Last week I spent a couple of hours in prison — a first for me. I learned a lot about how the security works, the bleakness of the infrastructure, how pleasant and affable most of the staff are, and — crucially — how much drama can do to help the troubled, low-ebb, edgy people who’ve landed themselves there.
Esther Baker, artistic director of Synergy Theatre Project which specialises in this sort of work, is directing David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross at HMP Brixton. She has a cast of prisoners working with professional actor, Rocky Marshall (Ed Keating in Holby City).
Ackie, her stage manager, is an ex-prisoner whom Baker first worked with when he was still in prison. She has employed him on several projects in the three years since his release and he has also freelanced with other companies.
At Brixton she has access to her cast for about four hours a day - two hours each morning and afternoon when inmates have “freeflow.” That means, one of them explained to me, time when they can move “off the wing” and move freely around the prison to take part in activities. The rehearsal period is four weeks and they were just half way through when I caught up with them.
“Everything has been actioned and we’ve pretty well blocked the whole play,” Baker tells me, adding that RSC Voice Coach, Kate Godfrey, went in a few days earlier to support the requisite Chicago accents. I watched several scenes and the play is certainly shaping up promisingly.
So what makes these men opt for drama as an activity? “I’d studied performing arts and drama at college,” says Valentine, who arrived at the prison in March and thinks he will serve about a year. “It really is what I want to do and I’m hoping I shall be able to carry on working with Esther after my release.”
Daniel, on the other hand, who used to work in Next and has never imagined working in anything but retail, has no previous drama experience. “Esther made it sound very appealing and I was looking for a new activity,” he says. He anticipates release in June having, like Valentine, begun serving his sentence in March. “Then I shall be guided by Esther about the future. I’d like to work in theatre, but I’m willing to do anything from working on scripts, stage management, technical stuff or acting. I’ll train in whatever she thinks I’d be best at.”
I begin to detect self-esteem reasserting itself and feel that, yes, there is a flicker of hope for a better future for these men.
Not that it always works first time. Another prisoner was someone I’d met before at Synergy’s base at Riverside Studios last year when he’d been released from prison, was working on a short contract for Synergy and seemed very positive. Now what he describes as “one stupid night during the riots last summer” has put him back in prison, this time for two and a half years. I found him rueful, regretful - but forward looking. He hopes to get “promoted” to Category D next year which means he’ll be in an open wing and able to go out of the prison to work. Meanwhile, an articulate man and a talented actor, he is earning “credit” by acting as an official counsellor within the prison.
So why Glengarry Glen Ross? “I think it’s a marvellous play and it’s challenging enough to stretch them,” says Baker. “It has good characters, power struggles and cultural relevance.”
When I interviewed Soho Theatre’s artistic director, Steve Marmion, earlier this year, Esther Baker’s name came up. “She does some excellent work and she can’t half direct,” he said. I’m certain the men she’s currently working with would agree.
Glengarry Glen Ross will be performed in Brixton Prison Chapel on May 30 and 31.