Innovation is talked about whenever we look for new and effective programmes and projects through which offenders can make positive changes in their lives.
Although it’s not new – there are amazing practitioners and projects the world over – well-chosen, performed and facilitated live performance in prisons is an innovative way to create positive change.
Live performance for offenders is immediately engaging and if the topic is relevant, the audience will be involved both emotionally and intellectually. Quite profound shifts in self-reflection and understanding can be achieved.
The story this month, Engaging with prisoners through theatre, demonstrates the effectiveness of live performance in prisons. It reviews the experience of Renee Lyons, the actor in the solo show Verbatim, when she performed it in four prisons.
Co-written by Miranda Harcourt and William Brandt in the early 1990s, this work still has massive relevance and makes profound connections with offenders. Renee Lyons’ reflections (“I think they found it hard to listen to at times”) are important and helpful for anyone wanting to take on this work.
It’s not theatre for entertainment we’re talking about here (although theatre should be engaging) but theatre in rehabilitation. This essential rehabilitative ingredient requires skilfully facilitated questions and follow-up activity (e.g. role plays and personal creative writing) to uncover positive change for offenders.
The right mix of partners
Projects such as this need the right mix of partners. A “right mix” of individuals and organisations were involved in making this tour of Verbatim to four prisons a success. It started with Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie and William Brandt, followed by funding for the tour from Creative New Zealand, which has a clear goal that all New Zealanders will be able to participate in and experience high-quality arts.
Arts Access Aotearoa played an intermediary role, working with Corrections and Last Tapes Theatre Company to enable access to the four prisons while justice reform group JustSpeak, which co-presented Verbatim with Last Tapes, facilitated forums after each performance.
Importantly, Corrections staff on the ground provided excellent support to Renee Lyons and the presenters – evident from Renee’s comments about the staff. This support is essential in the delivery of innovative arts activities and programmes that can bring about effective change for offenders.
Each year, Arts Access Aotearoa presents the Arts Access Awards where two leadership awards highlight achievements by Corrections staff and community volunteers. It’s no surprise to me that the recipient of the 2013 Arts Access Prison Art Leadership Award, Ann Byford, was involved in a significant project with New Zealand Police and Waikeria Prison.
Violent offenders produce series of paintings
Ann worked with prisoners who were violent offenders with a high risk of re-offending to produce 12 paintings. The men were selected to do the paintings because they were part of the Integrated Offender Prevention and Support Programme.
One of the outcomes of the project was the publication of a booklet called Message from Within – the Journey from Dark to Light. This book presents the 12 paintings.
As well as being exquisitely executed, the paintings illustrate personal journeys of the artists and the consequences of their life choices. Large Images of these paintings will be displayed on the walls of various agencies such as police stations, Corrections facilities, Community Corrections offices and Court foyers.
Along with this high-quality collection of images and valuable messages, the booklet represents an effective partnership between Corrections, New Zealand Police, Courts, and Child, Youth and Family. The tangible quality of the booklet and the vision to create it in the first place are a great credit to all the partners and to Ann Byford.