Pride of Polmont

Charlotte Bozic attended the premiere of ‘Home: A Philosophy’, performed by inmates at HMYOI Polmont

I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the performance of ‘Home; A Philosophy’ devised by Jeremy Weller and Mark Traynor of the Grassmarket Project in partnership with Fife College and Creative Scotland, and written and performed by Polmont HMYOI inmates.

According to the invite, the performance and story were based upon the experiences of six young men who think they are free, in fact, they are in prisons everywhere:  the prison of their bodies, physically held but most of all, they are held in a prison of their own personal anguish.  They search for ‘home’ through love, amongst their friends and in trying to change their lives, find a way to begin again.

The audience included family members, some of whom had made a long journey to be there. It gave an added sense of pride and joy to the afternoon, which I felt privileged to be part of.

After a long wait, which nobody seemed particularly perturbed by, the actors entered the room in high spirits. The sense of trust and goodwill between the young men and their teachers described by Jeremy and Mark was evident; as Jeremy joked: “Sometimes they were the ones doing the directing!”

Another thing that stood out, and was commented on by everyone, was their bravery. To stand up in front of an audience and your peers is daunting at the best of times, but to do it when you’ve never done anything like it before,  and have been told that you’d never be capable of doing such a thing, takes a huge amount of courage to screw to the sticking place and not fail.

After their initial shyness, the actors simply shone. Delivery was sometimes mumbled, bursts of laughter were inevitable, but none of it mattered – what captivated us the young men on stage, sharing their lives, hearts, dreams and disappointments.

The format of the play followed the lives of two young men as they were released from Polmont. Both made strong attempts to fit back into civilian life – but as one of them admitted: “No matter how hard I try, I always end up going back and doing the same thing”.

Weaving throughout the narrative were true-life accounts from the performers, either relating to their own experiences or those of others. One lad described how six months in Afghanistan had changed his perspective on death; another confided how taking ecstasy had affected his personality. All were honest, and all were deeply moving.  I didn’t feel pity, only respect and admiration. These are the young men you read about in the headlines, the ones we’re meant to fear. Yet as flawed as they are (as we all may be) they came across as honest, vulnerable…and very young.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with Positive Prison? Positive Futures…at last week’s youth justice conference.  The man I was chatting to had served time and wanted to help others in the same situation. He told me just how hard it is to reintegrate back into the ‘ordinary’ world after serving your sentence. This was echoed by one of the actors, who admitted: “I like the routine that comes with jail. Once you’re out, the buzz of seeing your family and friends wears off…and you get back to your old ways. I like being back (in jail) because I have a routine again.”

Laughter warmed the afternoon, with some wickedly well-timed asides from the actors.  A performance by J, a strapping six-foot inmate as ‘Sandra’ caused much mirth – particularly amongst his watching family!

It was clear to me that acting gives the young men the chance to be themselves, to act out their frustrations and encourage them to achieve what they didn’t think was possible. When I spoke to Jeremy Weller of the Grassmarket Project, which supports people through transitions in their lives and re-connects disengaged people, he strongly agreed.

“Drama gives the boys a space to let off steam, and vent their feelings,” he explained. “The art is just a framework for everything else, for emotions to be played out. Through this, we’re able to give the boys an opportunity to explore who they really are.”

A buffet followed the play, giving the inmates valuable time to spend with their families and mingle with the audience. One inmate told us how much the drama workshop gave him something to look forward to, another confessed that acting is something he’d like to pursue, and we even got an autograph, signed on a paper plate. The sense of pride in the room was tangible, as families chatted, inmates teased each other and praise was given again and again.

The only reminder that Polmont is a prison came when the order for time up was given, albeit respectfully. As we filed out gratefully from the overheated room, looked forward to feeling the fresh air on our faces, I couldn’t help think of the proud young men who would be returning to their cells. But hopefully, with a sense of achievement and renewed determination.

Perhaps the best words to finish on are from J aka Sandra:

“They say every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future…and I’m looking forward to mine.”

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Lost boy found

Doubting Thomas, the play that tells the story of Thomas ‘Tosh’ McCrudden, has been the talk of the Edinburgh Fringe. Pamela Morrison went on a journey with this ‘lost boy’ to experience a powerful tale of reintegration, responsibility and redemption.

As a new member of the CYCJ practice team, I am keen to get out and about and learn as much as I possibly can. I jumped, therefore, at the opportunity to go along to the Edinburgh Festival to support a good friend of the Centre, Tosh McCrudden in his show ‘Doubting Thomas’. Having attended the Edinburgh Festival several times before to see comedy performances I wondered how the subject matter of the show was going to work. Often when working in the area of youth and criminal justice you can find yourself in a bubble where your networks involve others who are like-minded and display views that may not be held by the general community. I was excited and curious to see how the show would be performed, to show the truth of the story without it being glamorised for the purpose of the audience. I was soon to be pleasantly and humbly surprised.

The theatre was almost full and I was immediately taken aback by the apparent popularity of the show. The offer to the audience of being taken “on a journey, to a place and a world that at times may feel uncomfortable to them” was clearly something that people wanted to experience. The performance started with ‘doubting Thomas’ (Tosh) discussing with the director the importance of sharing his story and his feelings of nervousness and anxiety in doing so. From the offset the message was clear “Judge me now, don’t judge me for the past” and the term “lost boys” was introduced.

The passion and dedication beamed from Tosh and the other performers. I was moved by that they had the bravery to share their stories despite them clearly having a sense of sadness and helplessness towards their past. It depicted relationships and ‘friendships’ they held at a difficult time in their lives and how these fed into a cycle of offending and negative decision making. Tosh discussed feeling unable to trust people, feeling trapped, being unable to show emotion and feeling let down by society. This was a theme that was revisited throughout – lost boys, forgotten and discarded by society.

One scene that stood out for me as being particularly hard-hitting was that of Tosh and the director who was eager to share Tosh’s story, but in doing so wanted to somewhat dramatise the story to represent the level of violence. Tosh’s powerful and energetic message left the audience in no doubt that the violence discussed was in no way something to be dramatised. He described it as “passing a box of fear” with each box of fear being held by an individual for the rest of their days. The pause after this scene was very moving, the audience was stunned into silence.

The scenes in the performance switched from those depicting Tosh’s story to those where he reflected on his life and his journey. He was able to acknowledge the point in his life, whilst in custody, where he could feel that change had occurred; for the first time, he could experience feelings of empathy that he hadn’t experienced before, the feeling that he was more than the person he was pretending to be. Finally, he could feel his mask had come off. Following this, it hit him that he wasn’t the only one, as he looked at others it was clear that they all had masks on and for the first time he was able to see past this, into their eyes, their mistakes and their soul. This change allowed him to support others which in turn gave Tosh a feeling of having importance, worth and purpose.

This was the beginning of the change he experienced and was the beginning of the challenges he would face in doing so. In the community, he had a reputation and those ‘friendships’ that had meant so much to his life before were now testing his will and desire to change. This continues to be an area of importance where the difficulties of embedding back into society are often not overcome and individuals find themselves back on the cycle of offending.

Tosh was clear in his reflections that taking individual responsibility is important, however, it is also the responsibility of society, those living in communities like you and me, to ensure that ‘lost boys’ are found.

Throughout the play, I was impressed by the high quality of acting that was displayed by Tosh and the other performers. To my knowledge, none had been trained as actors and it was striking that they were able to conduct themselves in such a professional and instrumental manner. Although, it soon became clear that Tosh, amongst others, had been ‘acting’ for years, acting every day for the majority of their lives, acting like people that were not a reflection of their true selves – something they had become very good at.

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Catriona Anderson

COSCA Cert (with distinction), BSc (Hons), MSc (Edin).
Published Freelance Social Science Researcher

Specific interest in counselling processes and their relationship with power, politics, marginalization and class.

Catriona Anderson was a Speech and Language Therapist working for the National Health Service in Scotland for nearly 20 years. During this time she was also a member of her profession’s Scottish Committee, a departmental audit and quality coordinator, devised and ran workshops for parents and teaching staff, and a Child Protection Trainer. Three years studying for a Masters In Counselling Theory (2010 – 2013) has found her studying politics, power and class and she now spends her time immersed in the research and writing of politics, class, marginalized groups, and mental health. She is currently devising a PhD looking into the outcomes of immersive theatre and drama-based self-narrative as a social healing process.

This Is Life
This is my experience, as an audience member, of the real-life drama performance by women at Saughton Prison, Edinburgh, directed by Jeremy Weller.

The Story
Mark is a drama student just out of university, eager to make his way and make a difference through working with marginalised groups. However, his personal life is interfering with his work, as he feels pressure from his boss and as his girlfriend leaves him. He begins work with a group of female ex-offenders and struggles with his own awareness of his effect on the women, and their effect on him, as well as the messages they are trying to get across through their own behaviour and through the creation of their own ‘play’ without Mark’s help.

The ‘ex-offenders’
Katie is lonely and wants someone to talk to. Her mum died and she stole money to pay for the funeral. Irene is not happy taking part in the drama project, but she has to attend. Rio does not want to be there but she gets involved. Hayley is just back from doing a tour of Afghanistan and has PTSD and has become very paranoid. Sid is searching for love but people take advantage of her. She is hiding. Michelle is with Kelly. She is worried that she is going to go to jail again and finds comfort in the drama teacher, She wants to change her life. Kelly is always drinking and upsetting her girlfriend Michelle, who is frightened. The performance opens with Mark introducing himself to the women and attempting to engage them. He clearly misses the signals from the group regarding their needs, distracted by his own desire to “make a difference”.

As the performance progresses we get little windows into the experiences of the women; Hayley’s increasingly jumpy behavior as she peers out the drama room windows, firing rapid questions at Mark about who works in the building, as she becomes more paranoid; Michelle seeking out Mark in an attempt to talk about Kelly’s drinking and her fears; Katie trying to understand why, in trying to fulfil her mother’s last dying wishes, she went to prison. At each session, the group end up walking out on Mark as he fails to follow their interests or attend to their needs, so diverted is he by his own agenda and personal issues. Rio especially attempts to collaborate, creating with the other women, in their spare time, a play which we sense as the audience is based on her own fears of release from prison and being wanted, but also her guilt at the stress and pain for her loved ones of being inside. Each time the next set is performed, Mark dismissively congratulates them and moves on to his agenda.

And so the message we get again and again is, ‘This is my story, it affects how I am with you if you listen I will tell it and by telling it we will both understand me better.’ But there is no listening. There is no awareness in Mark of the others in his work. Things escalate, people get hurt and finally, Mark begins to listen. But is it all too late?

As I have come to expect from real life performance, I experienced powerful emotions. The piece was full of a delightful humour which really showcased the women’s rounded personalities. I loved that they could laugh at themselves and us. However, there were also moments which made me want to yell in frustration – notably every time Mark ignored the women’s cries for help, and their attempts to work with him. In Rio’s final ‘play’ sequence, however, was a particularly poignant moment, not in how it affected me but in how it affected another audience member – Irene’s sister who we will call Julie.

“It was a jail sentence for me too.”

Irene is currently serving a prison sentence. Julie her sister has come to see her in the performance This Is Life. Irene is playing Rio’s ‘mother’ in the piece Rio has put together for the mandatory drama group run by Mark. We’ve come almost to the end of the performance. We’ve laughed, sucked in our breath in anger, rolled our eyes in frustration, wiped away quiet tears. Rio has left prison but instead of going straight home she goes out drinking with a friend. She arrives home drunk to a party laid on by her mother Irene but ruined by Rio’s lateness. Explanations are falling on deaf ears, apologies ignored until Irene says that Rio being in prison was “a jail sentence for me too”.

Beside me Julie started to cry, nodding her head quietly. After the performance, when the audience was invited to comment on it, she spoke up, referring to these words and confirming that, although it was her sister Irene in prison, it was a jail sentence for the family on the outside as well and she was really glad that Irene had said that line. The two sisters looked meaningfully at each other across the room and I felt something very special pass between them: an understanding perhaps, an awareness of the other’s experience?

This performance had given both sisters an awareness of the other they hadn’t managed to communicate, and the courage to speak up about it for the first time.

Afterwards, I commented to Julie that it seemed to have been a very powerful and affirming moment in the play for her. She explained that it was because whenever she visited Irene, it always felt like the outside world was an out of bounds topic. With these words, both sisters had been able to communicate about the outside world – one saying, “I get it, I get what this is doing to you”, the other saying, “I hear that you understand my experience now.”

For me personally, as an audience member, I came away thinking about the women and their experiences and what they were telling me within their performance. Even now, weeks afterwards I find myself still thinking about them and wondering how they are. I wonder how they are feeling now that the experiences of being part of the drama group have finished. I wonder how they are coping with their new self-awareness. I wonder how they are dealing with having been open and honest and trusting not just towards their peers, but to Mark and Jeremy, and the audience. I wonder if they are building positively upon their experience. Yet I also wonder about how they decided that this experience was for them, that they would ‘sign up’ to working with Jeremy and Mark. What was it that helped them decide this was something worth doing? What was it that made them stay the course, open up, talk and trust? What made them comfortable with standing before strangers and playing the part of themselves?

Mostly though I am left wondering – what do I do now? How do I take what I have learned through these women and apply it to society? I know I think about them because I have seen beyond the fact that they are in jail, they have offended, and they are receiving punishment. What their performance afforded me was an opportunity to see beyond that part of them. Did it also, then, afford them the same? Did they see an aspect of their selves which they hadn’t considered before, or spoken to, acknowledged or heard? Did they afford me a window into an aspect of myself or indeed the wider community I hadn’t been as aware of as I could?

I know in my own counselling I encountered at least seven other ‘selves’ within me who had all taken on experiences I had and looked after them for me. What did acting parts of themselves ‘on stage’ offer these women? If what I saw was a more whole person, a person who made sense, just by being an audience member for that one performance, then what have these women seen, witnessed and experienced about themselves, and what effect has this had on them? I hope like within me where raising my own awareness of my selves I healed, they have had an opportunity to understand themselves better, to become more aware of how they affect others and are indeed affected by others, but mostly, I hope some healing has taken place. I wish them well, I wish them peace, I wish them clarity and a sense of being, of belonging, of purpose. I experienced the same when I attended a previous performance in another prison.

Even now I think of these performers and they have become people whose lives matter to me. They have become people who count. They have become people I want society to sit up and pay attention to. Mostly, I want society to stop letting them down.

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