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How to produce a show in a prison

Clean Break’s production of Billy the Girl by Katie Hims. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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It may not be the first career path that springs to mind, but for production teams who can work with bureaucratic obstacles, random disruptions, frequent frustrations and pitifully limited facilities, the rewards of bringing theatre into prisons can be considerable.

“The dance company set up raked seating in the gym,” says Rachel Scott, a senior producer with Manchester-based Theatre in Prisons and Probation. “The audience included other prisoners and prisoners’ families. It was lovely.” She is recalling a particularly ambitious project, when TiPP supported Cheshire Dance, mounting a performance at Styal women’s prison. A Path With Heart was a fine example of what can be achieved with prisoners, but it was performed 11 years ago. Austerity-driven staff shortages mean such work has become more restricted.

“Prisons welcome our work,” says TiPP director Simon Ruding. “When prisoners can engage in meaningful activity they have far fewer incidents to deal with. There are so many restrictions in prisons, but limitation is stimulation.” TiPP tends to concentrate on small-scale devised pieces, but other organisations such as Synergy and Clean Break have long histories of mounting ambitious productions in these most challenging environments.

“I learned to direct on prisoners,” says Synergy artistic director Esther Baker. Among her most memorable prison productions she lists Glengarry Glen Ross in Brixton and A Raisin in the Sun at HMP Thameside.

Baker, Ruding and Helen Pringle, senior producer for Clean Break, all emphasise that security is paramount. “If you want to go into any prison more than three times there is a detailed vetting process,” says Pringle. “Then you have to know every tiny thing that you take into a prison and list it for vetting: how many cables, how many bolts, which tools. We’ve been monitored as we’ve unloaded the van and everything’s been counted and then monitored as we take it all out again.”

“We submit a list a couple of weeks in advance,” says Ruding, “then await the decision as to whether it will be allowed. How we list things can also be an issue. Our musical director wanted to take in some musical plastic tubes called ‘boomwhackers’, but she couldn’t use that name because it sounds like a weapon, so she listed them as ‘musically attuned tubes’ and that was accepted.”

Communication within a prison can break down. “Sometimes the staff on the gate aren’t aware we’re coming,” Pringle says. “Once it coincided with prisoners on remand being let out to go to court so they refused to let us in. We sat outside in the van for two hours. When we got in, there was no time to set up.” Ruding once had to phone a governor to come down to order a gate officer to let him in with a set of DVDs the governor himself had commissioned. “It’s pointless getting into arguments,” he says. “You have to demonstrate a high degree of empathy.”

Synergy’s production of Fallout by Roy Williams.

Although most staff see the value of the work and try to cooperate, “You do get staff who are quite obstructive,” says Pringle. “Often by the end they will understand, but it can be hard to start off with.”

“The regime overrides everything else,” she says. “You might have everything set up and ready to go, but if there’s an incident and a lockdown, that’s it. The women aren’t allowed out; the performance is cancelled and you go home. It’s happened several times to us.”

by Roy Williams; Synergy artistic director Esther Baker; Helen Pringle, senior producer for Clean Break

Finding suitable rehearsal and performance spaces is another issue. Ruding recalls trying to rehearse with about 14 men in a space created from two cells knocked together. “Often the only space we can put our set in is the gym,” says Pringle. “Acoustically that’s a nightmare. The women will be very responsive and quite noisy. We’ve had performances where you really can’t hear what the actors are saying. And you have to make sure you have enough power.”

For Synergy, chapels or multi-faith spaces tend to be the first choice, Baker explains. “On the week of a performance, we set up after Sunday morning service, then do a very fast tech run. The dress rehearsal is on Monday morning, first performance on Monday afternoon, then performances throughout the week, including evenings. Then the set has to be struck by Friday morning in time for Muslim prayers.” Chapels in Victorian prisons often have good acoustics, she explains.

“Sometimes the prison will decide who can and can’t participate, which can be a problem,” says Ruding. About the need to save precious time, Baker says: “I like to cast quickly and keep close to type.”

All three companies sometimes use professional actors. “When the audience can’t tell who’s a professional and who’s a prisoner, you know you’ve succeeded,” says Ruding. Where possible, Synergy aims to train prisoners to perform backstage roles; Clean Break brings in professional crews.

“There are particular challenges over what you can take in,” says Pringle. “You can’t take a can of Coke or pre-packaged cigarettes in because those things aren’t available to the women in the prison. It’s amazing what an issue that will cause.”

by Roy Williams; Synergy artistic director Esther Baker; Helen Pringle, senior producer for Clean Break. Photo: Chris Beston

“Some things are proscribed,” says Ruding. “This means anything vaguely resembling a weapon.” Baker describes using a plain block of wood as a gun. “One play we did had a knife in it. We had to use a ruler instead, which was a bit less compelling as weapon,” Pringle laughs. Everything has to be securely locked away between sessions. “Some foil got nicked from our production of Elmina’s Kitchen,” says Baker. “It was probably drug addicts.”

Some prisons are fussy about costumes, while others are more relaxed. White shirts might be banned because the warders wear them. But, says Baker, appearance is important to many prisoners and they enjoy dressing up.

Synergy and Clean Break pride themselves on their ability to create convincing sets with limited materials and little time. “We aim to have a strong aesthetic,” says Baker. “It should look beautiful, but not be over-complicated. We did a production of Roy Williams’ Fallout in the round and the set was all a fence, which was quite challenging.” Pringle recalls creating the shell of a caravan in a garden for a production of Katie Hims’ Billy the Girl.

Synergy will often make do with two or three lights, says Baker. “Clean Break has a touring rig,” says Pringle. “We take in two stands with about eight lights, and the dimmers and the desk. It’s quite effective, even though you can’t black out the space. Computers for sound-mixing are a massive issue too,” she says.

Pringle continues: “Our last big play was There Are Mountains by Chloe Moss.” The piece deals with the problems facing women prisoners on release. “We had to build a set with the lighting in the room and bring in a generator, a huge undertaking. That was massive, but the staff were in tears at the end.”

All are philosophical about the challenges. “You just have to deal with the situation rather than panic,” says Baker. “The show must go on and all that.”

tipp.org.uk; cleanbreak.org.uk; synergytheatreproject.co.uk

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