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Susan Elkin: Prison drama changes lives

Our Country's Good at the National Theatre, London Our Country's Good at the National Theatre, London
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Catch Nadia Fall’s eloquently spacious production of Our Country’s Good (Olivier, National Theatre until October 17) if you can. The London Evening Standard’s Fiona Mountford calls it a “plea-for-the-arts play” and it certainly set me thinking afresh, as it’s meant to, about the transformational potential of drama, especially for society’s most damaged, troubled and dangerous people. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play famously presents a group of 18th-century convicts arriving in Sydney and, eventually, staging a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer.

Cut to Brixton Prison in 2012. I visited not long after the 2011 riots in Brixton when Esther Baker and Synergy Theatre Project, which Baker co-founded in 2000, were rehearsing Glengarry Glen Ross with a cast of professionals and inmates. The atmosphere was tense but Baker’s rapport with her casts is astonishing and every one of the inmates told me drama was in the process of changing his life. When my time was up, I was escorted to the exit by a man I can only describe as a surly screw. Clearly sceptical of fancy frivolities such as drama, and trendies like me who believe in it, he could have been a model for any officer in Wertenbaker’s play. Some things never change.

I often chat to the inspirational Bruce Wall, founder of the London Shakespeare Workshop which works across the criminal justice system in the UK and elsewhere. Wall, who once told me with a characteristic, determined grin that he’s probably been into more prisons than most prison inspectors, knows as well as anyone that, managed properly, drama can turn lives around. If you can pretend to be someone else you can learn to feel differently. As Wertenbaker has her character Arscott say in a rehearsal scene in Our Country’s Good: “I’m not myself. I don’t hate. I’m Kite and I’m in Shrewsbury.”

Not that it’s always easy to convince the authorities, despite Wall’s fund of stories about people who have made decent lives for themselves on release. Darren Raymond, for example, who has worked with Wall in the past (Pentonville 2004/06 for firearms offences, drug trafficking and money laundering), now runs Intermission Theatre in Knightsbridge and provides potentially life-changing drama experiences for young people at risk in London.

Reflecting on all this after seeing Our Country’s Good – and concluding the play ought to be compulsory viewing for anyone working in the Criminal Justice Department or in prisons – I was by chance, a few days later, asked to review Theatre for Change: Education, Social Action and Therapy by Robert J Landy and David T Montgomery (Palgrave Macmillan) and suddenly there is the empirical evidence and dozens of well researched and documented case studies and examples. Stand over anyone working in the criminal justice system until they’ve read it, I say.

Drama really does change lives not only in prisons but in almost any other setting too. Of course, it needs to be carefully applied and managed, but with people like Baker, Wall, Raymond and dozens of others (Inside Out, Clean Break et al) out there devoting their lives to it, there is plenty of experienced and informed expertise on tap. Perhaps they could run in-prison continued professional development drama sessions for staff too? It’s an indictment of our so-called civilisation that we still need to spell all this out more than 200 years after the production Our Country’s Good remembers.

Counselling should be available for all drama students if needed

Young people attracted to drama often have issues to deal with. It might be that acting is a way of managing shyness, for example. And being on show all the time – or wanting to be – can lead to all sorts of body-image concerns. Maintenance of self-esteem and dealing with rejection and criticism are very difficult for some. And those are just three of the potential mental health problems which frequently beset drama school students. They are more likely, I contend, to have these issues than students of say, maths or history. It’s the nature of the subject.

Every drama school should be aware of this and be offering tip-top, readily available counselling for the many students who are likely to need it. Worryingly, I see little evidence of this on my travels. Yes, students always tell me, when I ask them what mental health support is available, they can contact the counsellor. Typically that’s one person for a whole university with a long waiting list or a part-timer with other clients elsewhere and few spare appointments. Many of these student issues are not being dealt with. QED.

I think every drama school – whether it’s part of a larger institution or not – should have its own full-time counsellor who is known to all the students. And the service should, of course, be free. Mental health is very precious.

Read more from Susan Elkin

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