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Captivating Theatre Closes

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Issue: 24 Section: Arts Geography: West British Columbia Topics: prison

December 19, 2004

Captivating Theatre Closes

by Jane Henderson

Due to prison security requirements, there are no images to accompany this article.

Canada has just lost its only behind-bars theatre company that performs for the public. "William Head On Stage," a prisoner-run theatre company at William Head Federal Prison in Metchosin, British Columbia, has recently folded after twenty-three years of production and performance. This is a real loss to the arts community of the region and, more crucially, to the lives of the prisoners involved. Most prisoner participants, who are responsible for every aspect of each production, have never been involved with theatre before.

The Firebugs, running October 15-November 6, 2004, turns out to have been WHOS's last performance. Ryan Love, the final president of WHOS, has been at William Head for twelve years. (He will be eligible for day parole in five more.) Love has been predicting problems for WHOS ever since the prison's reclassification from medium to minimum-security prison last year. The institution's reorientation from confinement to pre-release facilities means a far higher turnover of inhabitants, and maintaining a continuing theatre society has become, with reluctance, impossible. Love explained that joining WHOS's Board of Directors used to be a three-year commitment. Today, the average stay at William Head is just six months. Last fall, for example, eighteen of the twenty production participants left the prison, most of them in the week following the show. It's "tough to maintain continuity," said Love. Back in 2001 the company had already cut down from two annual shows to just one.

Unlike most struggling theatre companies, finances were not the reason behind WHOS's disassembly. Budgeting is relevant, yes, but "not the point," says Love. WHOS could "make money every year by doing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" but the hope has always been just to keep afloat and keep exploring. Between 1981-2004, WHOS built up a substantial patron base. About eight hundred regulars could be counted on to attend each production, be it drama or farce. Losing the relationship between fenced-in performers and the surrounding public is disappointing for both. "People love us," Love explains, because "they get to see inside the prison, and they get to see us working hard, without pay, for the benefit of others."

Alienation, entrapment, responsibility, and control have been explored by participants and audiences through famous scripts like "The Elephant Man" and even, in recent years, in dramatic pieces penned by prisoners themselves.
Patrons realize immediately that a ticket to a WHOS production does not mean an ordinary theatre-going experience. William Head Prison occupies a peninsula facing Washington's Olympic Mountains and surrounded on three sides by the murderously cold Pacific. There is a surreal contrast between the prison's astonishingly beautiful natural setting and the barbed wire and security towers that surround it. Upon arrival, guests must empty their pockets, sign waivers, and assemble for the sniffer dogs. Then they are chauffeured by prisoners across William Head's grounds to its temporarily-renovated gym. WHOS has always used this dislocating introduction to its theatre to its best advantage.

Although WHOS's repertoire includes farce and comedy, its most powerful shows have considered themes drawn from its locale and performers. Alienation, entrapment, responsibility, and control have been explored by participants and audiences through famous scripts like "The Elephant Man" and even, in recent years, in dramatic pieces penned by prisoners themselves. Love explains that the performance society itself has always selected the plays, often drawn to compelling dramas which "speak to our condition, and the human condition: as prisoners, in confinement, about class structure, power... the existentialism, all of that."

The Firebugs, WHOS's most recent and now final production, embraced and built from these confines. Max Frisch wrote The Firebugs, "a parable about the dangers of complacency," following the Second World War, wondering how such disaster could come from people with such good intentions. Director Britt Small described their production as "both cruel and strange," and the surreal set and costume design contributed greatly to this sensation. Viewer sympathies meshed with horror as the hapless main characters refused to understand that they were supporting the devilish Firebugs.

This script was also an excellent choice for its range of central and supporting characters. The Firebugs showcased the talents of performers Andy Maxwell (playing Gottlieb Biedermann), Bruce D. Peters (Sepp Schmitz/Beelzebub), and Dustin Taliathan Olson (Willie Eisenring/Lord of the Underworld), each of whom have been involved with WHOS before. At the same time, it offered supporting roles for new performers like the Chorus of Firemen.

The relationship between WHOS and the William Head administration has been a complicated one. The institution's only involvement is for security--for one small example, The Firebugs requires candles, which aren't allowed in the prison, and so had to be officially signed in and out of each rehearsal.

As an entirely extracurricular activity, therefore, WHOS offers powerful personal rewards to prisoners whose lives are otherwise governed by the penal system. On the other hand, because it exists outside the institution's rehabilitation program, WHOS participation does not come up in parole hearings, for example, as something prisoners have achieved. Love spoke with some frustration that "We may as well be the William Head baseball team." Certainly WHOS cited lack of administrative support as a reason for its closure. Some degree of institutional involvement could perhaps lend the necessary continuity to keep WHOS alive.

No studies have assessed the impact of the dramatic society on the lives of its participants. WHOS's members have actually requested that the institution perform studies, believing that WHOS participation greatly reduces the chances of recidivism.

The dramatic society has certainly, over the last two decades, changed some barriers between the prisoners and the public that they are to someday rejoin. One of WHOS's most immediate rewards for both communities has been simply the mingling of the theatre-going public with their convict hosts on performance nights. WHOS's ongoing support from both patrons and community sponsors bespeaks this positive relationship.

The most significant loss, however, is of WHOS's uncalculated effects on its prisoner participants. As one former WHOS member described, life in prison consists of anger and frustration. To be part of such a project and to explore, through drama, the emotional range of ordinary life is invaluable. The loss of this innovative, controversial, means of rehabilitation is a serious one.

Readers interested in supporting the creative output of William Head prisoners may appreciate Out of Bounds, a prison-produced quarterly magazine for both occupants and public. Those interested in learning more about William Head On Stage can check out "Criminal Acts--Inside Prison Theatre," a 2003 NFB production.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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