Francesca Joy is a writer and actor and founder and artistic director of Imagine If theatre company, which focuses on working with people in the prison system and other marginalised groups. She tells Giverny Masso about how her latest play Jadek is inspired by her relationship with her blind, Polish grandad…
Tell me about Imagine If.
Imagine If is a theatre company that does unashamedly honest high-quality theatre productions. We also work heavily in the prison system across the UK and in America. We’ve also worked with other marginalised groups including young adults in care, recovering addicts and people from multiple deprivation backgrounds. For every production we do – whatever issue it’s about – we hire the people that it affects and pay them the same as the other artists.
Tell me about the theatre company’s intervention programme for prisoners?
I designed and built a course over two years called Bird On the Wing for men who are due for release. They do three intensive weeks, and at the end, do a massive theatre performance in the prison. We get local employers in, so we try and get the service users we work with jobs before they’re out of prison, to help them integrate into society. It’s about how they can rewrite their story instead of continuing to read the same book and going over the same chapter.
Is there enough access to the arts in prisons?
Californian governor Jerry Brown made it mandatory that all prisons in the state have to have access arts. If they’re doing it, why aren’t we? With so much talk about the impact of arts in schools and on people’s lives, why aren’t we making it statutory in prisons? We need more direct funding from the government. There are lots of young and emerging theatre companies who have just graduated from drama school and want to work in prisons. This is great but causes this cyclical effect where, if they work in a local prison, they might offer their work for free because they’ve got no professional experience, and then the prison and government will devalue the arts.
What is Jadek about?
I lost my grandma at the end of 2016, then I went on a big Edinburgh Festival Fringe tour. My grandad is 95, and since he lost my grandma he’s been living independently, which is very difficult. So while we were trying to figure that out, I had to give up my house. As a working-class artist, I couldn’t afford it while being on tour. It made sense with my grandad being alone and me having nowhere to live that I moved in with him.
The play is inspired by our relationship and it’s a two-hander, with two characters Tasha and grandad. We’re taking it into Polish community centres, blind and visually impaired centres and prisons. I feel like I put realness on stage, not what the middle class want. A lot of Jadek is dark. It’s about exploitation in the arts and in the world. It’s about politics; Brexit and what’s happening with Trump and racism and xenophobia.
What is a previous production you are particularly proud of?
When I wrote You Forgot the Mince, I did it on a pilot tour, then rewrote it for a national tour and that took about five years in total. I had financial support from Ian McKellen – which was madness – and off the back of that, the BBC came to watch it then approached me as a writer. We took it to more than 1,500 male and female prisoners who have either been abusive to their partner or have suffered abuse. We did communication-based workshops afterwards and many prisoners came up to us and asked: “How did you know that, how are you writing about my life?”
Agent: Sally Hope Associates (acting)
Training: BTEC in performing arts at York College (2005-07), theatre at Middlesex University (2009 – 12)
First professional role: Performed at the Olympics in Katy B and Mark Ronson’s BeatBox Arena (2012)