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The ex-prisoner actor who’s making a difference in schools

Last week I met a man so extraordinary and so fascinating that I simply have to tell you about him here - as well as mentioning him in a slightly wider context in a forthcoming piece for the training page in The Stage.

Karl Smith, 26, was released from prison last May after serving seven and half years for very serious crimes including drug dealing and ‘gang stuff.’ He was excluded from school aged 12 and never got back into mainstream education. And it was an insular life. “Apart from going to school I’d never really left Brixton Hill where I lived until I went to prison,” he told me.

He’s physically a very big man but gentle, cerebral, thoughtful and astonishingly articulate for someone who had so little schooling. When I tease him gently about the latter, he says, “Well I had time to read a lot of books, didn’t I? I also did every course which was on offer while I was in prison, including some Open University ones. But I’m self educated really. I always read with a dictionary at hand because I don’t like not knowing what words mean, so I look up any which are new to me.”

I am talking to Smith during a break in rehearsals for Holloway Jones by Evan Placey. It is Synergy Theatre Project’s new play and it tours to schools, young offenders institutions and referral units next month as well as having a short run at Unicorn Theatre. Smith is employed full time by Synergy (“Yes, they’re paying me - I’m earning my living!”) and plays various roles in Holloway Jones, including a policeman. In the rehearsal he is totally professional, alert and, without being pushy, makes several constructive suggestions to director Esther Baker. Smith is evidently a great asset to the company.

When Holloway Jones - and other Synergy plays - go into schools they are followed by workshops which explore the surrounding issues - typically the ways in which young people get into crime, the choices they face, the criminal justice system and the reality of prison. Smith is a trained workshop leader who has no difficulty getting his CRB check for different situations and local authorities. “Because I believe in complete disclosure and I’m very honest with the kids I meet too.”

Smith has been involved in this sort of “crime diversion” work since 2008 when he happened to see in Brixton prison Synergy’s artistic director/founder Esther Baker, who has worked with prisoners and ex-prisoners for 17 years. “It’s very unusual to see a woman not in uniform inside a men’s prison so I spoke to her. She was putting up posters about a production of Roy Williams’s Fall Out she was going to do. I thought maybe I could do some stage management, but after the read-though Esther said ‘Hey, you’ve really got to be in this play.’ ”

He has, it turned out, a talent for acting and a number of other plays followed with Smith - by now at Ford open prison - released on licence to take part. Synergy stages plays, often in partnership with other organisations, in mainstream theatres too, usually using casts consisting of prisoners, ex-prisoners and professional actors. Smith was appearing in one of these at the time of his release. “On the day when I was released from prison in May I appeared at Soho Theatre in the West End in the evening - quite a contrast” he says with a chuckle.

Obviously an ideal person to talk to young people about staying out of trouble, he says: “In school workshops I make it clear that I can’t and won’t tell them what to do, but I want them to see that there are paths in front of them and obviously some ways forward are better than others.” He continues: “But I also point out to them that even if they get onto the wrong path - as I did - then all is not lost and there are ways back.”

I left the rehearsal thinking that, in an ideal world, every teenager would spend half an hour talking to Smith. Crime rates and prison numbers would plummet.

Holloway Jones is touring schools and other organisations until November 4, with two performances at the Unicorn Theatre on November 2 and 3.

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