By the time Patrick Keating was transferred from a Quebec Prison to Abbotsford’s Matsqui Institution, he had been in prison roughly five years, not counting juvenile detention.
The transfer came during his second stint for conspiracy to commit armed robbery, the time between his two convictions, a scant two years.
“I was a bit of an idiot when I was younger,” he says. Altogether Keating spent 10 years on the inside, all to feed a drug addiction.
Keating’s transfer to BC came after the 1980 Quebec referendum.
“There was a lot of tension with the guards, they were not happy,” he says. “One day I went back to the range – that’s where the individual cells are – there were posters put up that any anglophones who wanted to be transferred out of province just had to say.”
At the time he was writing to a young woman on the Lower Mainland who suggested he come to BC.
“It usually takes a while to get a transfer but within five months they put me on a plane out here,” he says.
Back then, the University of Victoria was providing courses in the federal system and theatre was a popular choice. Keating was keen on writing, but had never seen a theatrical production.
“At first I was taken aback. (The instructor) wanted to teach me to clown, I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ Especially when you’re inside – I’m not a big man, I didn’t want to walk around with a big red nose on,” he says. “I was guarded. I kept things close to the vest but he won me over.”
Shortly after, Tamanhous theatre company brought a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days to the prison.
In the play Winnie, buried to her waist in sand, follows her daily routine and prattles to her husband: “Oh this is a happy day.” In Act II she is buried up to her neck, but continues to talk and remember happier days.
“I thought – this is my life,” says Keating, drawing a parallel between himself and the trapped woman.
He was invited by Tamanhous to study with them after he was released.
“They brought me in and let me go down to the rehearsal hall and watch. I became a sponge and started to get into it.”
His time as a free man was again short-lived. After two years a car accident left him in constant pain. “It crushed the left side of my body, I lost a lot of bones in my face. It was pretty bad. They gave me painkillers and that led me back onto the path … That’s not an excuse, I made the choice to do it,” he says.
“When I went back to the penitentiary, I decided that’s what I really wanted to do when I got out again. I would try to pursue (acting) as much as I could.”
He was released from prison for the final time in 1989 and began attending Simon Fraser University.
“I was living in a half-way house when I went into the theatre department. … I was pushing 40, most people in the class were in their late teens and early 20s.”
This time, though, he was determined to keep his nose clean and began getting jobs as a set decorator and actor in Vancouver’s busy film and TV industry of the mid-1990’s.
For more than a quarter century, Keating kept his prison past to himself, sharing stories only occasionally with friends at Main Street Theatre.
Main Street’s co-artistic director Josh Drebit encouraged him to write the story as a fundraiser for the theatre. “I wanted to help out and it gave me a deadline, so I agreed to do it,” Keating says.
Keating performs Inside/Out: A Prison Memoir at Intrepid Theatre’s Uno Fest May 18 to 29.
“I don’t make excuses. I just tell my story,” he says. “I made the choices to do those things. Nobody pushed me into it. I had a good home – a lot of people I met inside had rough upbringings – but I didn’t have that, I had a good family. The only thing was getting into drugs and even that was me choosing to do that to get money. Lots of people do drugs and don’t do (robberies). I did.”
Reaction to the show has been mostly positive, he says.
“A lot of people don’t know that world at all so they’re interested in it. There are a lot of myths surrounding those walls,” Keating says. “The walls keep people in but those walls also keep people out.”