“It’s the juxtaposition of freedom and restraint; individuality and responsibility,” says Ian Case, director of this year’s production of Gormenghast at the William Head Institution. “The people of Gormenghast are immobilized by a version of the world that they draw from ancient laws and traditions. Without a force to move them, they would not think, or change. They would never re-examine their beliefs.”
The general public’s beliefs about men in federal prisons are certainly challenged by the inmates performing and producing the plays at William Head. “It turns their world upside down,” says Steve, speaking of the members of the public who come to see the plays.
Steve (not his real name: he’s on parole now and doesn’t want any publicity as he starts his new life outside prison) is the former head of the William Head On Stage theatre group that has been mounting plays for 30 years now. Gormenghast marks its 50th play in the Institution.
“People get to see real prisoners inside a prison and realize that they’re just people who have made mistakes in their lives and are trying to recover and do something positive with the rest of their lives,” he says.
Steve led the group for 12 years and saw some amazing transformations of opinion. “During the breaks and before and after the production, the public can talk to inmates working the play,” says Steve. “They also get to see some examples of other crafts and artwork produced by prisoners; I think people are surprised. There’s a lot of talented men behind bars.”
Still, in some ways the federal prison system remains as unchanging as the rules of Gormenghast. Steve is not currently allowed to return to William Head to watch the productions of the company he once led; at least not until he’s successfully served a portion of his parole. It’s viewed as a security issue. Things have tightened up in other ways, too. The company can no longer film the productions for their archives or even name the inmate actors.
“That changed about two years ago,” says Steve. “It’s a reflection of a current ideology of punishment. It’s pretty negative, but that comes from a higher level in the system. I give full marks to the administration at William Head for standing by the company and making the plays possible. Those plays have the capacity to change men’s lives.”
Kate Rubin agrees. She’s one of the actors who volunteer time and talent to make the plays possible.
“I’ve seen amazing transformations,” says Rubin. “I’ve seen men move from suspicion to trust, and from a lack of belief in what they can accomplish to men who are positive and confident in their abilities.”
And perhaps that’s the most important aspect of the company’s productions. Rubin says, “It’s a chance for the men in prison to work as a team toward a common goal and to discover that even if you screw up a little you can get through it and still be successful.”
It’s a lesson that is learned not only by the actors. “The whole production is planned and executed by prisoners,” says Case. “They hire outside staff, run the budget for the play, pick the production, and do all the backstage work. It’s a major undertaking and it’s all done by the prisoners.”
Unlike other programs within William Head, this part of the inmate’s lives is not funded by tax dollars.
“The productions are paid for by the fund established from the revenue generated by previous productions. The men take a lot of pride in what they put forward and they should. It’s a fabulous company and I wish that there was a theatre like this in every prison in the country,” says Case. “It demonstrates the realized potential of these men; allows them to believe in themselves and shows them that you don’t have to let past mistakes weigh you down and prevent a success in the future.” M
Fri and Sat nights until Nov. 12
William Head Institution
Tickets $20 available at My Chosen Café and at 250 383 2663 or ticketrocket.org