Meeting Our Audience

Kent Opera Artistic Director, Stephen Tiller,  spent yesterday September 11th at the Education Department of HMP Swaleside , Kent, building an audience for Kent Opera’s Sept 21st Othello performance.

And what a day it was… 

I knew nothing about the reasons those prisoners I met were in there. And I don’t want to know. Ever. But as I went from Art classes to Business Studies to English to Maths, all I found was a lot to inspire me; good humour, eloquence, focus, community, energy and creativity. 

Basically I spent the day going from classroom to classroom in the Education Centre and doing a ‘sell’ of the show to the prisoners. Monday morning it turns out is a bit of a quiet one in the Education department, and the prison generally, so the numbers didn’t really start going up until the afternoon session, and anyway the maximum class size is 8.There was also a long-down in one of the blocks in the morning which also contributed to the peace and quiet but it gave me a chance to get my feet under the table. 
But there is also a good library there and, in the afternoon, there were 10 or 15 prisoners there, at any one time, looking for books or DVD’s to borrow, and as I passed, I’d go in and do my sales pitch… 
Of course, all the teachers were different, but it was much more relaxed than you might imagine. Not like a school classroom atmosphere;  with a very good-natured feel in all of the rooms. Lots of banter, teasing of and by the teacher. But never disrespect on eitehr side. And such a mixture of mainly young guys. Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, Rasta, Afro-Caribbean, Russian, Chinese, Turkish, Lithuanian, Pakistani. And quite a few disabled guys asking me if they could take part in workshops and shows, to which I would always reply ‘of course’… The classes running yesterday were Maths, English, Business Studies and Art. The students always ready to surprise with their wit and eloquence, though most of them may well have missed out on formal education one way or another. 
Poster to get inmates to come to our show.
I guess in some ways the Art Class was the easiest to get started in because they were all involved in drawing, painting or making sculpture – and beautiful stuff too – and it was easy to see how they might be coaxed in to the workshops. And Lxxx, the art teacher, was great. She knew Colin Morris, one of the Kent Opera regs, had got the workshops there to make him some scenery, and was really warm and big-hearted. 
In the afternoon she told me a heartrending story of a suicide they’d had there a few month back and this amazing memorial service the prisoners conducted in a packed Chapel.  The night before the young man died, he’d been anxious and in tears on the public phone to his mum and the guy next in line had intervened, taken the phone off him and reassured her they’d try their best to look after him. But he’d gone to his cell later on and killed himself. At the service the mother was there. And the guy who had taken the phone, and others who’d tried to help in some way, were there telling her how hard they’d tried for him and comforting and hugging her. The whole Chapel rallied round for her that day and stood in solidarity with one another too, the teacher told me. And prisoners, officers and teachers were in tears. 
In the first art group I visited, a young Chinese guy right in front of me was using a stanley knife to cut out a beautiful – and huge – dragon image he’d painted. A 50 year old Cypriot was making a miniature copy of a Minoan bas-relief in plaster, painting it up and attaching it to a wooden frame. Others were working on computer animations. A sixty year old guy who looked like a school teacher came over, said he already knew about the Othello project, had got his name down top of the list and then fired 20 questions about the show at me, which released a torrent from everyone else: If they took part in the workshop, who was going to play the women in the story, was one frequent one? One very camp and very bald guy of about 50 said he’s be happy to and gave us all a demonstration of his feminine charms, to the laughter of everyone else in the room. And when, later on,  I said we might make some puppets or masks – and do some commedia style  work together – one chubby middle aged guy opined there was no way any mask could hide who he was, proudly showing off his copious belly…. 
This kind of quick-fire energy was repeated in every room. Sometimes there were quieter and shyer individuals who didn’t join in with the patter. Sometimes there were ones who didn’t want to sign up for the show. But bit by bit, as I got better and better at telling them the story of Othello, and reassuring them no, they didn’t have to sing opera, they didn’t even have to go onstage, they could be back-stage, or make props or masks or costumes for December, more and more came round and put their name on the list to come to the show next week. 
I’m going back on the 18th – next Monday – for my Security and Key training, so I will spend a second day there drumming up support before our arrival on the 21st. I’m looking forward to it. 
And, just to say, some of the prisoners looked amazing, fit and radiating more charisma than was decent. I must have seen five or six guys who would be central casting for Othello, tall, muscular and imposing – and ditto for all the other male roles… 
I also got a tour of a lot of the prison with M, the Head of Education, Training and Employment there. I went into the workshops, the gym, the sports hall, the visitors room, which is also a canteen, and after my five or six hours at Swaleside came out feeling I’d had another education entirely…
I’m sure it will continue every time I’m there. 


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