by Zeb Soanes
Session: HMP The Mount
15th March 2001
I had no idea what to expect. I imagined degrees of how uncomfortable I might feel or how difficult it might be to control and maintain focus throughout the workshop. Having taught fairly privileged young people at a South London Youth Theatre and Public School environments I had no misconceptions that this would be very different. It was. It was a greater challenge. Some peoples literacy levels were very low and extra care had to be taken to ensure they did not feel excluded.
I didnt know whether The Mount would be a great Victorian monster of a place or somewhere stark and uninviting - actually it looked more like a sports centre and had people been filing out into the car-park carrying gym bags and squash rackets they wouldnt have looked at all out of place.
This particular Prison Workshop was being filmed for the PVM [Prison Video Magazine] to share the work of LSW throughout the UK Prison network. After lunch we went over to the worship room, a large, bright space where the actors readied themselves. One by one the inmates arrived and I was struck by their retiring, tentative approach to the room. How many of these are just turning up for a doss, I had thought before they arrived, but that was soon banished from my mind. There was an eagerness in their faces, something they had been looking forward to; perhaps for some, coming because they knew it was good for them. I was struck by their humility and genuine heartfelt welcome as many of them, spotting me as a newcomer, came to shake hands and ask questions.
Bruce began the workshop. The film crew caused interest to begin with and the cameraman asked if anyone, for whatever reasons, would rather not be featured in the film and several men said they would rather not. The first exercise was pass the clap and with the film crew still a novelty some people kept popping their heads into shot, or making gestures but by the end of the workshop you would hardly have known they were there - the work, or rather the play had become more important.
Pass the clap was tricky, they were having to make and hold eye contact with one-another and us. The group was VERY large and at this stage unfocussed (probably largely due to the film crew), there were pauses where any momentum dissipated and some were unsure if the clap was directed to them or a neighbour and others seemed blithely oblivious. The Theatre de ComplicitÚ exercise which followed introduced rhythm and you could feel energy and playfulness growing.
We spent some time working on the Shakespeare Name Game - a great way to really let your imagination loose to break-down a word. Language is fun and shouldnt be a barrier. I worked with an inmate on the name Bardolph playing with sinking a pint, followed by the fin of a dolphin or Rudolphs red nose or describing the figure of Bridget Bardot, followed by the dismissive sound Fuh!. We went around the circle sharing and copying each others descriptions of our names and you could really sense their appetite for play (as Celina mentioned in a previous diary entry), enjoying with glee the increasing inventiveness of each others characterisations.
The Shakespeare Insult Kit was great fun: facing a line of inmates then stepping forward, Western gun-slinger-style, to hold eye-contact with a single inmate and call then a mouldy, swollen, goat-bollock (or whatever!) and for them to laugh back - good morale-boosting stuff. Again I was struck by their dignity and support for one-another and imagined taking the same workshop at any average Secondary school where I am sure the weaker links would be made-fun-of and there wouldnt be such common respect and strength.
Some actors and inmates had worked together in more detail during a morning session and we watched a couple of scenes they had prepared. Great presence was shown by Benson, Gavin and Craig and even those who werent quite as confident as their braver fellows looked-on with hungry interest.
Sadly there wasnt time for Clumps but we played with Iambic Pentameter and Sarah-Louise Young gave a beautiful and spontaneous singing of Pucks "If we shadows have offended". She could have simply played it to the room, but she took it to the men, involving them directly in the text - I was very impressed.
There wasnt time to go into great detail in this session. We were giving an overview of the work of LSW to be recorded and shared with other prisons around the country.
The great theatrical veteran, Barry Morse, gave a very effective talk about Shakespeare, demystifying the hard, elitist academic veneer, revealing the ordinary man-from the-country making his way in London. Shakespeares work was for the people, Mr. Morse cajoled, he is satirising authority and pomp to the ordinary people who were subject to that authority and his most profound, heart-stopping lines are paradoxically the most simple and uncomplicated. Barry gave examples from King Lear as he carries Cordelias limp body onto the stage repeating the single word, "Howl" and of course, Prosperos "Little life rounded with a sleep".
The key thing I felt these sessions can achieve is to show the power of the spoken word to express and inspire the universe of human emotion; whether to raise an army or comfort a dying lover .. it is empowering them to dream and language is by far our most effective weapon, the effects of which can be timeless; one need only think of Churchill, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandella with the proof, of course, in a single line of Shakespeare: "To be or not to be ", "All the worlds a stage "
By the end of our time together the unfocus witnessed in our opening exercise had given-way to an almost blasÚ boldness. Once we were underway I almost had to remind myself that these were offenders; we were a group working together with the sole aim of enjoying ourselves as much as we could in the time we had - a time to play and to learn and perhaps help some find a new focus. As the session drew to a close and the wardens urged the men to make their way, their gratitude was quite overwhelming and I was aware how VERY privileged I was to have met them and in no time at all we were back outside in the real world, smelling of mortality.
For the past 3 years I've been
a continuity announcer for BBC Televisionon BBC2. Proudest moment - being the first
BBC announcer to say the word 'orgasm'. I'm also about to start narrating the audio
descriptiontracks on Hollywood drama DVD releases, describing complex action scenes for
the visually impaired.