Who I Am

Text:  Lorna Heilbron/Clay


On Thursday I met Bruce Wall, the Founder of the London Shakespeare Workout, for the first time.  I had spoken to him on the phone and told him about the dissertation I was writing for the MA I am currently undertaking in psychotherapy at The Psychosynthesis and Education Trust and The University of East London.  I had explained that the dissertation was entitled ‘Theatre: The Healing Art’.  My research was into drawing parallels between what heals in the theatre and that which heals in therapy.  My experience as both actress and therapist has led me to believe that what heals in theatre and therapy is one and the same thing.  As a result of this discussion, Bruce invited me to participate in a Workout at HMP The Mount, a Category C Prison in Hertfordshire.  I was to participate as an actress in the Workout with a view to writing about the experience from the perspective of a therapist.


Any research project has to have within it ‘a heuristic quest’, utilising ‘full and complete depictions of the experience from the frame of reference of the experiencing person’.  (Moustakas ‘Heuristic Research’, 1990, p.38).  My dissertation into what heals the ‘primal wound’ in both theatre and therapy was very much about integrating the split within me; one encompassing both idioms.   By ‘primal wound’  I refer to that sense of anxiety or despair you may occasionally be aware of; a lack of meaning, inauthenticity, fear of real closeness ultimately in relationships, an inability to commit, a backdrop of unease characterised by a sense of what a client once described to me as ‘being only half alive’.  The Workout proved a powerful opportunity to explore the ‘here and now’ of each union.


I was nervous on the train as I sat with Bruce and my fellow actors, most of whom were experienced in doing the Workouts.  It was a bitterly cold day (even though it was March) with flurries of snow drifting in the air as we travelled from the station to the prison.  Being inside a Prison – no matter how many times you may have seen them represented on film, television or theatre – is a raw, vivid experience.  Those rolls of barbed wire on top of the fences are very real, as are the security checks, removal of mobiles and reminders of an unspoken sense of ‘us’ on the ‘outside’ coming ‘in’ to visit ‘them’ on the ‘inside’.


The LSW Workouts are often oversubscribed and on this occasion there were about twenty-five inmates and around eight of us, not including Bruce.  We began doing ‘trust’ exercises and a game called ‘Fire, Blood and Ice’.   Bruce asked the participants which emotions they wanted to work on and the three chosen were ‘Rage, Love and Despair’ – each a ‘feeling state’ regularly explored in both theatre and therapy.  We passed the emotions from one person to the next, through eye contact, body movement and intention.  The consciousness of the room was both acuminate and highly concentrated.


One Shakespeare scene Bruce chose to work on was from ‘Measure for Measure’, a scene set in a prison where the noviciate nun, Isabella, visits her brother, informing him that he must die (Act III, Scene 1).  She explains that the only way to escape his death sentence is for her to give up her virginity, her honour.  Two of the actors (Alasdair Craig and Suzy Marston) acted the scene as if in a modern day prison (not unlike HMP The Mount) with a glass wall and two modern day guards (Celina Hinchcliffe and Richard Nock) between them.  No speech, no touch.  The response was electric, palpable.  The man sitting next to me muttered ‘Give it up, darling’ and the man on my other side was outraged:  ‘My sister would do it for me.’   The room was full of shouts to Isabella to ‘Give up the cherry’, as active encouragement to their fellow inmate, left in the prison.


When the volunteering prisoners themselves in turn enacted the scene, bravely learning and speaking Claudio’s emotional highpoints, they spoke the verse simply with dignity, courage and grace.


At the end of the session we each drew a line in iambic pentameter written on a slip of paper out of a paper bag.  One line followed on from another.  We felt a connection as we spoke our lines.  The effect was an endless flow of laughter, as one line elicited a humourous connection and, where appropriate, sadness too.


Two and a half hours later there were hugs, the shaking of hands and a gradual leave-taking.  I wanted to thank every single inmate for including me in a most soulful and profound experience.


As we left to go ‘out’, leaving our fellow actors ‘inside’, we walked toward the exit.  One of the inmates, someone I realised was not in the Workout, shouted across into the cold, ‘A horse.  A horse.  My Kingdom for a horse!’  (Richard III, V,v)


What did I learn?  As an actress that the power of the spoken word is a living experience, transcending time and space.  As Peter Brook, the director, says: ‘Theatre is Life’.  As a therapist it reminded me once again that therapy is an inter-subjective situation in which to be effective and to enable healing to occur I must demonstrate the utmost respect for the client, a genuine interest and a ‘non-defensiveness’ in response to each related experience.


Above all: to ‘know thyself’

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Ms. Heilbron please click here.