Masks at Geese Theatre. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Los Angeles-based arts professional Sabra Williams spent three weeks in the UK visiting with organisations that bring the performing arts into prisons as a form of rehabilitation through British Council USA’s Cultural Exchange International fellowship.
Well, after what seems like an age, here I am, sitting at Los Angeles International Airport, updating my Facebook status with the much anticipated ‘LAX–>LHR!’
Getting here has been a much longer journey than the one I’m about to take. It started nine years ago when I first joined the highly lauded Los Angeles theatre company The Actors’ Gang, created by a bunch of renegade UCLA grads and headed by Oscar winning actor and director, Tim Robbins. In those days I was fresh off the boat from London and like thousands of eager actors who have walked these streets before me, ready to take on Hollywood. However, my path was always going to be a little different. To start with, when I first saw the work of ‘The Gang’ (as it’s known), I knew I’d found my tribe–a group of crazy, socially active artist/educators with an eye to ruffling feathers and changing the status quo.
In the UK I had worked with the English Shakespeare Company and had taken workshops into prisons as rehabilitation. As I trained weekly in ‘the Style’ (the extremely physical and emotional version of commedia dell’arte technique we use at The Actors’ Gang), it struck me how useful it could be for rehabilitation. I approached Tim to ask him if I could be part of their prison outreach, to which he responded, ‘We don’t have one, but you’re welcome to start one!’
Seven years later we have helped rehabilitate hundreds of men and women in several California prisons with huge success and (as far as we can find out) zero recidivism (reoffending). In the midst of this craziness, the British Council approached me to apply for the Cultural Exchange International grant offered by the British Council and the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. I was honoured to be one of three selected to travel to the UK last month to build relationships with other organisations doing similar work to ours.
The first organisation I spent time with was Geese Theatre at Birmingham’s Drake Hall, a women’s category C prison where they started a five-day workshop called ‘Journey Woman’. They started their session with a short play about a young woman and the struggles she goes through that land her in prison. The play ends with the main character clean and setting up a new life, and the change occurs as the women try to imagine the journey the character has been on between prison and where she is now and compare it to their own lives.
After I returned from my trip to Birmingham Geese Theatre, I spent three days in Guys Marsh Prison in Dorset with The Forgiveness Project. The experience blew my mind! We went in with Sandra, the facilitator; Jo Berry, whose dad was killed in the IRA bombing in Brighton; Pete, a former inmate of the very same prison we were in, who was released in January; and Paul, who had left his teaching job at Guys Marsh 10 days earlier after 30 years.
On the first day at Guys Marsh, with 20 guys in our group, Jo told her story of the ‘victim’s’ point of view (I hate the word victim; it holds no power) and how she had achieved forgiveness by working together with the perpetrator (Pat McGee) over the last 10 years or so. The guys were very moved and it opened up a discussion of forgiveness, during which several of the inmates expressed that they could never forgive. One of them, Peter, told us that he feels he’s evil because he’s committed terrible crimes and ‘enjoyed it.’ The others were shocked and expressed to him that they felt he was a good, kind person.
The next day, Pete, the former inmate, told his story of a lifetime of crime and incarceration in both the US and the UK. He has also kicked a heroin and crack habit. The guys were both moved and inspired by how he’s finally turned his life around and become a mentor.
In the afternoon, they made their ‘lifelines’, a map of their lives and all the ups (few) and downs (many). I was struck by how every one of them had suffered trauma and then a catalyst before they committed their crimes. One inmate, Drew, was able to tell his dramatic story of a ‘normal’ life that was torn apart by the revenge he took on someone who hurt his family, resulting in 12 years in prison. Drew and Peter, the inmate who thought he was evil, were able to comfort and encourage each other and formed a deep bond in front of our eyes!
On the third day we ended with an emotional and rewarding sum up where the inmates were given a positive affirmation of their work by each of us. It was a beautiful moment.
In our discussion afterwards, Sandra and I came to the conclusion that the work we do in California with The Prison Project would fit perfectly where The Forgiveness Project leaves off as the inmates are so ready to use their newfound emotions and freedom in a physical and creative way. Watch this space for what we might do together!