UK theatre has a rich heritage of work outside theatrical spaces, from schools to site-specific and from universities to prisons. But theatre and film company Second Shot Productions is doing something a little bit different. Based within the walls of HMP & YOI Doncaster, the company works with serving prisoners, ex-offenders and others. With projects ranging from film-making and graphic design through to drama and arts projects, offered in both custodial and non-custodial settings, Second Shot arrives at Soho Theatre next week with its unique show, Glory Dazed.
Who are Second Shot Productions?
We’re a company and trade for profit, but as a social enterprise all of that profit is invested back into our projects. We’re committed to providing education, training and employment to serving prisoners and ex-offenders, and using the arts to facilitate positive change. To that end we currently employ 15 serving prisoners at HMP & YOI Doncaster who work for the company full time. They are trained to deliver our services whilst working towards a BTEC in Creative Media Production.
The ideas and stories we explore in our theatre productions tend to be those that have some kind of relevance to prisoners and ex-offenders. We have worked with our team at HMP Doncaster to look at theatre as a way of exploring restorative justice and drugs awareness, for example, and then performing these pieces on the wings of the prison so as to make them available to as much of the prison population as possible. We also produce regular children’s plays in collaboration with students studying Applied Theatre at Central School of Speech and Drama which allows the prisoner participants’ families the chance to come and see a different side to their loved one as they perform on stage.
How does being based within the walls of a prison affect who you are as a company?
It allows us to work towards reducing reoffending by offering training and education in theatre, film, design and music that may otherwise be unavailable to those serving custodial sentences. Working at Second Shot is seen as a privilege by those who work for us and in them we instil a sense of pride in doing something constructive with their time in prison.
Working in a professional job for the first time can be daunting when you’re not in prison, but it is an opportunity to learn how to hold down a job upon release, whether that be in the arts or not the fundamentals remain the same.
It’s also important for us to allow our team to explore talents they may have or just be developing if this is their first chance of working in theatre and film; some are very natural theatre practitioners whilst others have a great eye for film or turn of phrase for journalism. In developing skills in these areas, the team comes together on corporate projects as well as those designed for the BTEC.
Where did the idea for Glory Dazed come from?
I’d been working at HMP Doncaster for a few months when the Governor, who was also new to the prison, asked if I’d noticed that many of the prisoners seemed to have had experiences in the Armed Forces before they came to prison. I hadn’t noticed it until that point, but it struck me as true and I started to do a bit of research. I discovered that some organisations working in criminal justice think that as many as one in ten of the UK prison population are ex-servicemen, although the Government puts the figure a lot lower than this.
Could you tell us a bit about the show itself?
Glory Dazed tells the story of Ray, a returning soldier who turns up, after hours, at his mate’s pub in Doncaster, looking for his estranged wife. It takes place in real time over an hour as Ray tries to win Carla back, only to discover that she is seeing his mate Simon. The story unfolds to reveal the truths of Ray and Carla’s relationship but also the reasons why she stayed with him for so long.
The play is also Second Shot’s first full-scale professional theatre production. We rehearsed it at HMP Doncaster so that prisoners and ex-offenders could take part in the project as stage managers, set builders, graphic and web designers, photographers, film-makers and musicians.
How did it develop during theses early stages at Doncaster?
We began with a number of discussion groups involving ex-servicemen serving prison sentences at HMP & YOI Doncaster. The men discussed their experiences of both being in the armed forces and their return to civilian life. To varying degrees they revealed difficulties with alcohol, aggression and multiculturalism, and a deterioration in their relationship with their families.
Following these discussions I took away all the information and developed a story and the opening section of the play. This was taken back to the ex-servicemen, this time through a number of drama workshops run by the play’s director, in which they were asked to improvise alongside professional actors, to further develop the characters and the story. This helped to provide further ideas and insights from which a first complete draft of the play was written.
What was the relationship like between the writer and the ex-servicemen involved in creating the show?
It was a great experience working with the ex-servicemen. In follow-up sessions, they all said that they found the process really interesting and valuable, to be able to share their experiences in this way. By the end of the development process I’d like to think there was a mutual respect between the ex-servicemen, the actors and me. They were very frank about what they were willing to discuss, but I was adamant from the outset that Ray wouldn’t be based on a particular person and that none of the stories in the play would be real. I was more interested in trying to find an emotional truth than in depicting something that had actually happened to a particular individual. Some of the stories that the ex-servicemen told were harrowing and very moving, but it would have felt exploitative to put these experiences into a play.
Has the production evolved much over the past year from visiting the Edinburgh and Adelaide festivals?
Yes, the show has changed since its first festival run and that’s for a number of reasons. Due to availability, we had to recast the role of Leanne and that meant that there would inevitably be some changes as to how the actors worked together as a different group. The original cast members had the opportunity to re-examine their roles between the two tours as well and this meant that when rehearsals for Adelaide started, they had each gone on a journey with their characters since playing them in Edinburgh. That showed through in Adelaide as they became increasingly comfortable in each role. I also think that having to consider how aspects of the play would go down with an Australian audience made everyone focus more closely on how each character could engage with the audience and this brought an added edge to the performances as well. The overall result is very positive, because now the play has an intensity to it that has only developed over time. The sense of urgency and desperation of the situation makes it feel very claustrophobic and I’m hoping that this will be further heightened at Soho Theatre.
What kind of issues are you trying to tackle with the production?
When we began the discussions, we started by considering the question: why do so many ex-servicemen end up in prison? The ex-servicemen provided varied and interesting answers that were in part what I was expecting and knew to be true, about lack of support and reacclimatisation to civilian life, but they also raised things I hadn’t considered, like certain personality types being drawn to the army, and how these might be the same personality types who could find themselves in trouble with the law. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it seemed like an interesting thing to explore.
The ex-servicemen were all different ages and had served in a number of different places as a result, but it seemed that age didn’t dictate whether you were more or less likely to have difficulties when leaving the forces. Some struggled because they went from a very regimented life to a much freer one. Many had seen really horrific things and had either received very minimal or no counselling to deal with those things. Some of the men were from backgrounds where they felt they had very little opportunity and that going into the Army had merely postponed the almost inevitable downfall of becoming involved in crime and being imprisoned. Some had been discharged from the Army because their mental stability had been in question, though this wasn’t followed up in their civilian life. Some, particularly those involved in special operations, talked about being trained as killers, but not ‘detrained’ when those skills were no longer required. Some of the men mentioned a big drinking culture in the army and that for many years, periods of leave had been characterised by getting very drunk and getting into fights. While the army was in some way tolerant of this, the men found themselves in trouble with the police when they behaved in the same way on civvy street without the army’s protection.
Finally, what can audiences expect from the production?
Sometimes people ask where the humour comes from in such a bleak theme, but I think even the bleakest stories have humour in them, for the simple reason that human beings are funny and our sense of humour is almost at its sharpest at moments of adversity. One of the things that really stood out about meeting the ex-servicemen was that they were quite witty and funny and enjoyed a very entertaining banter with each other. This is also true of prisoners generally in my experience; there’s a certain gallows humour that is generated when human beings share difficult experiences together.
Hopefully they will see it as funny and entertaining but also because the characters are believable, audiences will engage with them and the themes raised in the play. I think characters that behave badly but are still likeable are very attractive to audiences, because we’re all flawed but we all have redeeming features.
Glory Dazed plays at Soho Theatre Upstairs from 23 April to 11 May. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/glory-dazed/.
Image credit: Alex Brenner