A great escape

A unique project brings together five women's prisons. Reva Klein gets the inside story

So, ladies," says the woman dressed like a prison warder to the women who are playing prisoners, "what do you want?" One by one, the women tell her their heart's desire. "Freedom." "I want to be lying on a beach with my son." "Sex." "I'd like to be clean of drugs." "I want to be in my bathroom with my organic shampoo."

The fact that the women playing warder and prisoners are all inmates of Holloway Prison and that their audience are fellow prisoners makes this seemingly innocuous scene gut-wrenchingly poignant. It's a brief excerpt from a short theatre piece that was facilitated by the acclaimed theatre company Theatre de Complicite. As the drama component of an ambitious cross-arts project, Take Five, bringing together five women's prisons across the country, it is part of the first large-scale programme of its kind to take place in this country.

Coordinated by Clean Break, a theatre company founded by women prisoners and ex-offenders 18 yeas ago, the idea of Take Five is to encourage women prisoners to share their experiences through the arts and to communicate them to others. Pauline Gladstone, education officer of Clean Break, explains why this work is so important. "Women's experience of prison is about being moved from one place to another, often with little or no notice. Our idea was to stimulate different, creative relationships between prisoners."

It has been different, all right. The project has fitted together like a chain letter. Starting in January 1996, Clean Break's writer in residence, Lavinia Murray, kicked off the whole thing at Styal Prison with a six-month creative writing programme which led to the creation of a group poem. The poem was sent to HMP Cookham Wood, where a visual artist worked with women, using the poem as a stimulus to create an artistic response in a variety of media.

From there, the Holloway women used the poem and piece of art as a catalyst for the devising of a drama, following six days of workshops with Joyce Henderson and Clive Mendus of Complicite.

Their theatre piece was filmed on video and sent to HMP Bullwood Hall, where musicians from City University worked with prisoners to create a soundtrack for the film, during which they were filmed themselves. Editing of the video was undertaken by six women prisoners from East Sutton Park Prison, resulting in a 15-minute film weaving together all aspects of the filmed project, after which the final soundtrack was added by the Bullwood Hall prisoners.

Complicated, yes. But also intensely creative, engaging and eye-opening for the participants. And exciting, since the film is to be simultaneously transmitted to each prison on International Women's Day on March 8.

What did the Holloway prisoners make of it? Kim, who was a student at Mountview Drama School before being convicted, admitted that the masterplan of one group's work triggering another's imagination did not quite work to plan. "Most of us didn't like the poems that were sent from Cookham Wood. They were too sad. We didn't want to be reminded that we were in prison. So we came up with our own ideas."

In the event, the end result was very much about the women's anger at the loss of control over their lives that a prison sentence represented. But for Donna, the real focus of the project was in the way that it broke down barriers between the women. "We played silly games and have become closer as a result. Doing drama has made us feel more human, instead of just convicts. It's an escape. It's released us."

For Pauline Gladstone, their responses are just what Clean Break was aiming to evoke. "We work with therapeutic aims. Part of that effect comes through meeting both a person's persona and the person underneath when you do drama. This is particularly important in a prison context, where you need a strong persona in order to survive. What we're doing here is something between drama therapy and drama as art."

For Katriona and Corinne, two young pregnant prisoners who will have their babies at Holloway, the theatre work had particular resonances. Both had done A-level drama and Corinne had been offered a college place to read Theatre Studies. For her, "this has restored some form of normality. It takes you back in time, to when things were better."

Theatre de Complicite: 0171 700 0233

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