Seeds of creativity grow at Arohata Prison
22 February 2017
Continuity. That’s the word Wellington artist Dan James uses to describe why he volunteered to work with women in Arohata Prison from February through to December last year, culminating in the Arohata Christmas Concert.
Dan, who has a PhD in fine arts, has been showing work locally and internationally for more than a decade, and also works fulltime as an editor in the education sector. His creative work is a mix of art and technology, working with video, sound and music, and hand-built robotics.
His first experience of working in a prison environment was when he and seven other local arts practitioners (actors, musicians and a visual artist) took part in the Looking Glass Prison Theatre Project. Led by German theatre practitioner Uta Plate, the workshop was held over one week in Arohata Prison in February 2016.
At the end of the workshop, Dan could have walked away and got on with his own busy life. So what inspired him to carry on working with the prisoners over 2016?
A sustained approach
“For me, it was about continuity. In Uta’s workshop, we built a rapport with the women and I saw how much confidence they gained. A sustained approach is much more poignant and valuable than doing something as a one-off.
“I also feel privileged on numerous counts and have things I can offer: my music performance, technical production skills, and experience in creating work and putting on shows.”
A key aim of the Looking Glass Prison Theatre Project was to inspire and support local arts practitioners to continue providing opportunities for creative expression in prison and in the community, says Jacqui Moyes, Arts in Corrections Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa.
“Having planted the seeds of creativity, would they continue to grow? What would happen after the local artists left the prison? Would the women in Arohata continue to express themselves creatively?
“After the February workshop, several artists and I continued working with the Arohata women, supporting them to create their own version of The Looking Glass for a graduation in June. We were then invited to work together on the Christmas concert.”
Raising money for Wellington Women’s Refuge
The concert was organised by Arohata Prison and sponsored by the Zonta Club of Mana. Approximately 50 prisoners performed to 600 people over two nights and raised money for Wellington Women’s Refuge.
The concert included music, dance, theatre and an audio visual backdrop. Prisoners from the Drug Treatment Unit, a youth group, women in self-care and those in remand took part.
Artists who volunteered their skills were Jo Randerson (Barbarian Productions), Waylon Edwards (musician and Corrections case manager), Aimee Martin (technical support), Dan James (artist, musician) and Bea Joblin (theatre practitioner).
“The audiovisual content for each group was different,” Dan says. “I met with each group, and they showed me what they wanted and talked about their ideas. It involved a lot of listening and collaborating, and then my job was to interpret and facilitate what they wanted within what was possible.”
The women in the prison’s Drug Treatment Unit based their performances on five pieces of creative writing they had developed in a ten-week creative writing workshop, run by Wellington writers and teachers Pip Adam and William Brandt of Write Where You Are.
Their performances addressed child abuse and abandonment in state care, domestic violence, drug addiction, the journey to prison and having to leave their children.
Dan says that when the women realised that taking part in the workshop and subsequent creative projects was a “rare” opportunity, they leapt at the chance despite their fears.
After the Looking Glass Prison Theatre Project, Jacqui wrote a report evaluating this project and also three Creativity in Corrections forums held in 2016.
Commenting on his involvement in the Looking Glass Project, Dan said:
“The ladies say it’s a privilege working with us. I say it’s a huge privilege working with them. I’ve never seen a group of people step up and engage with creative processes so quickly, enthusiastically, perceptively and passionately in my entire life.”
Feedback from the prisoner participants included: “What I want for my future is to live a crime-free, drug-free life, to be there for family and my children and my children's children. I am an expressive person and very creative in many forms and so many levels, so I found the whole experience very uplifting and enjoyable. I'm keen to pursue more of these workshops or anything to do with the arts, given the chance.”
Prisoners instigate creative opportunities
For Jacqui Moyes, the ongoing interaction in 2016 between the artists and women shows what is possible. With the appropriate support and sufficient downtime between projects, the women at Arohata Prison continue to instigate their own creative opportunities.
“I am so grateful to all the people involved in these projects over the past year: the courageous women in Arohata, the fabulous artists and writers, the committed clinical and Corrections staff, and the generous funders,” she says.
“For me, it’s highlighted the role of the arts to motivate and inspire change, boost self-esteem and increase confidence. It’s allowed the women’s creative voices to be heard and to shine. They have been able to engage more fully with their own stories and tell them in their own words.”
Thanks to the artists, Goethe-Institut New Zealand, Wellington City Council, CareNZ and the Zonta Club of Mana for their support of the Looking Glass Prison Theatre Project and the Arohata Christmas Concert.