Joyce McMillan: Enter hope, stage left

A scene from Tales from the Wagon, a community project between the Citizens' Theatre and Barlinnie
A scene from Tales from the Wagon, a community project between the Citizens' Theatre and Barlinnie
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IT’s a cold, blustery November night at Barlinnie, as an audience of 20 or 30 people trudge up through the walkways and courtyards of the old prison, towards a low, modest building known as the conference suite.

This is a place which once had a grim reputation; but these days, Barlinnie is a much more upbeat institution, a short-stay prison where the emphasis is very much on education, rehabiltation, and ways of helping the men, once released, not to relapse once again into a life of crime.

Which is where we come in: because for the last three years – and in projects before that – the community arts team from the Citizens’ Theatre, in partnership with the Offender Learning programme at North Lanarkshire College, have been working hard at Barlinnie, with volunteer groups of prisoners, to encourage them to use drama as a way of gaining different perspectives on their lives, and imagining their way to a different possible future.

Over three years, there have been storytelling and design projects, playwriting workshops, and two shows – Man Up, performed in 2013, and last year’s Back Of The Bus. And tonight, the latest group of prisoners – with two professional actors, Joyce Falconer and Ian Bustard – will perform Tales From The Wagon, the last in the series, directed by the Citizens’ Elly Goodman, which emerges as a rough-and-ready but beautiful Christmas dream-play, with songs, about what happens when a van dropping off prisoners at institutions across Scotland becomes stranded in snow somewhere near Perth.

“The Citizens’ relationship with Barlinnie goes right back to the 1970s, when Giles Havergal used to bring actors to work with the prisoners here,” says Neil Packham, the theatre’s Community Drama Director. “So we’re really going to miss this work – our three year funding from Creative Scotland’s Arts & Criminal Justice Fund is coming to an end, as the programme is wound up. But we really hope we’ll be able to continue this relationship in some form, given how successful this sustained programme has been.”

And there are three men also in the audience who couldn’t agree more; for since their release last year, Hugh Young, Archie Dickinson and John Reilly have come together to form their own theatre company, Street Cones; they were to be seen in Edinburgh last weekend, with two other company members, performing a powerful series of interactive monologues about prison life to accompany Summerhall’s 183 More Sleeps exhibition, curated by the Koestler Trust, which encourages art by offenders.

“This theatre work was so important to us when we were in Barlinnie that we just wanted to carry on with it,” says Young, “and we’re determined to do what we can to encourage people to confront issues like offending behaviour and substance abuse. At the moment, we’re working on a script that deals with the growing problem of “legal highs”, and we hope that will find an audience over the next year.”

And young James – a terrific natural comic performer, who plays the judge in Tales From The Wagon – agrees that working with the Citizens’ Company can change lives. “People say to me that I must have been on stage before,” he says, after the show. “But my life out there was rough, I didn’t get on well at school, and I just never had the chance.

“But now me and Billy here” – he introduces another cast member – “are writing scripts for Barlinnie Radio, as well as doing this. Our next one is called One Man And His Ned, and it’s about a spaceman on his way to Mars – but he’s got a ned with him. It’s really funny. And now we know that we can do all this, it really boosts our confidence – and that’s the first step, isn’t it, to making something better of your life.” ■

• For more information, visit www.streetcones.org; http://citz.co.uk/take_part/prison_work/