20 April 2023
In this webinar, we are joined by Rowan Mackenzie for a conversation about her book, “Creating Space for Shakespeare: Working with Marginalized Communities”.
Rowan Mackenzie is founder and Artistic Director of Shakespeare UnBard, facilitating permanent, collaborative theatre companies and Creative Workshops in multiple prisons.
Her new book, Creating Space for Shakespeare: Working with Marginalized Communities, draws on projects internationally (many of which she has facilitated) with people in prison, people with mental health issues, learning disabilities or those who have experienced homelessness, to show how Shakespeare can help people speak and be heard in ways which may previously have been elusive or unattainable.
The webinar began with a reading from Rowan’s book, followed by a conversation with Cassie Edmiston of Prisoners’ Education Trust, and then questions from the audience.
Rowan spoke about Shakespeare’s cultural capital. The Bard’s works are often seen as high-brow. Or, for the many people in prison who have had a negative experience of formal education, something they have been denied. And so there’s something powerful about showing people in prison that they can make Shakespeare their own and use it as a reflective tool.
Rowan tries to make sure that Shakespeare is accessible to anyone who wants to engage with it.
For most people in prison, we have spent a lot of time focusing on what they are not good at.
But Rowan always begins with what people can do. If an actor has difficulty reading, or if English is not their first language, their lines will be simplified. If they struggle with their memory, props will be used as aides-mémoires. If a man is unable to write out his lines, someone will do this for him. A little creativity supports great actors to overcome barriers to participation.
The fifteenth member of the theatre company
Rowan has, so far, set up four permanent, collaborative theatre companies in English prisons (one of which is thought to be the world’s only permanent theatre company based in a prison for people convicted for sex offences).
She describes herself not as theatre company director, but as the fifteenth member of each of the groups. The companies are run democratically, and no distinction is made between Rowan’s role and the roles of her fourteen fellow actors – besides the fact that she holds a set of keys.
The actors jointly decide which play to work on; they adapt it, create the costumes, props, scenery, music, and programmes, and they have final say on who is – or isn’t – invited to attend the productions.
Why this model? Rowan says
Prison takes away autonomy, and infantilises people, especially if they’re serving longer sentences. If you aren’t allowed to make the simplest of decisions – what time you shower, what time you eat, what time you contact your family – that is very dehumanising. The prison sentence should be the deprivation of liberty, it shouldn’t be the deprivation of humanity, and I think sometimes we blur those lines and that isn’t acceptable.
Although complete autonomy isn’t appropriate in a prison setting, there are certain things that people in prison can take ownership of, which can help them to develop their sense of identity and self-confidence. Key to Rowan’s work is giving people the time, space, and trust to operate with what she calls “positive autonomy”.
The impact of Shakespeare UnBard
Rowan has watched groups of individuals develop into professional theatre companies. Plays come to be selected, not on personal interest, but on their potential to communicate broad, powerful messages to audiences. And this emotional maturity begins to appear in negotiations around who plays which character, as more experienced actors step back, encourage others to take on more significant roles, and promise to help them learn their lines.
There are numerous examples in Rowan’s book of actors reconnecting with family members through this work, or using it to help maintain relationships. Friends and family are invited to performances, which creates a rare opportunity for people in prison to share something they are proud of with loved ones.
Thank you for giving me back my son. I haven’t seen him for many years, long before he came in here. And now he’s back and that’s all thanks to you and the work you do. Participant’s mother quoted in Creating Space for Shakespeare
Governors and officers who have played cameos in productions have commented on how the experience has helped them to see the men in a different light. So much so that Rowan has been asked to attend a parole hearing for an actor she has worked with for several years, whose behaviour and level of risk is thought to have been positively influenced by his participation in the theatre company. Such has been the transformative impact of Shakespeare UnBard.
We are very grateful to our fantastic speakers and to the participants in the discussion.
© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2023