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Act your way out of trouble

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Susan Elkin meets up with Esther Baker, founder of Synergy Theatre Project, and hears about the good work she is doing in prisons and with ex-offenders as a new crime-related play, Holloway Jones, starts touring

“I came out of prison in May after seven and a half years and was at the Soho Theatre in the West End that evening,” says Karl Smith, 26. “I left school at 12 and spent the next six years getting into deeper and deeper trouble with gangs and drug dealing in Brixton Hill where I lived.”

In 2008 Smith spotted Esther Baker on the stairs at Brixton Prison where, he says, it is rare to see a woman who is not in uniform. He spoke to her and then took part in a read-though of Roy Williams’ play Fall Out, which she was leading in the prison. On the strength of it she persuaded him to take a lead role in her production. Transfer to Ford Open Prison in Sussex meant that he could be released on a daily basis to work further with Baker, although while Smith was still a prisoner it had to be on a voluntary basis.

The company that now employs Smith on an occasional contract basis is Synergy Theatre Project, which Baker started 11 years ago as a focus for the work in prisons and with prisoners she has been doing for 18 years. In 2000 she won a Butler Trust Development Award for “an outstanding contribution to the effective care of prisoners”.

I meet Smith, Baker and the other five actors they are working with at a rehearsal for Evan Placey’s new play, Holloway Jones. The play will tour London schools, young offenders’ institutions and referral units until November 4, followed by a short run at Unicorn Theatre. It is scheduled to be seen by 2,500 young people.

“The story of Holloway Jones emerged from the workshops and writing sessions I run in schools and prisons,” says Placey, the London-based Canadian playwright, who was commissioned this year to write Synergy’s annual crime-related play. “It’s not a warning play, but it shows the difficult choices and competing loyalties a young black woman like Holloway has to face, and it ends in an affirmative way,” she explains.

One other Holloway Jones cast member, like Smith, is an ex-offender. Frank Skully had been in and out of prison for 20 years before he began working with Baker and Synergy more than five years ago, since when he has kept in employment and out of trouble. Also, like Smith, he is a talented and creative actor to watch and listen to.

The rest of the cast are professional actors with varying levels of formal training. All cast members, as in any play, are learning from each other. Both stage managers on Holloway Jones are ex-offenders.

Holloway, played with panache and passion by Danielle Vitalis, was born in prison, where she still visits her mother. She now has to choose between a descent into crime, drawn by a glitteringly attractive boyfriend (Femi Wilhelm), or to pursue her BMX talent, which could be coached to Olympic standard.

I watch actors as “chorus”, menacingly circling the stage on bikes and others donning hoods to become gang members. This show is going to be powerful. And it has the potential to raise awareness and, perhaps, turn the thinking of young people at risk of getting involved with the criminal justice system.

Synergy is based at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, where I recently sat in on a session during the second week of a three-week rehearsal period.

Synergy is planning a theatre production in Brixton Prison, which is not yet finalised, but the funding is in place. It continues to run a national script-writing competition for prisoners and ex-prisoners in collaboration with the Royal Court. There is also what Baker calls a “little film” in development.

Synergy shares resources and ideas with similar initiatives such as Intermission and Clean Break, and Baker is a member of the Koestler Trust Steering Group. “We are concerned first with producing mainstream theatre as art rather than contriving opportunities for prisoners and ex-prisoners,” says Baker.

When they go into schools the aim is to entertain students with a high-quality play before the ensuing discussion workshop. People like Smith are, of course, invaluable in such sessions because, being very creative and articulate (“Had time to read a lot of books and do a lot of courses, didn’t I?”), he is totally frank with young people about what happens if you take the wrong path – although, as he says, all is not lost even if you do.

“I love the buzz of the performing arts. A licence to be flamboyant,” says Smith, adding that he can think of no better mechanism for crime diversion.

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