Empowering women in Arohata Prison through theatre

Theatre practitioner Jo Randerson
30 March 2016
The women walk through the doors into the gym. Their heads are high, their movements strong. “Listen. I’m inviting you in. Listen. I’m inviting you in,” they chant as they form a circle to embrace the audience.

After six days participating in a theatre workshop, the 16 prisoners in the Drug Treatment Unit of Arohata Prison in Wellington are performing Come Listen to my Story of Wonderland, a work they have created and rehearsed with German director Uta Plate and eight Wellington actors, musicians and a visual artist.

Mask making during the workshopThere’s mime, mask, movement, poetry, drama, music and song as the women share their stories of addiction. A soundscape, composed by musician Dan James, encapsulates the 50 or more sounds the women hear in the prison and in their ideal environment. There are rattling keys, footsteps, giggling women, banging doors, children’s voices, ocean waves, a V8 revving …

Four of the 16 women have just been transported from Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility to Arohata Prison to undertake the intensive, six-month rehabilitation programme run by CareNZ.

And there they are, Sunday morning, performing before an audience of 50 after just three days of the workshop. They blend easily with the other performers.

Uta Plate leads the workshop

Uta Plate, invited to New Zealand by the Goethe-Institut New Zealand, is leading the workshop. The four women, she says, were wary and suspicious when they first joined the circle. One woman, in particular, stood outside the circle and watched as the others moved together to form a “group creature”.

Uta Plate during the workshopFinally, she stepped forward and said, “Now I’m in the circle.”

It was one of many moments when Uta felt “joyful inside”.

“These women have more courage that the whole All Blacks team. They are tackling all the obstacles in their way to living a life where they can value themselves,” she says.

“They were so nervous at first and had such low self-esteem. But they were so open to diving in and stepping out of their comfort zone. They were saying, ‘I’m frightened but I’ll do it anyway’.

“I was so happy and humbled to be with them, and to work with the other beautiful and generous artists. Together, we built a community that supported and empowered the women.”

Woman's story retold in performance

Another moment that touched her deeply was when a woman allowed her story to be part of the workshop performance. The previous evening, she had written a six-page story of her life.

“Artistically, it was a powerful story and on a psychological level, it was such a disclosure,” Uta says. “She let the story be included in the performance and co-directed the scene with me.”

The actors sit on chairs and face the audience.

 “I’m sick of you doing this, Mum,” the child says.

“I didn’t mean it. You know I love you, eh. It won’t happen again,” her mother says after yet another night out on the town. But it does. Again and again. The scene ends with sounds of a car crashing.

"I am my own queen” 

In another scene, a woman is trapped far out to sea unable to return to shore. “The more I floated, the more he sucked me in … Not only did the ocean make me lose my way of life, I also lost myself and everyone I loved.”

She realises she’s made a mistake: “I will leave this king who ruled me. I am my own queen.” 

With just one week to work with the women in the Drug Treatment Unit, Uta says she was constantly mindful of the need to “do no harm”.  “I had to be very careful and always alert to where the women were at. But I also needed to challenge them so they could grow.”

She found it reassuring to have Anita Grafton, Clinical Manager of the Drug Treatment Unit, always available.

Anita attends the Sunday performance with the other counsellors, Corrections staff, a group of prisoners in low-security, and guests of Arts Access Aotearoa and the Goethe-Institut New Zealand.

"Raw stories about addiction"

“These were raw stories about addiction and how powerless we can be in its thrall,” she says. “I truly believe that if we can reach one woman and support her through her addiction, we can save generations.

“A lot of women in prison have been violated and have never been able to say ‘no’. This workshop and what we do in the Drug Treatment Unit is about empowering women to have a voice and say ‘no’.”

Music during the workshopThe Drug Treatment Unit at Arohata Prison is one of nine such units in New Zealand prisons – eight of which are managed by CareNZ. It is the only Drug Treatment Unit for women.

Over the week, Anita sees a dramatic increase in the women’s self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth.

“In traditional therapeutic therapies, we use talking therapies and so the women in the Drug Treatment Unit learn to talk about themselves,” Anita says. “But theatre is more physical and we know that body work can spark past experiences on a much more fundamental level. That’s what I saw happening throughout the workshop.”

She says it’s crucial for the women to be able to explore various means of rehabilitation. “I believe there are many roads to Mecca and this project showed that theatre works on many different levels. Above all, it was an opportunity for the women to tell their stories, whether it was about their addictions, their children or trauma.”

Doing no harm

In 2015, Anita worked with both Uta and Jacqui Moyes, Arts in Corrections Advisor at Arts Access Aotearoa. “I was confident and trusting of their abilities to do this project. It required robust planning, putting the women first, and doing no harm to ourselves and to the people we’re working with.”

Although the focus of the nine-day project was addiction, Uta is clear that her workshops aren’t about therapy.

“My role is to provide some tools and ‘maps’ for participants to experience what theatre can offer,” she says. “I’m not there to judge anyone or offer therapy. What I hoped to achieve with this workshop is that each woman would see herself as a creative person, not as a victim. That they would say, ‘On stage, I can create anything and in life, I can do anything’. But they had to do the work. They had to make decisions and choices.

“The women were always so supportive of each other. I found this quite unusual, and I was also utterly surprised at how open and honest they were.”

Stepping out of comfort zone

Throughout the week, the prisoners talked about their reactions to the workshop. They talked about connecting with everyone in the circle; stepping out of their comfort zone; gaining confidence and a sense of achievement; and seeing creative possibilities both within and outside the prison.

“When I get out, I’ll definitely be hanging around a theatre somewhere – and not a pub,” one woman says.

Another: “I’d like to come out of this completely confident with myself, my shape, my size, my sound.”

And another: “I’ve always been an awkward person, not one to step outside my comfort zone. When I came to the DTU, I told myself I was going to do whatever was put in front on me and go with it.”

After Sunday’s performance, there’s a Q and A forum. One woman – a mother and grandmother – says the workshop showed her something else. “I’ve been inspired. I saw so much talent in the group, and I just want to get out there and do something creative. It’s opened doors to new opportunities instead of going down the same old path. There’s a whole new creative community to connect with.”

A life filled with barriers

For one woman, her life has been filled with barriers. “It’s like going swimming and not being able to get back. But with this workshop, I felt the fear and did it anyway. I think we can do pretty much anything and this show kind of proved that.”

A prisoner during the workshopAnd yet another, who describes herself as quiet and shy, speaks confidently to the audience. About Uta reminding her to speak up during the workshop – even the day before the performance. “But we’re all in this together. I wanted to make the performance good and not let anyone down.”

For Uta, the performance and Q and A session showed the women that they could be strong and confident beyond the circle.

“Many of them have said ‘When I get out, I want to go on with this. I want to write and act and create’. The reality is that they can be drawn back to their old, destructive habits. They need the chance to do things differently and my biggest wish is that when these women are released, they will find an environment where they can be supported to start a new, creative life.”

Background to the project 

For the past 20 years, Uta Plate has been running workshops and devising plays with prisoners, young people and asylum seekers in Germany and in countries such as Chile, Sweden, China, Turkey, Palestine and Russia.

The creative team involved in the workshopIn February and March 2016, Uta spoke at a series of Creativity in Corrections forums and workshops in New Zealand to highlight the role of theatre and creativity in prisons, in partnership with Goethe-Institut New Zealand and Arts Access Aotearoa.

In addition, she led a nine-day workshop, called The Looking Glass, in the Drug Treatment Unit at Arohata Prison. This also received funding support from the Wellington City Council.

As well as benefiting the prisoners, The Looking Glass aimed to upskill New Zealand arts practitioners and writers so they could continue teaching creative expression in prisons and the wider community.

In a debrief session after the Sunday performance, the prisoners express their gratitude. “We’re inspired by your free spirits and enthusiasm for life,” one woman tells Uta, Jacqui, the artists and filmmakers. “Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart.”

Another: “I’m lost for words at all the time you guys put in. I’m so thankful for the chance to do this. Seeing us all grow, especially the new ones … It’s amazing what we’ve achieved.”

Eight artists volunteered to work on the project and gain professional development. The artists were Jo Randerson (dramaturg), Sandra Schmidt (visual artist); Chantelle Brader and Batanai Mashingaidze (performing artists); Waylon Edwards (songwriter); and Dan James (musician).

Batanai Mashingaidze and Uta Plate during the workshopIn addition, two filmmakers, Rosie Howells and Alice Ralston, volunteered their time to film and photograph the project while Aimee Martin was a volunteer assistant.

For Batanai Mashingaidze, a third-year acting student at Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School, taking part in the workshop was an “incredible opportunity” – one that re-affirmed for her the way theatre can illuminate the human experience.

“It was a lot of hard work and long hours but in the end, the result was a show that the women were incredibly proud of,” she says. “They really took ownership of it and we helped them structure it so it flowed smoothly.

“My biggest wish is that they can keep hold of the confidence they gained over the week and believe they can go back into society, knowing they have the strength to rewrite their paths.”

Batanai is keen to keep using her theatre skills in Arohata Prison. She would also like to see community theatre programmes or groups that the women could join when they’re released.

“These women’s voices have been taken away,” she says. “They need a place in their community where they have a voice and can tell their stories.”

What now for the women in the Drug Treatment Unit?

So what now for the women in the Drug Treatment Unit? Is that the end of their theatre experience?

Jacqui Moyes, who faciliated the workshop project  and led the Creativity in Corrections forums, says some of the artists who took part in the workshop will continue to work with the women in the Drug Treatment Unit, encouraging them to stay in the circle and be creative.

“It’s about keeping the energy going and keeping them motivated to step out of their comfort zone and be creative,” she says. “I showed them four play scripts by New Zealand playwrights – all male – and suggested that more women should be writing their stories. They really responded to that.”

At the debrief after the Sunday performance, Jacqui told the women about the Shakespeare Behind Bars performance group at the Northland Region Corrections Facility, which is driven by the prisoners.

“We will come back but there’s nothing to stop six of you getting a script and rehearsing it or all of you playing a theatre game in the yard,” she tells them.

“We brought this workshop into Arohata to open up possibilities. You have an incredible wealth of experiences and now, you have some creative tools you can use to transform those experiences into inspiring art.”

The photos in this article were taken by Alice Ralston and Rosie Howells. Arts Access Aotearoa would like to thank everyone - partners, artists, Department of Corrections staff, the women in the Drug Treatment Unit - who made this workshop possible. 


Empowering women in Arohata Prison through theatre


COME LISTEN TO MY STORY: Sixteen women in the Drug Treatment Unit at Arohata Women's Prison took part in a one-week theatre workshop, led by German theatre practitioner Uta Plate and local artists.

Report cover
READ THE REPORT: Read about the outcomes of this project, prepared by Jacqui Moyes, Arts in Corrections Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa


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