By James Dart
What do Oscar Wilde, Boy George and ShakeItUp Theatre have in common? Apart from being cultural giants, they have all had a stretch in Pentonville Prison. For the past 8 weeks ShakeItUp Theatre has been working with inmates from Pentonville. Our task was simple… take a group of inmates and in 8 weeks prepare them to improvise a 20-minute Shakespearean play in front of a live audience. Challenge accepted!
The idea of improv in prisons isn’t a new one. A number of prisons in California have been doing improv for over 10 years. The combination of risk taking, teamwork and fun inherent in improv has been proven to have a huge positive impact on inmates. Benefits range from reduced re-offending to improved mental well-being.
For the ShakeItUp team this was our first time behind bars. Our only reference points were Shawshank Redemption, Prison Break and a couple of Louis Theroux documentaries, so it was a humbling experience when the white gates clanged shut behind us and we met our team of inmates. They were not hardened, tough or menacing; they were people. They were funny, shy, and understandably a little sceptical about improvising Shakespeare. When asked what they wanted to get out of our time together two themes emerged: “to escape this reality for a while” and “to feel like a person again.” In that moment we realised we had taken on a responsibility far bigger and more important than our usual improvised hilarity.
Prisons are unsurprisingly an oppressive place to be. The walls are white, the uniforms are grey, and the windows are very, very small. However, as we introduced the actors to the core cannon of improv games (one-word story, the question game and even a few games of tig) we discovered that you can find expression and creativity in even the bleakest of settings. As the weeks went by, we saw the actors growing in confidence, playfulness and, most importantly for an improv troupe, in teamwork. The guys picked this up quickly giving each other support and encouragement to make bolder choices and bigger characters. Every week they created scenes which ranged from the side-splittingly funny to the heart-wrenchingly sad.
We learnt a lot from working with the men in Pentonville. Most strikingly we learnt about bravery and generosity. As actors we often talk about making brave choices and decisions. This pales into insignificance compared to the bravery of an actor in the hyper-masculine environment of a prison donning a high-pitched voice and pretending to be a swooning Juliet Capulet. Taking risks pays off in acting. Each of the men we worked with took big risks and reaped the huge rewards of finding new modes of expression, as well as some raucous audience laughs.
In the final week the actors donned the signature ShakeItUp shirts and performed a completely improvised show to a hugely supportive crowd of over 30 people. The title chosen was “The Wizard of Disney Land” and boy was it magical! Packed with spells and lots of laughs the inmates created an incredible show, one that we would have been proud to have performed in any of our normal venues.
As actors we can take for granted the opportunities that we have to make our voices heard. These men are voiceless. Their backgrounds rarely afforded them the opportunity to express themselves using theatre and the arts. It was a great privilege to see these men find wonder in creating art together.
We went into prison with some very strong stereotypes in mind. We expected to find hardened criminals, people who were different to us. What we found was a group of brave and generous men living in difficult circumstances who worked as a team to create a hilarious and beautiful piece of theatre.
Below: sketches of the final performance at Pentonville by artist Lawrence Mathias.
With contributions from members of the ShakeItUp company, this monthly blog will cover behind the scenes peaks into the rehearsal room, news about our latest projects, and insights into what goes into creating our Bard-based Bedlam!