Magazine article The Spectator

Putting Criminals on Stage

Magazine article The Spectator

Putting Criminals on Stage

Article excerpt

Felicia 'Snoop' Pearson was a drug dealer, with a five-year stretch for murder behind her and no nice future ahead. But then a random meeting in a Baltimore nightclub, with an actor in the hit TV show The Wire, led to a starring part for herself in the story about the lives and fortunes of hustlers and cops and pimps and politicians.

She plays to type, a drug-dealer and murderer, and in the role she has found a sort of redemption, and a deeper truth: 'Ain't saying I'm the best actor out there -- I know I'm not -- but I also know that acting, by showing me how to feel, also showed me I hadn't been feeling at all. You can't sell dope all day and still feel. You can't kill niggas and still feel. You just can't.' My wife Emma and I use that quotation to explain why we put criminals on stage, and sell tickets to the public to come and watch them. Creative expression feeds the soul, while the sensation of applause mainlines affirmation into people who have usually got their kicks and their comforts in other, more destructive ways.

The useful irony of acting yourself, or someone like yourself, is that it creates a distance from the personality you have assumed -- one's 'character' is revealed as just that, an acquisition which can be analysed and altered. We have seen great changes in our members, and so far none of the men and women we have worked intensively with has returned to prison. Audiences, meanwhile, get more than the voyeuristic tingle of 'reality theatre': they watch actors who make up for their lack of professional polish with an abundance of raw integrity.

The process is this. Emma goes into prisons -- so far HMPs Wormwood Scrubs, Pentonville and Holloway -- to lead workshops and direct plays for audiences of prisoners and outside guests. She actively seeks out those who have an aptitude for the arts, both the show-offs and the shy. Once they are chosen, we help our new members prepare for release, trying to put in place the support they will need when they get out. At that point, they come to our theatre in King's Cross, to work together over six weeks on a drama production and resettlement programme. Mornings are spent in rehearsal, and afternoons in a structured programme of group work and one-to-one sessions with counsellors and advisers.

The programme reflects the wisdom of E.M. Forster's famous line from which we take our name: 'Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.' The men and women we work with are often intelligent, charismatic -- and failed at school.

They got bored too soon, caused chaos in the classroom and were thrown out. What they needed, and still need, is passion: the creative stimulation, within clear professional boundaries, of a collaborative arts project.

The 'passion' of theatre work establishes a relationship, builds up trust, and opens the heart so the 'prose' can get in. This is the difficult, often boring, always challenging business of life: training and employment, accommodation, financial management; the vital things which 'passionless' agencies and organisations struggle to make interesting to people with creative imaginations, short attention spans, and a history of disappointment in their dealings with officialdom.

For most of our members theatre is the means, not the end: we don't try to guide them into careers as actors. But we want to do more than simply neutralise criminals.

The prospect of going straight, for a prolific offender, can seem a descent from someone to no one, from an identity to a nullity. …

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