Finding a release in stagecraft

What makes the fledgling Escape Artists Theatre Company so extraordinary is its birthplace. As the name implies, its members, now a professional group, are former prisoners. It is also noteworthy that recent changes in prison life would ensure any similar venture would now be stillborn.

While serving time in Wormwood Scrubs, Paul Malcolm was invited to join a drama group, despite having no theatrical experience. Before its first production, he was transferred to Wayland prison in Norfolk.

He found the acting bug had bitten and in 1990, along with other inmates, he persuaded first the prison's education department and then higher authorities to invite professional director, Matthew Taylor, to become their visiting director.

Several productions resulted. There was, for example, an incredibly intense interpretation of John Wilson's drama For King and Country, featuring the 1917 court martial of a young soldier charged with cowardice.

Realistic props such as pistols may have been missing for obvious reasons,but the cast's abilities shone through.

Now the leading members of the group are out of prison, they have reunited to form Escape Artists - again under Matthew Taylor's direction.

Their first production, Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter, recently had a three-week run in a London fringe theatre, and has played at other diverse venues including Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge.

This latter performance (gripping in the extreme) resulted from a partnership with the Cambridge Arts Theatre, an enterprise which aims to develop projects in both the formal and community education sectors throughout Cambridgeshire. The Hills Road performance was followed by the company's first workshop. Interestingly and remarkably, the discussion focused entirely on the play and the production: no one raised the group's provenance.

Besides being determined to continue such outreach work, Escape Artists also wants to help other former prisoners. "If there are released prisoners interested in theatre, it's a place where they can get a training," says Paul Malcolm.

The group is also working with other theatre companies interested in taking work into prisons where there is now much less "home-produced" drama - and nothing like there was at Wayland.

"The atmosphere now tends to prohibit drama," says Paul Malcolm.

"Prisoners are perceived to be 'having a good time' if they take part in a play." He is convinced of theatre's educational value. "I believe strongly in the power of theatre . . . to effect great personal change within individuals. I've experienced this and seen it in others."

Among the plays his group produced in prison were Waiting for Godot and one featuring the Antarctic explorer, Scott. Considering also the fact that The Dumb Waiter is about two men who are, in effect, their employer's prisoners, it would seem the group has a deliberate policy of presenting plays about isolation, waiting and imprisonment.

Paul Malcolm thinks this is merely accidental. So far, the aim has been to find strong plays with men-only casts. Nevertheless, the next play has a similar theme: Someone Who'll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness is about three men held hostage in a Beirut cell.

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is at the Etcetera Theatre, Camden, from January 28 to February 16.

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