Prisoners at Otago Corrections Facility have been showcasing their newfound acting skills and learning new communication and expression skills through the support of a volunteer and  Otago Corrections Facility drama programme.

“Drama is a useful rehabilitative tool,” says Assistant Prison Director, Gill Brown. “It demands a lot of those involved: commitment, courage, belief, memorisation of dialogue and moves, vulnerability, trust, honesty and, most of all, a willingness to be open to the process. It helps participants learn to express themselves and work collegially with others.

“It helps teach collaboration and communication skills, essential skills for living harmoniously in any community. These skills help people reintegrate back into their community, into their family and into employment. And, in prison, it provides a good positive risk taking and bonding experience and a bit of fun away from the day to day prison life.”

The drama group is supported by volunteer, Ruth Ratcliffe, Youth Worker with the Malcam Charitable Trust. Ruth has been working on projects at Otago Corrections Facility, formerly as a staff member and now as a volunteer, for more than four years.

The most recent performance by Ruth and her drama students was “Epic”, three plays based on the work of American playwrights David Dalton and Chad Schnakel.

Epic consists of three short plays which were modified by the offenders to incorporate their stories. Each of the eight actors played a character in one of them and wrote and performed their own monologue based on their character.

Preparing a production in prison isn’t easy and the men only had around eight hours to practice as a group, so they had to do a lot of work in the unit or in their cells.

“The final product was an incredibly powerful and positive experience for the men involved. Drama like this puts both actors and audience in a challenging space. Everyone, actors and audience, are both confronted and engaged. This is particularly challenging for the prisoners who could often see aspects of their own story in the monologues.”

Ruth started working with prisoners in 1990 at Pentonville Prison in London using drama as a medium to explore new strategies of dealing with issues, and continued working in prisons until, in 2001, she moved to NZ and started working at OCF. She quickly started drama as a weekly elective as part of the Drug Treatment Unit programme. She left this position to take up a role as Senior Case Manager, but missed her drama programme and so, with the support of prison and unit managers, she started a voluntary drama group in one of the units.

Soon after, Ruth left Corrections and began working as a youth worker in the Clutha District, with the Malcam Trust as her employer. But throughout, with the support of the trust, she has continued to come into the prison on a voluntary basis to run the weekly drama group.

“I love doing this work” she says, “I’ve been a drama queen since the day I was born. I attended drama classes from a young age and went on to study drama at college and was a professional actress in the UK from the age of 14. I sort of gave it up in my early 30s but it’s always remained a part of me.

“The men gain a plethora of learning through drama experiences,” she says, “from working as a team, to giving and accepting feedback both positive and not so positive, respect, responsibility, resilience, confidence, self-esteem, empathy, acceptable social behaviours to name a few. “

They also learn drama skills such as warming up the body, mind and voice, deep breathing exercises, character building, monologue writing, script work and many others.

A large number of offenders are natural risk takers, according to Ruth, and the men attending drama are taking a very personal, public risk – especially when they perform.

“They are putting themselves out there and being vulnerable. They still get the same adrenaline and ‘highs’, but with this type of risk taking, there are no victims – nobody is getting hurt. I call it positive risk taking.

“I am so super proud of them…  They were extremely nervous before the performance – in fact a couple of them were asking (more or less begging) if they didn’t have to do their monologue.  To be that scared and still get up and perform in front of prison staff, external visitors and their peers shows real strength of character. Over the weeks they have worked and grown into the characters they were portraying. So proud of them.

“And, oh my goodness, the talent is phenomenal,” she says. “Raw, genuine talent that is unspoilt.”

Ruth says she really appreciates the support of the prison and the Malcam Trust. “They believe that everyone can make changes and I am using drama as a vehicle to encourage this,” she says.

The drama group is ongoing.