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Crime scenes

Prisoners at William Head penitentiary know their way around a stage. The prison’s 26-year-old theatre program draws fire from right-wing critics, who think prisoners shouldn’t be having fun. But arts programs can be more successful at rehabilitation than standard approaches. Why is it, then, that William Head is unique?


BY Shawn Thompson
Photography by Nathan Medd

Four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, the prisoners packed into a prison gymnasium on Vancouver Island for the play rise to their feet cheering.

It wasn’t a pent-up desire for Shakespearean tragedy that made them so exuberant. This was a Macbeth unlike any other. A group of their own had transformed the classic drama into a post-apocalyptic crime thriller. It is edgy, immediate and relevant, and from the prisoners’ point of view it vindicates them by demonstrating what they can accomplish by themselves. By the end of the run of 12 public performances last November, approximately 1,500 people had come inside to see this feat.

What’s remarkable is that the prison theatre troupe in the minimum-security William Head federal penitentiary has been performing plays against the odds for 26 years. The theatre is unique, as is the setting of the prison itself. Sitting on an 87-acre rocky promontory 25 kilometres west of Victoria, the only barriers are shoreline and a razor-wire topped fence at the entrance—a relic from the days before the prison’s conversion to minimum security. On the grounds are wild deer, raccoons and, in the trees, bald eagles. The prisoners talk about the calming effect of the sea and the open landscape, the way it allows them solitude and escape from a prison environment that can perpetuate criminal thinking and anti-social behaviour.

From this setting, the prisoners at William Head have shown their skill and also found a voice in the community from their sometimes provocative choice of plays: The Elephant Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Marat/ Sade, Stalag 17, an adaptation of Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Euripides’ The Bacchae. Moreover, the theatre operating funds come almost entirely from ticket sales made to a registered non-profit society. The decisions are made by the prisoners and approved by the administration as long as they do not interfere with the security or regular functioning of the facility.

The prisoners say this independence contributes to “co-operative problem solving, conflict resolution and the raising of ... self-esteem,” according to Patrick W. Rafferty, writing in the magazine Out of Bounds, also produced by prisoners in William Head. Rafferty adds that the theatre program “provides an important lesson for the prison administration to learn as well. When prisoners are allowed to do something that has meaning for them, when they are self-motivated rather than coerced, when they are granted ownership of the program they are involved in, when they are allowed to do something positive on their own, they will dive whole-heartedly into the project. And to the surprise of many, they will become more responsible.” In other words, the participants are contributing to their own rehabilitation, a significant factor since the latest available reliable federal prison recidivism rates hover above 40 percent. (The 10-year-old study was written by James Bonta of Public Safety Canada.)

But what seems to be a form of therapy to some looks like sheer self-indulgence to others. And there’s the rub. Critics see the theatre as one more indulgence of thieves, cutthroats and sex maniacs. John Gradon, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, wrote in 2000 that it was an insult to read in the National Post that a prisoner in William Head named Ryan Love was having fun with theatre. Love, now 35, is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder in the brutal slaying of a female taxi driver in Banff in 1990 when he was 18. Gradon criticized the prison service for “ineptitude and insensitivity” for allowing “a guest of taxpayers” like Love to participate in the acting troupe. Love responded to Gradon in a letter to say he was sorry for his crime a decade before and for his flippant comments about the theatre.

James Thompson, a Manchester University drama professor who has specialized in prison theatre and its application as therapy for offenders in the United Kingdom, would disagree with people like Gradon. Thompson has what he calls “an intuitive sympathy” for prisoners, after his father was a prisoner of war in Burma in the Second World War and helped construct the Burma railway under brutal conditions. In 1992, Thompson co-founded the Theatre in Prisons and Probation (TiPP) Centre. The idea was to raise the profile of theatre work with offenders, undertake research and make the results available to influence others. His drama department at the University of Manchester also offers an M.A. in theatre where students can specialize in theatre work in prison.

TiPP creates drama workshops for prisoners that tackle typical rehabilitation issues such as anger management, drug abuse and bullying—and they have been embraced by the prison service. “Theatre programs,” says Thompson, “tend to put into three dimensions what those other programs do in two dimensions. It allows people to practise the behaviours via role playing, and try out new ways of responding to situations without resorting to violence or offending before they have to do it for real.”

Thompson marvels at what makes the William Head theatre unusual, since the vast majority of theatre programs in the world involve outside artists coming in to run the program. “For it to be prisoner led is almost unheard of. The only equivalent is in Brazilian prisons, where all education is run by prisoners.” From his perspective, “The greater the sense of autonomy, the more investment the prisoners have in it and the more powerful the process.”

While prison theatre may be powerful, there is little research evaluating its results as a form of education and therapy. One well-known study Thompson points to was done in 1983 by Lawrence G. Brewster at San Jose State University. While the report didn’t mention theatre specifically, Brewster found that there were “far fewer infractions” within the California prison system among offenders participating in the arts, says Thompson. The arts program “reduced tension in the institution” in the four that were studied, and resulted in a decrease of 36 to 66 percent in disciplinary action involving the participants, according to Brewster. Thompson writes that support for theatre in prison is becoming rarer in places like the United States, even as its prison population mushrooms, citing “a political climate which has championed ‘no frills’ prisons.”

The prisoners are proud of their tradition of theatre in William Head and determined to keep their independence. Asked if they’d like the institutional involvement found in the United Kingdom where the theatre program is run by either prison staff or outside experts, there is no hesitation. Fiftyyear- old Tim Whitwell replies on behalf of a small group assembled in the penitentiary for an interview. “Absolutely no,” he says. “This is one entity that is ours.” They see the independence of the theatre as a way for them to make progress.

Prison is about “control, squashing individuality,” says Ian Case, the Victoria-based director of Macbeth, who is general manager of Theatre Intrepid there. Prisoners say that they see traditional rehabilitation programs as part of the battle of wills between prisoners and their keepers, a form of domination that tries to impose growth and change. As Love puts it, “A program in prison is coerced.”

But putting on plays is different, he says. The relative autonomy of the prison theatre group helps the prisoners to learn and progress willingly. They explore both themselves and their ability to work in a group. “It changed my perception of jail,” says 29-yearold Mike Hewett, who played three roles in Macbeth, including Donalbain, the younger son of King Duncan, and has spent 16 years in institutions, the latest stretch being a five-year sentence for armed robbery with violence “It’s probably the most positive thing I’ve been involved with in all my time in prison. It’s addicting, really addicting.” Case adds that being part of the cast and crew for Macbeth restored a sense of the participants’ individuality. “Prisoners allow themselves to be subjugated to get through and get out,” he says. Working on the production, they were free to experience the personal emotional depth and social behaviour they normally can’t in prison.

Still, prison is prison. Case had to deal with sit uations that don’t happen in other theatres. For Macbeth, the administration was reluctant to allow swords inside the prison, but was finally persuaded to let the actors use special aluminum props that clanged and flashed like steel. Then there’s always the threat of losing members of the cast and crew to drug addiction, institutional offences, punitive transfers and parole. There are understudies for these situations, but this year’s production hit a snag when the right play and the suitable prisoners couldn’t be found, and had to be cancelled. (William Head has an average population of 110.) The production was to be directed by Mort Ransen of Saltspring Island, who also directed the 1995 film Margaret’s Museum.

Fortunately, there was no such hitch with Macbeth. The play had a cast of 18, the four female roles filled by women from the outside. As usual, the prisoner theatre board selected the play and then sought approval from the administration, which has rejected some ideas in the past. The board also hired the director. The group tries to weed out prisoners who wouldn’t work well and in some cases discipline those who cause problems.

Case thought that Macbeth would be meaningful for the prisoners. “Macbeth makes bad choices for the worst reasons and the world falls apart. This is exactly what’s happened with these guys.” The director also made his Macbeth more relevant for the prisoners by setting it in a future feudal society where brutality, concrete and cold steel dominate—not unlike prison. As for the cast and crew of Macbeth, the reaction of the other prisoners to the production was critical. They knew that prisoners operate in an atmosphere of masks, deception, manipulation and betrayal, the kind of behaviour that has to be overcome to make theatre genuine.

When the play premiered to the other prisoners, they were rapt during the scenes between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, hooted and hollered at the fight scenes, laughed at the drunken porter played by one of the biggest pranksters in the prison, and exploded with praise at the end. “They see us on a day-to-day basis,” says Hewett, “and that’s a side of us they’d never seen before, and so it was almost like they were seeing us for the first time as different people on the stage, knowing how maybe we act different in the population with our blinders on. It was a big thing for the inmate population to see that we were able to step out of our shells, out of our comfort zones and actually put on this great production.”

The reaction of the outside audience affected the prisoners too. “The joy I saw on somebody else’s face,” says Tony Laidlaw, a 38-year-old man doing a 20-year sentence for second-degree murder, who played five small roles in Macbeth, “was validating I was doing something for them. It made me feel good. They’re standing up and saying, ‘Good job.’ I think they left thoroughly entertained.”

It’s difficult to change in prison, says Love. “Prison is full of dysfunctional people. That’s why they’re in prison—they’re dysfunctional.” To survive among a population like this, prisoners either isolate themselves mentally or follow the unwritten prisoner’s code of behaviour, banding together for strength, making a “shank,” or homemade knife, to keep hidden for emergencies. Working on a play is different. “For the prison theatre to work,” says Love, “the prison code, the ego, the fear, the mistrust, have to be left at the door. People are told that going in: ‘This is the theatre company now. You’re involved in something larger than yourself and, for it to work, you have to leave the prison bullshit back in your cell.’” The experience in the theatre company is a positive change, he says, where “everyone’s working toward a common goal for the betterment of others.”

Patrick Craig, who played the title role in Macbeth, agrees. “When you try to be an individual [in prison], it doesn’t work for their system.... They’re losing control.” But through the theatre, he says, “You’re actually given the opportunity to become an individual without them knowing that.” The director and the outside cast members believe that Craig underwent a transformation during the production. Karen Lee Pickett, who played Lady Macbeth, says that Craig was “very courageous” to risk himself emotionally on stage. “He was completely committed to it,” says Pickett. “He definitely grew.”

Craig, now 36, was serving a 27-month sentence for trafficking in cocaine and dangerous driving during a police chase. In conversation, he compares the transformation of Macbeth on stage to his own fall as a drug trafficker addicted to cocaine in his hometown of Kamloops, B.C. Cocaine was his personal Lady Macbeth, his temptress, says Craig. The cocaine “turned me into something I loathed and I’m sure, if Macbeth looked back, he’d see he had turned into something he loathed also.” Shakespeare was realistic in the way he captured the criminal mind in Macbeth, according to Craig. “Macbeth was a good man who had the wrong ideas. He got a little too greedy. That’s my own story. The story is very powerful for me.”

Now out on parole, Craig has the support of his family of five sisters and employment as a drywaller. In September, he got permission to move to work in the Alberta oil patch. After his experience with Macbeth in prison, he would like to be on the stage again. He says it made him feel more like himself— whole and fulfilled.

Craig was due for parole before the production ended, but he was so committed to the play that he delayed his day parole for a month to finish the run. It’s what a dedicated actor does. The play’s the thing.

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