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Kestrel Theatre’s Arabella Warner: Nothing touches drama for changing perceptions – even in prison

Arabella Warner artistic director of Kestrel Theatre Company Arabella Warner artistic director of Kestrel Theatre Company
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We are in a rehearsal room in Bicester. A group of actors warm up with an improvisation game involving two guys in a car picking up a hitchhiker.

As the conversation gets more involved, as the characters begin to develop, laughter echoes round the room. For anyone popping their head around the door, this would look like any rehearsal room, the cast like that of any theatre company. Except this is no ordinary group.

The guys roaring with laughter as they shed their inhibitions are all men from HMP Springhill, an open prison down the road from where we are rehearsing. And for two weeks in August, when they stage Broken Dreams, a show devised by a group of their peers in 2017, they will become the first company of men still in prison ever to sustain a public run at a London theatre.

I have been working in the criminal justice system with Kestrel Theatre Company for more than 10 years. During that time I have come to the conclusion that, when it comes to changing outlook and offering fresh horizons, there is little that touches drama.

Kestrel’s remit is to take arts professionals into prisons to work on original pieces of drama and film-making with residents. Now, thanks to the Royal Court Theatre, for the first time the wider public will be able to enjoy such work. And believe me, it is remarkable.

Broken Dreams is a drama about fatherhood and loss, of bravado and despair, a story about the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy set to a background criminal civic irresponsibility. Written in conjunction with the renowned playwright Simon Longman and directed by Holly Race Roughan, it is a compelling, emotional, moving piece of theatre.

But for the men involved it is something else too: it is an introduction to a new way of seeing things. Before engaging with this project, the nearest most of them had come to getting up on stage was to sing karaoke. Only one had ever been to the theatre.

But they have found the immersion in drama a liberating experience, enabling them to play a different part from the one they have been obliged to adopt inside. And given the opportunity, they are naturals. In the rehearsal room and on stage, they get to shed the debilitating carapace of playing the hard man. They can express emotion, show vulnerability, do things that in normal circumstances would be dangerous to express. In a place where the individual is on his own, they can find trust and security in a team.

‘The nearest most of them had come to getting up on stage was to sing karaoke’

It is not easy. The discipline and application required to rehearse, to learn lines, to stand up in front of their peers is hugely challenging, but the rewards are substantial. Self-confidence blooms. For the first time in their lives, many of these men are experiencing the adrenalin rush of successfully communicating their own ideas.

And when they perform to the public at the Royal Court, they will be doing something else too: they will be demonstrating that they are complex beings, asking not to be defined by the worst thing they have done in their lives.

I believe everyone deserves a second chance and what we hope is that seeing the men perform their play, the public will change the way they think about offenders. As the line from Broken Dreams suggests, it is time for them to tell a new story. That is the power of theatre.

Arabella Warner is artistic director of Kestrel Theatre Company. Broken Dreams is at The Royal Court Theatre from August 2 to 11.

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