This week Stretch had the honour of taking Dean Stalham’s play Barred to Strangeways. After performances at Salford Arts Centre, Brady Arts Centre and HMP Kirkham – all receiving great feedback – performing at Strangeways was pretty special. This was the first time any theatre has been performed at the prison, and we were intrigued as to how the prisoners would respond.
We were escorted through the prison and its various heavy gates and doors and arrived in the large gym, filled with our audience, a mixture of prisoners and staff from the education department. Set in a prison cell, the set is minimal, and unlike our performances in ‘proper theatres’ we didn’t have the luxury of lighting etc but as soon as the performance began we got the sense the audience was fully engaged.
The play is based on Dean’s own experiences in prison, and explores issues around family ties, mental health, drugs and arts for rehabilitation. It was clear that moments and themes resonated with the prisoners, who at the end gave a standing ovation. During a Q and A afterwards, Dean explained how he got into writing and a lot of prisoners seemed encouraged and enthusiastic about sharing their own stories – after all, they’ve all got one. People also commented on moments which were really realistic and familiar to them, including the difficulties in having to share a small cell space with someone else.
See some feedback from the prisoners:
‘The actors done a really brilliant job acting. They made it as real as possible. The way drugs affected the prisoners body and then their best friend who was going to become a father who died on an overdose.
The beautiful woman who played the prisoners daughter showed her feeling towards her father were all real. The delivery was clear and the use of dialogue was as if it was a real life jail scene, every officer should see this play’
‘It was very good and fantastic. Best experience I’ve seen in prison. It was funny.’
‘Thought it was an awesome presentation to bring real change in prisoners’ life.‘
Prison staff feedback:
‘It was amazing to watch from an officers’ point of view, even some of the lads had tears in their eyes. Thanks for coming and sharing such a superbly written and brilliantly acted play’
‘We are very happy – it was rewarding for us to see that our learners were so engaged in watching the play. It was a privilege to have your company perform your play at HMP Manchester to highlight the power of education’
‘The play highlights the complexities of prison life with conviction – a very cleverly written script using humour and heartbreak to captivate the audience. An outstanding performance which shows how education can transform lives and aid rehabilitation. A must see!’
Caroline, who helped coordinate getting the play into Strangeways commented on how difficult it can be to get the prisoners to concentrate for long periods, but was impressed that they had been gripped by the story.
On Wednesday we performed to a very different audience – the Leeds Beckett University Criminology Department. This was attended by staff, students and prison staff and a great opportunity for a different group to see the issues raised by the play and get more feedback. As a result of these showings, we really feel we’ve got the ball rolling to increase our audience. We’ve had interest from 6 more Universities and 3 more prisons.
So many people have rarely had the chance to see live theatre and it’s clear it is a really effective way to engage people and we hope the real issues it explores can reach more people both in prison and outside. Stretch and writer Dean Stalham are putting together an educational package so the play can be seen in prisons and include workshops which engage prisoners with the issues it explores.