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On Being a Writer in Residence in a Prison - 3/3

Poems About Love
by Michael Crowley author of The Man They Couldn't Hang. August 2010.

Anthologies were produced with images that steered away from the literal. Often these were launched at a performance in the chapel or the library. Performance in a prison can be fundamental to undermining the pro criminal culture; to establishing a cultural strategy that promotes a different ethic. To begin with, being an audience requires generosity, silence and applause; not found in abundance in a YOI. The preparation to perform, read or act requires discipline and commitment. Performance requires public expression of intelligence and tenderness in hardened young men.

Most of the drama performed at Lancaster Farms was written by lads under my tutelage. Visiting actors and a director from The Dukes Theatre Lancaster provided more than a little support for performances. Three of the pieces were subsequently produced in showcases of prisoners’ work in London. But I also took texts off the shelf that found their own relevance. Shakespeare’s Michael Cassio in Othello regretting an act of drunken violence, kicking his plastic bottle of blackcurrant across the chapel stage: Oh God that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains. Steinbeck’s black stable hand Crooks in Of Mice and Men, forced to live in a barn. I spent six weeks looking at scenes from Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good. The text became a means of teaching English, Geography and History, the process culminating in workshops with Theatre by the Lake Keswick, who had the play in production at the time. It’s more difficult to say (or measure) what lads learn by acting alongside accomplished professional actors, but afterwards appear to have grown in some way.

My hope is that The Man They Couldn't Hang is used in prisons in a similar way. As a text from which people might learn about Edwardian society, music hall, the actual case of John Babbacombe Lee; as a basis to discuss guilt, redemption, capital punishment, crime and celebrity but most of all, as a play to be performed.

"People benefit because it’s a way to unlock hidden emotion. It’s a way of being understood. It’s a way to get out of this world and into another where anything can happen. I’ve tried to write from a victim of crime perspective, and the truth is, I’ve never thought like this before. I’ve never even bothered about people I don’t know. I’ve always thought, if I don’t know someone, why should I care? Writing from their perspective makes me think about their lives."
Roy, HMP YOI Lancaster Farms.

The Man They Couldn't Hang is now available in paperback.

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