. On the Prison Reform Trust website, it was written that ‘women are perhaps more affected by the loss of personal freedoms and responsibility than many male prisoners.’ This could be partially contributed by the fact that ‘the average distance female prisoners were held from their home was 58 miles. 60% of female prisoners are held in prisons outside their home region.’ (2006: 1) There was also a ‘general belief amongst theatre practitioners working within the criminal system that women offenders are a more resistant, volatile and less predictable group to work with than men’, lacking ‘confidence in expressing themselves in formal, group or public settings.’ (Thomson, 1998: 49) Aware of possible difficulties that may arise in the process of drama work with female prisoners, we felt we needed to be sensitive and nuanced in our presentation of issues, as well as guide them through the workshop exercises gradually and incrementally.
On Drake Hall’s website it was indicated that it had young and adult offenders and specialized in foreign nationals. As we might have prisoners over a wide age range, we thought we should bear in mind younger offenders whose participation in the workshop might ‘be the first normative activity that they undertake.’ It was possible that ‘most of these women in their early twenties had dropped out of school and had their first child before they were 16’ (McKean, 2006: 318), and therefore had little prior experience of drama. We took into consideration the presence of foreign nationals, but we were not sure whether they would form the bulk of our audience, so we decided to keep them in mind but not specifically cater the performance for them.
When the prisoners were asked what themes they would like explored in our play and workshop, the suggestion of how their family members might feel on the outside was made. Also, it came up during the discussion that many of these female prisoners were persecuted for a crime related to a male partner. This highlighted a possible imbalance in power and reciprocity in a male-female relationship. In this context, we felt that portraying a self-centred and manipulative male partner getting a come-uppance would be a welcome sight. They also mentioned that unless we had firsthand experience of what it was like to be in prison or were close to people who knew, we should avoid presenting prisoners and prison life extensively.
After much discussion in the 2nd week, our group was ready to finalize the aims for our play and workshop. For the play, we wished to help prisoners understand how their family and friends may feel outside, after their imprisonment. For the workshop, we wished to encourage prisoners to evaluate their existing relationships, as well as highlight their ability to positively influence relationships. This could mean maintaining positive ones or ending negative ones.
To help inform our character decisions, we referred to video and audio testimonies of family members from the Prisoners’ Families and Friends Services (PFFS) website. They included testimonies from 2 mothers, a younger sister, a husband, a wife and a daughter. Although these testimonies were good starting points, we knew that we had to adapt these experiences, because of copyright issues and the emotions experienced by these loved ones sometimes overlapped with one another whereas within the play, we wanted to show a wide range of emotions, responses and situations experienced by family. Deciding on characters proved challenging because it was hard to fully understand what these family members go through and we did not always agree on the nature of these experiences. In the end, we went with characters that each of us could make a case for that was convincing to the rest of the group.
The characters of the mother and a younger sister surfaced quite early in the devising process, for we felt that the emotions of guilt possibly experienced by the mother and resentment in the younger sister would be prevalent and accessible emotions. In addition to these two, we eventually decided to have a younger brother, friend and nan character. The younger brother would be a child, as opposed to the sister’s teenager and could show the extensive influence (intentional and unintentional) of a prisoner on a younger sibling. We wanted to add a friend in the mix because the idea of prisoner using a friend as drug mule, taking he or she for granted, we felt would be a pertinent issue to raise. The nan’s emotion was loneliness and we wanted to portray her as a character that could be easily overlooked. Our dramatizing process involved writing monologues to express the tumult of emotions experienced by the family member or friend. To aid the writing process, we hot-seated each of our characters and did an exercise where we showed an internal and external version of our emotions through gestures. After the monologues were written, we dramatised them and devised accompanying scenes that would develop the monologues further.
In terms of form, we decided to structure the play as a sequence of character stories, with each character’s story comprising of 2 to 3 scenes. The sister would have 3 scenes, the first being the internal neglect she feels, the second depicting her struggle to gain empathy and understanding and the third her reconciliation with her older sister. The mother’s character has 2 scenes, the first being the awkward and confessional encounter with a friend at the supermarket and the second showing her difficulties coping at home but hiding this from her daughter. For the nan’s character, we showed the juxtaposition between the scenarios before and after her granddaughter’s imprisonment. We fleshed out the brother in 3 scenes, from his utter ignorance and attempts at emulating bad behaviour, to being discouraged by his sister, to being himself again. The friend was depicted in 3 scenes, her reminiscence of the prisoner before going in, the current situation and her monologue. Each of these characters was fleshed out all at once, except for the sister, whose 3rd scene was placed at the end of the play, for the play to end on a hopeful note. We included the boyfriend as a periphery character as an example of relationships that should be ended and to inject humour into our piece. Although we were dealing with material that was hard-hitting, we were cautious not to come off as didactic or punitive, so we alleviated this problem with humour. The series of 5 character journeys were framed within an almost identical prologue and epilogue. Both showed the contrast between the internal emotions felt by the characters and the external fronts they put on. In the epilogue though, we changed the line ‘This is what you don’t see’ to ‘This is what you could see’ in order to bring the focus of the piece back to helping prisoners understand how their family might feel.
Due to the fact that our main characters are not directly related to each other, we felt that we needed to employ a theatrical metaphor to serve as a connecting throughline. We had the idea to use an invisible telephone, which was thrown from character to character in between scenes. The telephone represented the communication between prisoner and family member and each telephone conversation either set the context for the character, or changed the course of the character’s journey.
When we were told that we would have 60 offenders watching our play, we were worried about sight problems that might arise. As there was no stage or platform to elevate us, those in the third and fourth row might have trouble seeing. Thus we decided to set our performance in the traverse in order to diminish sight problems.
Following our two showbacks to Saul, the feedback we got was to make sure there was sufficient variation between the 5 main characters. Although it was good to portray them possessing a mixture of emotions, it was important to give each character a unique dominant emotion, so that audience members could identify each character easily and a variety of responses and situations could be explored.
Bearing the overarching aims we decided earlier in mind, we thought it would be good to structure the workshop as such: progressing from self-introductions to reflection on the play, to reflecting on their personal lives, to exercising initiative in positively influencing relationships and finally discussing their closing thoughts. When setting the aim of ‘highlighting their ability to positively influence relationships’, we constantly thought about what specific actions they could take from inside. Aside from ringing out, writing or responding to a visit, there were not that many practical actions. Therefore we wanted to focus on changing attitudes, for them to understand, engage and offer emotional support to family members. We felt that the women might be self-conscious about acting, so we structured the exercises to progress in theatrical difficulty, to ease them into participation. As Vicky and Laura mentioned that the offenders tended to talk over each other, we thought it might be good to pick more physical, rather than verbal exercises.
For introduction games, we chose ‘Name and Gesture’ to get to know each other’s names and lighten the atmosphere and ‘Anyone Who’ to find out each others’ characteristics. We had also intended to play ‘The Yes Game’ as a focus exercise to prepare for the more serious exercises later on. However, as we started the play and workshop late, we decided to just go through each others’ names without including the gesture and skipped ‘The Yes Game’ altogether. We felt that the later exercises which got them to share about the play, their lives and to think about future behavior were more essential and would need more time. ‘The Continuum’ exercise came next because we liked how it could get them to share what they thought about the play silently, without putting themselves out there. The mass of bodies arranging themselves on a spectrum would serve as a quick and visual representation of their thoughts and feelings.
In ‘Complete the Image’, they had to recall the relationships they had seen in the play and express them in a freeze frame with only two people. The purpose of the exercise was to encourage perceptive observation of body language and identify ways to express what they mean to say. The distillation of a relationship to a single gesture we found important because it forced them to define and clarify their attitudes more. As the exercise progressed however, we found that they naturally wanted to add dialogue. We adapted the exercise to let them speak one line of dialogue to accompany their gesture. For a while the focus drifted away from the physical depiction of relationships into verbal sparring. This exercise generated an unexpected result however, which was a series of spontaneous and continuous lines aimed at a self-loving inconsiderate partner. These responses came out instinctively, which was revealing of the possible prevailing treatment these prisoners get from men.
In the next exercise we wanted to get them thinking about their own lives and what they can do to change their behaviors. We provided them with a context of a family visit and the exercise required them to come up with 2 freeze frames defining the start and end of a visit, within which an event happens. With their natural propensity to add dialogue, we allowed them to develop the exercise into 1 to 2 minute scenes instead. While some pairs did benefit from this adaptation by finding it easier to reveal what they wanted about the relationships, for some pairs the exercise diluted into humourous or superficial presentations. This led us to reflect on our facilitation in allowing them to go with their spontaneity rather than specified instructions. This was partly because we were surprised by their readiness to engage and therefore were more welcoming to their suggestions. Although the showbacks elicited revelations of their actual relationships with family members, many of the scenes showed things as they are, but not as they could be. The ‘event’ that happens which causes a change from start to end was glossed over and no definitive action took place.
In order to bring the focus back to what the offenders could do to influence their existing relationships, we executed our additional exercise, ‘Word at a Time Story’. The exercise was framed as a reply from the prisoner in the play to her mother’s letter. Although the letter did progress from pleasantries to engagement with the mother’s affairs, there was concern over grammatical errors, which detracted prisoners from focusing on the letter’s message. Some of the foreign national prisoners found it difficult to express themselves. Also, the offenders did not always work collectively, sometimes spoon-feeding words to other members who hesitate, so that the letter would move in the direction they expect. All these factors made the exercise less effective in fulfilling the objective of changing their attitudes towards family members.
With regards to how the prisoners felt towards our play, we got some feedback during the continuum exercise and at the end of the workshop. During continuum we asked them a series of questions relating to the play. When asked if they learnt something from it, all but one expressed that they did. When asked if they knew someone like the friend character, waters were rippled slightly as Jackie, one of the female prisoners mentioned that what they say could be different from what they do, so the implication was that maybe none of them were willing to admit that they use their friends as drug mules. One of the offenders, Ross, stood in the middle to express her conflicting nature with admittance and truth.
When discussing the visit scenes they presented, it was mentioned that within a short phone call and limited visiting time, one did not want to drag down the atmosphere by talking about problems, so one would talk about pleasantries instead. Perhaps we should have considered such constraints a bit more and showed how being honest with each other would be necessary for long term maintenance of a relationship, even if it were a downer in the short term. It came up that some of the offenders who were mothers would rather not see their children because it was too painful to meet them and then have to leave. But other prisoners initiated the response that if the sentence was long, keeping in contact would be vital. We tried to emphasise that they had to consider it from the family’s perspective as well, for the family might treasure that contact.
The end of the workshop marked some of our achievements and failings. We managed to alter the opinion of the prisoner who said at the start that she learnt nothing from the play. She responded during the final discussion that from the workshop, she sees how the play encourages reflections and improvements on family relationships. However, another prisoner thought that our character portrayals were completely off and was more interested in how our responses towards them might have changed from this experience, instead of focusing on how her behavior towards her family has the potential to change. Although we did expect the women to be vocal, we did not expect them to be as forthcoming with their personal experiences and ready to participate in the exercises. As a result, we ended up rushing through our exercises slightly. Thankfully we had backup exercises, such as the ‘Word at a Time’ story and it was a good thing to have more time for discussion after exercises. For me, the experience showed that whilst ample preparation was advisable, being flexible to adapt to situations contrary to expectations was essential as well. This experience challenged my expectations of female prisoners and helped me see the specific constraints impeding their maintenance of external relationships. Maybe not all of them went away with a learning point, but I have taken with me many.
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