Text: Gayle Hunnicutt
We met at the Thornton’s Chocolate Wagon, Victoria Station: Twelve actors and our leader, Bruce Wall. Some of us were new to the Prison Project (myself and Sarah Pearman) and a bit nervous. What we couldn’t have anticipated was the enormous fun and joyful satisfaction which our three-hour drama workshop was going to give both to us and, more importantly, to the fifteen young offenders (18 to 21 years of age) in the voluntary Oasis Drug Rehabilitation programme at HMP Rochester.
The session began with the fairly sceptical residents ambling into our work space. Within five minutes they were laughing as we all threw ourselves into Bruce’s exercise: The Circle Dash. This was followed by The Clap Game, Wynton Marsalis’ Scat Exercise, Pass the Energy, Sound Ball, Blind Cars, Mirroring and Hospital Tag. The finale of the opening hour was a ribald modern version of an Elizabethan ’round song’ named ‘Chastity Belt’.
These exercises are energising and allow each participant to feel free and wonderfully foolish. More importantly, they make the group a single unit with no barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
‘Theatre is a language through which human beings can engage in active dialogue on what is important to them. To create a safe space that they may inhabit in groups and use to explore the interactions which make up their lives. It is a lab for problem solving, for seeking options and for practising solutions.’
Augusto Boal, Creator of ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’
Bruce’s energy is infectious so no one lags behind. Each exercise becomes a new adventure. Within an hour we’re exploring Shakespearean text, acting out obscure Shakespearean names in outrageous ways – each chosen at random out of a paper bag. Each member decides how to perform his name and we go around the circle three times. What follows is a complex game involving feats of memory and acting skills which would be testing to Sir Ian McKellen, let alone a 19 year old who may never have read a word of Shakespeare. This is followed by the Shakespeare Insult Kit, which is easy and hilarious, as well as the intriguing ‘Interspersing Shakespeare’.
Bruce’s chief goal is to communicate the fact that this language is for everyone, not just the well-educated elite. We can all be the groundlings and nobs for whom Shakespeare wrote his plays in the 17th and early 18th centuries. No one is excluded.
“Every human being is an artist and in the moment of creation, we are our most sane, most healthy and most fulfilled. When we share a piece of our vision of the world with others, we are better able to see ourselves, to interact with others and to make our own choices.”
Robert Alexander, Director, The Living Stage
The pace is so intense and exhilarating that it comes as a shock to realise that we still have forty five minutes left. We urgently begin to work on sonnets. Having already done exercises on iambic pentameter, each resident chooses the first line of a Shakespearean sonnet (there are thirty on the list) and then each builds his own verse using that first line. They are written from the heart, from a deep well of frustration, loneliness and often despair. They rhyme, they scan, they tell a story and they leave you wondering how you would cope with being so far down in a black hole at such a young age.
As we pack up to go, great hugs are exchanged and the faces of the residents shine with the excitement of discovering that they have these gifts within them. They have learned that there are people who want to help them, who enjoy their company, who will come back. Simple acceptance and the hand of friendship – isn’t this what we all want?
No one is safe in their ivory tower. No one’s life is immune from the effects of drug abuse and drug-related crime. Our society today is rife with it and our children are just as likely to discover its treacherous pleasures.
Bruce Wall, his many volunteer actors and the London Shakespeare Workout are making a very real difference. I am proud to be part of that effort.