Feeding Back

HMP Pentonville Men in LUP1 Tranche



I was coming back from the mosque and heard some noise and popped my head in. 


It was my first day working in the library and I was just dragged in. 


I didn’t even know that anything was happening.  I came to return a library book. 


I can’t even remember the first day because I got so involved with it.


I was on an educational course and my tutor put me onto it.  She said that I would be interested in it and so she put me forward. 


For me drama always keeps popping up in my life.  I picked up a magazine and read about a guy from RADA*.  I remember reading the story.  Thinking about the similarities was scary.  It brought a lump to my throat because this guy was doing what I always wanted to do.  I put the magazine down and said: ‘Let me go to the library and pick up a Shakespeare book and start studying this again.’  I’ve been looking throughout my life at Shakespeare.  I came into the library and they told me I couldn’t take a book out because I wasn’t a member.  I went to walk out and I looked above my head and I saw a poster saying:  ‘Drama Course – Speak to Jose’.  Jose walked out the door and asked me if I was interested … and that was it. 


*    [Michael Balogun, a self defined ‘ex-professional criminal’ took part – as part of his RADA 2017 graduation programme – in the first two LUP Workouts in this prison in North London.  He is now on his first professional acting job on the national tour of the National Theatre’s PEOPLE, PLACES AND THINGS.]




I have anxiety issues but this group made me feel so comfortable that I was able to perform.  It made me feel much better about myself. 


I was so confident that I wanted the whole place (the chapel) packed with extra chairs put out for the Conference.  The prison saw that this didn’t happen but this time that didn’t bother me.  I felt good in spite of anything they might do.  Amazingly I still do.  I carry that confidence with me now.  I own it.




This was a big part of the success of this project.  Having visitors in the group rehearsals grew our confidence.  It makes for a healthy challenge and it’s always that little bit more exciting.  It also helps us prepare for when we get out.  It’s all too easy to forget that on the inside. 


It was wonderful having the artists present because very quickly we came to realise that they were supporting us and that is something we don’t always find in prison.  It helped grow the idea of a new community for us.   I tried to be equally supportive with them and to let them know that what they were doing was really helpful.  Their positive feedback made us feel more confident.


A lot of the time I never really felt as if it was ‘them and us’.  We were one team; a whole.  The goals of our project made this work.  At no point did I feel patronised when asking questions in getting feedback.  That was  important. 


The feedback we got from the showing in the chapel was fantastic.  People were crying they were so moved. 


I appreciated the freedom with the guests at the industry showing.  We were all doing the same thing.  We were sharing and not there to judge each other.  In the truest sense we were free.




These kind of programmes are not unusual in prisons but this programme stood out from all the rest I’ve been involved with.  Other programmes haven’t been so much centred on the professional tools of drama training as this was.  This was practical rather than theoretical and that made a huge difference.  I don’t find much practical value in the theoretical trainings they sometimes have here.  The hands on practicality of this made a big difference for me.  I’ve gained so much confidence from this – in acting and other terms.  As a learning experience I now feel that this is my real first step.  I have done a lot of things outside of prison that have stemmed from prison but nothing as rewarding as this.  Nothing can compare to it. 

When we were doing the workout I felt as if I was back in primary school just having fun.  Then I realised there was a method to the madness when I was asked to join the group.  It’s made a big difference.  I see myself differently now. 


Sometimes you do projects in prison that are somewhat similar but they’re nowhere close to this.  If LSW wasn’t there it wouldn’t be the same. 




100% attitude change.  Suddenly we have a voice.  They listen to us.  They have a reason to listen to us.  We’re not just a number now.  Even the people in the gym stop and want to know how the play went.  Everyone’s engaged.  Shakespeare has infected our community.


Some of them before really didn’t know what this can do.  They didn’t need to see it.  When they heard about our success it changed their attitudes.  They see us differently on the wing now. 


There was a guy on my wing – a professional football player – and when he was taken away to be released he called out to me:  ‘Hey, keep up with the drama!’ … and he had a big smile on his face.  He knows if you do stuff like this it can lead you to better places than the streets.  We’ve all been there.  We need a way out.  This can help. 


A lot of the older prisoners were saying:  ‘Stick at it … Stick at it!’  The younger guys need convincing. 


I think when we did the performance in the chapel that more inmates should have been allowed to come and then they could have got a buzz off that and felt the difference for themselves just like we did.


The Phoenix Futures guys now talk to me in a completely different way.  They have a sparkle in their eyes.  It’s as if through me they’ve been a part of it so it really does have an effect on people beyond the performances themselves.  It feels good.  It builds self confidence for everyone. 


Since we’ve done the play the SO (Senior Officer) now comes to my cell to ask me how I am.  I always hope for my cup to be half full and now it is.  It hadn’t been that way for a long time.  As funny as it seems I now know what day it is.




We were able to get important messages for the prison through the play exactly as Shakespeare did in his plays at the time.


The stories in the plays are the same things as are going on now in our world.   There are scary similarities.  It made us feel as if we could make a difference.  




I forgot I was a prisoner in the LUP space and became the character.  Outside I intend to do the same thing.  I’m now building a character for my release.  This has given me a tool to be objective with.  It’s like a practical protective shield. 


I just think your art should blind them because that’s what art – ALL art – needs to do – be it in prison or anywhere else. 


It never feels like we are in prison with the LUP group.  We all feel that. 


At the end of the day this drama programme was really good because we were able to perform in front of people and be accepted.  If it did nothing else it helped us fight against being institutionalised.  We had to be responsible for something.  We had to be responsible for ourselves.  You get dumber and dumber by the day here.  They want you to be an infant.  This woke us up.  It gave us a reason to wake up as a team.  There should be more of this.  It fills your mind with purpose instead of frustration and dread.




For me Lord Bracknell made a big difference.  When you asked me to do it in an African accent I had no idea how potent my own background could make it.  It was only doing it in the rehearsals and people’s positive feedback – especially those of actors from the outside – that made me realise how exciting and important it had become for me. 


We have no idea how much impact it has on us and everyone else. 


Even though I fumbled on my speech I heard the applause and I knew we had done alright.  My team had come through.


When I took Sinna (the role of Cinna in Julius Caesar) back to my cell something clicked in and it became personal.  The scream at the beginning let me let out all my frustrations.  Everything I had been thinking had been given a voice. 


When I got to the sixth time of revising that sonnet on race in my cell I started to cry.  It was SO beautiufl and it was done by someone who is unrecognised.  I thought there is just so much talent out there that is untouched.  I had the responsibility to make this wonderful piece of writing sing.  That meant a lot to me.


On text in Russian:  Sometime you can communicate just by the sound of the words and it’s so powerful.  We all understood exactly what you were saying even if we hadn’t had the translation spoken.  Your expression was all that it needed. 


On Portia:  Just thinkin’ of that role reminded me of all my aunties and cousins getting told off.  I was trading on how they behave; how they react and their courage in the control of their anger.  The only reason I could understand the patois is because I grew up in a black area.  It’s not normal for an Asian guy to know that.  The moment people see me they think I’m from East London but this was as if I was in two different worlds.  I was proud to play a woman as a man because of that. 




For me this was very powerful.  When we had a debate in the prison I had in mind what I was going to say but because I was so emotionally involved with the text of the plays I found myself actually able to carry the ability to emote and control over into my extemporaneous debate speech.  It just happened naturally.  It was as if a lid had been popped open and I was able to let myself flow.  I would never have been able to do that without this.  I didn’t expect it to be so powerful.  It was as if I had tricked myself.  I now have a bigger toolset.  Certainly I have more confidence.


We have a wider knowledge of how to present ourselves now than we did before.  We can enhance as Bruce says ‘our context’.  I think sometimes we’ve picked up things that we don’t yet know we’ve picked up.  The day will come and they’ll just jump out at you. 




In this space – wherever it may be in the prison – we’re given that little bit of freedom.  That’s what’s important.  (Another LUP Lad chimes in with ‘Exactly’.)  It’s that space that allows us to deal with things on the wing and things outside.  It’s that space we can hold onto because we now know the reality of it.  We can feel it.  For the time we are here we can relax and – even though we’re playing someone else – we can be ourselves. 


I will give you an example of what this play has done for me.  I had a incident this morning with an officer and before I would have sat in my cell and just been angry.  Not now.  I wrote a letter to the Governor and wanted to put my words straight in his face as we did in Sinna.  It takes the onus off my back and helps to make a difference for others.  I can feel good about myself now.  Now I’m careful how I use my words so people can listen and get the point but never feel threatened by them.  I know now if you do that people only stop listening.  I probably wouldn’t have thought that way before.  In fact I’m sure of it. 


This experience far outweighs any other drug taking experiences I’ve had.  It’ll give me something to balance against; something to hold onto for myself; something I can fight temptation with.  I’ve never had a tool like this before. 




I study Shakespeare a lot.  At one point Shakespeare was the only book I had in my house.  I’ve found that the views that Shakespeare gives his characters to help enhance their stories have really helped me in my life.  So much so that it has allowed me to walk away from certain situations and not take other situations so seriously; to be able to put them in a better perspective.  Just being able to bring these words out of my mouth makes me better able to deal with the world around me wherever it might be. 




When I heard that there could be outside possibilities I didn’t really believe that because I’ve so often heard that before inside.  Then when we had our pictures taken inside the reality really hit home that this was different and with the guests we felt that we were in a different league of society and everything was fine.  That’s the confidence that will keep me out … and I’ve never said that before.  It’s only a little step but it’s made things more concrete in terms of my  belief in my own mind.  Honestly I’ve never had much of that in the past.  It’s done a lot for me to help myself make my picture more whole. 


When that guy was talking to me about that film – even if it didn’t happen – it really made me happy to think that maybe it could.  It gave me hope. 


‘We know what we are but know not what we may be’

* To LUP is an active verb meaning ‘to bring disparate bodies together in hope’.  This word was created in honour of LSW’s 20th Anniversary.