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  • Tracing the Journey to Here:Reflections on a Prison Theatre Devised Project
  • Monica Prendergast (bio)

Here: A Captive Odyssey was a devised theatre piece co-produced by William Head on Stage Prison Theatre Company and the Prison Arts Collective. The play traced the history of William Head Peninsula, which is thirty kilometers outside of Victoria, British Columbia. The devised ensemble play was performed to public audiences that were allowed into the prison after passing through security screening. The show ran from 8 October to 7 November 2015 and played to over 1,700 people, about half of whom had never before attended a William Head on Stage production.

Due to my insider perspectives in this project—working as co-creator and co-performer while also taking on roles as co-facilitator, acting mentor, and vocal coach—I will take on a reflective practitioner voice to consider my experiences of the project.1

William Head on Stage and the Prison Arts Collective Partnership

William Head on Stage (WHoS) is the longest-running prison theatre company in Canada, now in its thirty-fourth year. The company emerged out of a course offered by the University of Victoria’s Department of Theatre, and for many years the department’s students and instructors were involved. However, over the past twenty years or so community theatre artists from Victoria have been the outside collaborators. The inmate-run company chooses who directs its annual fall productions and negotiates what it wishes to work on each year.

The company is run by a board of four or five inmates who are more experienced with WHoS. The board invites outside theatre artists to work with the company and pays stipends to hire directors, designers, and actors. These amounts vary year to year according to grants and budgets, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Here received $20,000 in grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Capital Regional District Arts Development Office. The William Head Institution controls the company’s monies, and all payments in and out involve prison program officers who liaise between the company and the outside world. It is a complicated and challenging process, especially when bringing design materials, props, and costumes into the prison. Securing gate passes for every item is very time-consuming and inspections at the gate can be stressful. But when things run smoothly, with plenty of cooperation from the staff, WHoS projects build significant goodwill in the larger community. Around 1,500 people come to see a show at William Head each fall. It is for this reason, I believe, that so many staff members offer their time and make the effort to support WHoS.

In the recent past, the company has been encouraged to move into devising its own plays rather than mounting preexisting ones. In 2010 SNAFU Dance Theatre’s collaboration with WHoS led to a physical theatre production called Chalk that presented an inmate ensemble of six male actors and two female SNAFU members. Then SNAFU’s co-artistic director Ingrid Hansen approached Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Theatre and proposed a 2013 co-production with WHoS called Fractured Fables. This show was an adult puppet theatre play that wove together original fables performed with [End Page 343] puppets and monologues of childhood memories performed by the inmate actors. In 2014 WHoS approached local director, actor, and teacher Kate Rubin (who had appeared in two previous WHoS shows and also directed The Hobbit) with the popular book by Mitch Albom, Five People You Meet in Heaven. This source material about how one’s actions can resonate through many people’s lives over time was adapted into Time Waits for No One and proved to a be a popular and critical success.

Early in 2015, WHoS’s board members approached Rubin to facilitate and direct another new play, this time based on a book the men had encountered about the history of William Head, Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872–1959, by Vancouver historian Peter Johnson. This land has been home to a federal medium- and now a minimum-security penitentiary over the past fifty years. The prison has...