Changing sets in the theatre of despair

January 30, 2004

A workshop at a women's prison gave Allan Owens' drama class an insight into the work of the Samaritans and a chance to let everyone's creativity flow.

The barriers to creative methods of teaching and learning are not new, but struggling with lack of time, space and money and timetable restrictions, teaching overload and students who often want to take rather than give is energy sapping.

One strategy that has given me independence and inspires students is to find "partners". These have included the police, health staff, fire crew, business managers, army representatives and campaign groups. It has taken time to win their confidence, but at the performing arts department, University College Chester, we have many long-term working relationships and are regularly approached by new groups. The Samaritans is one such group. When planning a third-year undergraduate BA drama course, the chair of the local branch asked if students could devise a 20-minute performance on the Samaritans' work for its annual general meeting.

The Samaritans offered three volunteers and Eaton Hall - home of its patron, the Duke of Westminster, top of the UK's "Richest People" list - as a venue. As the course was designed to look at drama beyond designated theatre spaces, the venue was ideal. But I wanted to give the students, many of whom are under 23 and have led quite privileged lives, a contrasting experience. I got in touch with Jo, a long-term partner and staff member at our nearest women's prison, to introduce students to the work of "listeners" - inmates trained by the Samaritans. Three students were to talk to 20 women serving sentences ranging from six months to life.

The conversations would feed into a second performance and workshop in the prison.

The ten-session course had "listening" at its heart. One student discovered that the duke had suffered from depression. "How can you be depressed with £4.3 billion?" was one none-too-sympathetic response. That view was quickly challenged. The first session with Samaritan volunteers involved re-enacting a phone call where the students could not hear the caller. The Samaritan did not offer advice, was non-judgemental and suggested possible options, aware that the caller could put the phone down at any moment. From conversations with Samaritans and prisoners, the students devised a series of naturalistic and surreal scenes. One scene focused on an inmate who felt that words were wasted in prison and letters would be thrown in bins. She wanted something to hit in frustration but that would result in being sent into solitary confinement. She said listeners were her one hope.

The listener we were devising the scene with said that she was often called from her cell at night only to find it was a hoax - the inmate just wanted a cigarette. There was always the fear, though, of what might lie ahead.

This prison has one of the highest suicide rates in the UK.

The first performance at Eaton Hall ran smoothly except for an odd remark from the mayor, who said: "Well done." But when one student replied: "Glad you enjoyed it", he responded: "I didn't say that I enjoyed it." Back in class, the group argued about the meaning. Was the mayor offended when a fictitious caller hurled a stream of sexist abuse or did he mean that the subject was not enjoyable? The students worried about whether to change the scene.

The gates to our second performance were very different from the gilded ones of Eaton Hall. There were three sets, each 6m high and made of steel.

It took two hours to pass through. The students were visibly nervous as they performed in the tight confines of the block. In the workshop, they started to relax as they created further scenes with the women based on their response to the performance. When we met in class the following week, the students spoke non-stop for three hours. When I asked: "Who do you think learnt the most from this project?", they said: "Probably us", but then someone asked: "Didn't we all?"

Using the community as a learning resource is a two-way process and I am collaborating with colleagues across a range of departments at Chester to develop this way of working. The financial outlay is often minimal and partners can harness the energy, enthusiasm and performance skills of the students to their agenda. A Finnish exchange student who took part in the Samaritans performance said that he never expected his first taste of UK higher education to consist of performing in the home of the wealthiest man in Britain and in prison alongside an international porn star.

Allan Owens is a senior lecturer in drama and theatre studies at University College Chester and a national teaching fellow.

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