Engaging with prisoners through theatre
29 September 2014
The venue was stark. There were no props and no lighting, and the audience was not your typical theatre-going crowd. But for Renee Lyons, performing the solo show Verbatim in prisons around New Zealand was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of her acting career.
“It was just me on stage, up close and eye-to-eye with the prisoners,” Renee says. “I found it much easier to look them in the eye than with regular audiences. They were so engaged and open, and there was a lot of nodding and recognition.”
Verbatim was devised and co-written by Miranda Harcourt and William Brandt in the early 1990s. Miranda then performed it in every prison in New Zealand, in schools, and in theatres and festivals in New Zealand and overseas.
An important part of Miranda’s prison performances was the follow-up workshop where audiences discussed the play with Miranda.
Last year, Verbatim was produced by Auckland’s Last Tapes Company in partnership with JustSpeak, and performed to Auckland and Wellington audiences.
Then in August this year, it toured to schools throughout New Zealand and to four prisons: Northland Region Corrections Facility, Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison, Otago Corrections Facility and Invercargill Prison.
The play consists of a series of monologues by six characters: the offender, his mother and sister, his partner, the victim and the victim’s husband.
“The emotional agitation was palpable whenever I played the offender’s mother and his sister and they talked about how it had affected them,” Renee says. “Clearly, it struck a chord.”
When Verbatim was performed in Auckland in July to launch the national tour, one of the men in the audience had been a prisoner 20 years ago. He had seen Miranda Harcourt’s performance and told Last Tapes Company that it had been a “turning point” for him. He now has a PhD.
“A lot of the feedback from prisoners was along the lines of ‘That’s like my life’. I think they found it hard to listen to at times but many of them said it made them think about what they had done,” Renee says.
“I really felt the performances opened up the prisoners and then they were able to connect with people in the discussion forum afterwards.”
After each prison performance, there was a forum for prisoners to ask questions and discuss their thoughts. This was facilitated by a representative of JustSpeak, a network of young people speaking out about justice issues.
“Making choices was a key subject of the conversations we had,” Renee says. “Anyone can make a bad choice, especially when drugs and alcohol are involved. I hope my performances enabled them to reflect on their life and the choices they’ve made – and maybe give them some hope.”
In Hawkes Bay Regional Prison, Renee performed to youth in the Young Offenders Unit. “When they came in, there was a bit of bravado and boysie stuff but when the play started they were immediately engaged.
“Afterwards in the forum, they asked me about my work and what performing was like. It felt like they were processing what they had seen and I hoped there was someone to talk to afterwards.”
Lawrence Ereatara, Principal Corrections Officer in the Young Offenders Unit, says the performance was well-received by the rangatahi (youth) and staff who attended.
“The performer pretty much received a standing ovation and the discussion afterwards with our rangatahi went on for about 20 minutes with a lot of questions asked,” Lawrence says.
“It also touched close to home with some of our rangatahi in regards to their personal circumstances and afterwards, they talked to the staff about this.”
The Corrections staff she worked with were “great”, Renee says. “It seemed like they really care, and have an ethos of engaging with the prisoners, and talking to them and trying to instil a sense of value and connection. I was humbled by the staff I met.”
She’s keen to return to prisons to do more theatre work. “Theatre is so immediate. It’s all about stories and telling your story can be healing and empowering.”
In January, fellow actor Jodi Rimmer and Renee will visit the Hawkes Bay and work with Te Taitimu Trust, running a theatre-devising workshop with rangatahi.