Jim Pope 9 December 2010

In June 2007, I was standing in the chapel of Feltham young offenders institute in a circle of pumped up, angry and disaffected young men between 18 and 21 years of age.  I had brought a team of artists consisting of a drama therapist, an ex offender and two members of the National Youth Theatre to deliver a series of drama workshops.  It was all part of the young offenders work which I was running for the NYT and which would eventually lead to the creation of Playing Up; a three-tiered training programme for those at risk of social exclusion which is now in its third successful year.  On that particular day, however, my concerns were more immediate;

Having formed the circle in order to get focus, I explained the intentions of the session and introduced the rules of a simple drama game to act as an ice breaker.  The largest and most pumped up of the group took his position in the centre of the circle and strutted about aggressively declaring he was not going to play “stupid kid games” he was a “gangster” and this was “bollocks.”  He made it very clear that he was not just speaking for himself but for the group and that anyone who did not comply with his wishes would suffer the consequences.

What was I going to do? A clear and unambiguous ban on drama had been imposed at the start of the session and the two hours which lay ahead started to feel like a long and lonely prospect.   I was considering calling the prison officers to lead the inmates back to their cells and wondered if it would be possible to gain their trust after such a capitulation when I remembered something which had once worked for me at a primary school in Wandsworth and thought it worth a try;

“Has anyone got any jokes?” I offered.

Slowly, the room began to warm up as the participants found themselves on familiar territory enjoying banter which was a long way from the political correctness usually associated with the delivery of applied theatre.

There is a certain moment in a drama workshop when the participants give their absolute permission to engage with the work.  It is never at the beginning, even with the most compliant of groups.  It marks the point where the collective desire to create something magical over rides any individual resistance and all that is needed from the workshop leader is to stand back, listen intently and gently steer from time to time.

The prisoners split into sub groups and began to choose jokes with characters and a narrative structure with the intention of dramatising them to show back at the end.  From that point, the session took off and the chapel rang with the sound of laughter and the enthusiastic appreciation of each other’s efforts.

When we showed back to each other, creating a stage area and an audience, the laughter was generous, the applause was genuine and it was clear that most of the prisoners had never received appreciation of this kind.  There were talented individuals in the group and those who had previously been invisible (a coping mechanism often used in prison) were now given recognition for their hidden talents.  More importantly though, those who were not natural performers were appreciated for their efforts because the group was in this together and wanted it to succeed.

As we were bringing the session to an end, one of the inmates began to bang on some bongos that were in the room.  The large, pumped up prisoner who had been so intimidating at the start of the session dismissing drama as “stupid kid games” bounded over in a state of excitement with wide eyes and a huge grin;

………………………..“Let’s play musical chairs!” He bellowed.