Staging Time was a programme of activity delivered throughout 2019 at HMP Stafford. This activity concentrated on the facilitation of three 10-day performing arts residencies delivered in partnership with Professor Hilary Marland from University of Warwick’s Centre for the History of Medicine. The idea for these residencies grew from the success of an earlier project, Past Time , which was the result of a special commission by a Wellcome Trust five year research programme Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000. Where Past Time had focused on the history of prison food, Staging Time offered prisoners a chance to explore other aspects of prison history. The residencies were open to all men at Stafford but a special emphasis was put on including men who had learning disabilities or were autistic, or were showing symptoms of early stage dementia. We commissioned researchers from Staffordshire University to make an evaluation of Staging Time. Preliminary results are discussed in Informing Prison Theatre Improvement through World Café Conversations with Prisoners by Sarah Page and Nicola Gratton, published in Prison Service Journal No 248 which can be downloaded here . Further journal articles are in press, details of which will be made available here in due course.
1. Biomechanics of the Treadwheel: February 2019. The first of the three residencies led to an original piece of contemporary dance looking at the history of hard labour in Victorian prisons. Performed by 12 men aged 22 to 76 and choreographed by Dave McKenna from Being Frank Physical Theatre, the devising process also included an exploration of the actor training methodology developed by the early twentieth century Russian theatre director, Vsevolod Meyerhold. Meyerhold is famous for his Biomechanic Etudes – sequences of physical actions designed to help actors ‘think with their bodies’. As part of the devising process, men were taught a biomechanic etude and created their own based on the movements of hard labour, details of which are available in a short pamphlet here. Furthermore, during this project we were able to work with illustrator Paul Gent who was able to document some of the rehearsals and final performance. You can see some of his work in the Gallery
I just wanted to email you to send you and the Rideout team my congratulations on the performance yesterday.
It was an amazing profound experience to be present at the men’s performance, a privilege. The quality of the performance was excellent along with the engagement, commitment and pride from the performers in what they had created. There was a genuine sense of ownership of the work.
I was also stuck by the support you have nurtured from the prison and understand that the development of this relationship is absolutely integral to making the whole experience, process and outcome a success.
The performance and experience of this will stay with me for a long time to come and will be feeding back in detail to my fellow Arts Council Champions.
Again, Congratulations to all, especially the team both from Rideout and at the prison, but especially to the performers.
Yael Owen-Mckenna, West Midlands Champion for Arts in Health, Well-Being and Criminal Justice, Arts Council England
2. More Fool than Knave: July 2019. The second residency culminated in the creation of a piece of bunraku puppetry. A group of 12 men worked with the Rideout team and the puppeteer Dylan Tate to both present, and film, a performance that reflected the experiences of prisoners who were classed as ‘weak-minded’. In particular we reflected on a wide range of historical source documentation in an attempt to interpret descriptions of behaviours that, nowadays, might be indicators of someone who is autistic and/or has a learning disability. The film of this show is currently subject to release approval by the prison service. Should it be possible to share the film, you can see it here.
Today I went to Stafford Prison to watch More Fool than Knave, which was a really difficult thing to do any justice too.
Brilliant? Moving? Unique? Sad/real/happy/hopeful/thought provoking theatre show about criminal justice system and people with autism and other psychological differences from the 19th century till now. We met and cared for George, a male character with autism (and wooden puppet) and watched him struggle with the 19th century consequences for being different, and celebrated the monumental changes criminal justice reform can have on people’s lives. It’s incredible what talent, team work, and dedication can do with 3 expressionless (albeit beautifully dressed) chunks of wood, and 10 days to create such an emotive, choreographed and sadly still relevant story.
Holly Norcop, Movie Mavericks
3. Ghost Songs of the Conscientious Objectors: November 2019. The final residency was a co-production with the Irene Taylor Trust Music in Prisons Project . Working with Rideout on this project we also had participatory theatre specialist and song-writer, Aidan Jolly. The focus of our investigation in this project was on the creation of a ‘secular service’ using song and text to share the experience of World War 1 conscientious objectors who were imprisoned for their beliefs, and the impact they had on subsequent prison reforms. The format for this was slightly different from the first two residencies in so much as we worked with an initial group of 12 men for the first 5 days, and then introduced a further 8 men to join the choir for the second 5 days. The response to the final performance was so strong that we decided to make both the songs and accompanying text available for use by other choirs. You can download it here , the songs from the show were recorded in the prison as part of the process – listen to one of the songs here
I was amazed not only by the performance, but also by the commitment and energy that the inmates were putting in it (as I was here for two days watching due to a work project). It was amazing seeing the prisoners concentrated, singing, playing music and some knew all by heart. The reader did a great job in being a narrator, especially as he is dyslexic and autistic. I’m sure it has helped him in coming out of his shell and feeling self-accomplished. At times a prisoner helped another in attaching a badge, during the performance, which shows camaraderie. Overall I feel that performances like these boost the inmates, enhancing self-worth, self-esteem, self-accomplishment, teamwork, camaraderie and their creative side. I hope such projects are done all year long and continuously.
Audience member, performance on 14 November 2019
Illustrations: Paul Gent