I spent an evening in prison recently, watching a production of “The Hobbit” at William Head Institution, a minimum security federal penitentiary in Greater Victoria, BC. The play was performed by William Head on Stage (WHoS), the theatrical troupe comprised of men serving their time, and a few women actors from “outside.”
Yes, this is a performance with different rules. Security is tight and includes a photo ID sign in, a drug sniffing dog, and emptying your pockets of literally everything. No lip balm please. But it’s all done efficiently, in a rather upbeat fashion. It’s clear these productions rely on the goodwill and effort of both staff and prisoners. William Head on Stage, formed in 1981, is the longest running theatrical troupe behind bars in Canada.
The audience ranged in age from students to elders: a full house. In the theatre “lobby”, beautiful carved boxes and other carvings are on display (you arrange to come back later to buy them), along with the Out of Bounds Prison Magazine. I chatted with the Metis man in charge of the magazines; he says that writing helps him to know himself, and to let out anger (he burns those outbursts later). He was enthused about the power of the written word, well spoken, and friendly. He gave me a copy of the magazine and I felt myself warm to the potential of writing, of healing, of hope.
I’d been on the grounds of William Head before, doing research for some of my stories, and I already knew that good things can happen here. In the Salmon House where spiritual programs for aboriginal prisoners take place, at the Buddhist Meditation Garden on a promontory of land overlooking the sea, and in the chapel where various events and services are held. Now I was able to see the therapeutic and important role that drama also plays in the re-integration and self-confidence of prisoners.
The play was well-received, and lots of fun, complete with huge puppets, scary goblins rushing the stage, and a sliding Gollum on a dolly, (very clever). My favourite part was the Q and A afterwards when some of the actors spoke about the ways they had taken risks in trying these parts; many were way out of their comfort zone. They discovered they could overcome fears, earn people’s respect, and be part of a community that shared a common goal. On opening night the actors were given a standing ovation by their peers.
I watched the men’s faces, saw their grins and the way they sat and welcomed questions, and I listened to them talk about what this opportunity meant to them. One of the female actors admitted she was treated more respectfully by the men here than she is usually treated “outside”. I don’t think any of this is put on for public consumption…I think it’s that this process of staging a play together creates a safe place where self-confidence can grow, where a connection to the greater community can occur, where an inmate may begin to believe that his life can be better. And where the public can see this too and realize its importance to those incarcerated, and to all of society.
Other programs run within our prisons can be similarly life altering, including the services offered in the prisons’ chapels. At a time when our PM is cutting non-Christian chaplains to prisons, I wish Mr. Harper would come here and see the rehabilitation taking place through drama. Then he might understand that the possibilities we offer to those who are incarcerated, including spiritual guidance and creative projects, can offer perhaps the best chance for transformation and reintegration back into the world.
Photos © Star Weiss – All Rights Reserved