October 11, 2017 - 2:00pm
Eliza Gardiner, along with theatre and criminology student volunteers, are working with the inmate-run William Head on Stage Theatre Society to produce a play for the public
Male offenders incarcerated at William Head Institution are breaking down stereotypes and connecting with community through the act of producing an annual play – this year with the help of Vancouver Island University (VIU) Theatre Professor Eliza Gardiner and student volunteers.
William Head on Stage (WHoS) is the only inmate-run prison theatre company in Canada that invites the public into the prison to experience their shows. Inmates participate in all aspects of the show preparation, from brainstorming themes, to character development and creating costumes, props and sets. They also manage the theatre society, organizing business aspects such as running the production budget with the support of Correctional Service of Canada administrators.
“I really enjoy the interactions with the local arts community. Having that kind of communication and feeling a part of the community is so important to me,” says one WHoS Board member*. “I think what this experience does, most effectively, is create a community space during every show that helps break down stereotypes. It gives more balance to understanding people who have committed crimes and their potential.”
WHoS has been creating shows for the public for more than 30 years. Last spring, the company chose Gardiner to direct this year’s play – Antigone – which has numerous performances scheduled throughout October and November.
The Board says Gardiner was chosen because of her applied theatre research, which focuses on bringing theatre experiences to people who normally don’t have access to them. She has also worked with Criminology professors at VIU to create interdisciplinary courses that use drama techniques to explore the criminal mind.
“I chose Antigone because it is a powerful story that allows participants to fuse a classical theatre plot structure with discussions on intense themes that are still transferable to contemporary socio-political realities,” says Gardiner, who has been working with WHoS since March. “We used applied theatre methodologies to rewrite the play. It’s now a creative, post-apocalyptic version of the ancient plot. The men weren’t satisfied with the ending, so it’s rewritten with a finale inspired by the idea that violence, pain and tragedy can end and that justice can be restored.”
The play features Antigone, the famed daughter of Oedipus Rex, who chooses to disobey the new king’s decree by burying her brother, for which the penalty is death. Gardiner respects the cast and crew’s courage and was inspired by their perspectives on crime, punishment, justice and hope.
“People have discovered things about themselves through this arts-based experience,” she says. “I anticipated the project being motivating from a research perspective, but the personal self-development has been amazing too. I’m so grateful for all of my own reflections on resiliency, healing, love and freedom. Using theatre to reverse isolation and reconnect through an artistic process has been profound and unforgettable.”
For Cecilia Rossander, Social Programs Officer at William Head Institution, watching the men thrive under pressure and grow more confident is the most rewarding part of WHoS productions.
“It allows them to step outside their comfort zone – many of our offenders come from broken homes and dysfunctional families, often leaving them with low self-confidence,” she says.
Putting together a quality production in a prison is no easy feat. Since they can’t just run out to the dollar store, costumes are often made from salvaged materials, such as old cereal boxes and scraps of fabric. Set construction supplies are ordered well in advance so they can undergo a rigorous vetting process once they arrive, which means that if anything is forgotten, inmates must improvise. One Board member involved in the production side says he enjoys the challenge, using these opportunities to work on his problem-solving skills as well as his people skills as he mobilizes other inmates to focus on the solution.
“I like watching the transformation of the gym,” he says. “I think people come here expecting a school play – the level of professionalism surprises them.”
For Eva Morgan and Brittney Kay, two VIU Criminology alumni who have been helping with everything from script development to leading rehearsals and painting set pieces, the experience has further broken down stereotypes for them.
“There’s a lot of stigma around how our federal prisons operate, and it’s a lot different than people think,” says Kay, who plans to work as a corrections officer. “They are all working so hard and engaging with the project.”
“They’re learning skills that could benefit them later – a lot of them have talked about working in the theatre industry or building things when they get out,” adds Morgan, who is now working at the Salvation Army’s New Hope Centre in downtown Nanaimo.
Public performances of Antigone started last week. Upcoming shows take place October 13-14, 20-21, 26-28 and Nov 2-4, 2017. Tickets and guidelines are available by going to whonstage.weebly.com. Partial proceeds will go to NEED2, a suicide prevention education and support group in Victoria.
*inmate names are not included in this story due to privacy reasons
Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University
Tags: In the Community