Synergy Theatre Project
This case study is from our Sharing the Stage initiative, which was part of the Foundation's Participatory Performing Arts strand (2014-18)
“To see my play being performed by professional actors at a theatre every evening has been extremely gratifying… Completing this project has made me realise that very occasionally in life dreams do materialise. ” John Stanley
This case study looks at Homecomings a festival of new writing by prisoners and ex-prisoners. Find out more by watching the film and reading the project summary below.
The UK Branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Sharing the Stage initiative ran from 2014-2018. It supported arts projects in which vulnerable and under-served groups of people ‘share the stage’ with professional performers, and projects that are based on partnerships between arts organisations and social partners.
Phase One supported the research and development (R&D) stage of 14 consortia projects. Phase Two ran from 2016-18, supporting 10 consortia projects to full production of the work created through the participatory process.
Established in 2000, Synergy Theatre Project works towards rehabilitation and resettlement with prisoners, ex-prisoners and young people at risk of offending through theatre and related activities whilst placing the wider issues surrounding criminal justice in the public arena.
Synergy created Homecomings, a festival of new plays by prisoners and ex-prisoners about getting out and going home, presented at Theatre503 in London from 21 February to 18 March 2017. Homecomings was the culmination of Synergy’s goal to develop a festival of plays to bring the voices of prisoners and ex-prisoners into the mainstream, to create access to high-quality artistic experience for participants, and for audiences to engage with the criminal justice system.
Glory Whispers by Sonya Hale and The Monkey by John Stanley were scheduled for performance at Theatre503 from 21 February to 13 March 2017 with a joint programme/playtext published by Bloomsbury.
"Taking part in getting my play come to life through the workshops and then from rehearsals to a read-through and finally the production has been an incredible experience from start to finish. To see my play being performed by professional actors at a theatre every evening has been extremely gratifying and is the only thing in my life I feel I can be proud at having achieved. Completing this project has made me realise that very occasionally in life dreams do materialise and for that reason alone it has made me feel good about myself" John Stanley
The Monkey by John Stanley played to capacity houses selling out during its second week at Theatre503, exceeding Box Office targets and achieving a raft of 4 and 5 star reviews.
“An entrancing whirlwind of character” ***** Remote Goat
Unmissable ***** “An unmissable show from an exciting writer that explores drugs and violence with truly compelling results.” James, Shears, Drama, Off West End, Reviews, 12 March 2017
Due to a last-minute change to the cast, Glory Whispers could not be performed in full. However, Synergy was able to honour a number of commitments: opening the festival with a public presentation of Glory Whispers; showcasing the play for friends at other venues and the Sharing the Stage cohort; accommodating invited women ex-prisoners and ex-addicts in recovery, as well as the public and industry professionals; and a pre-show talk on addiction and recovery.
“Glory Whispers ... is a raw, visceral, funny and above all authentic piece of writing about a world which is often either under-represented or mis-represented in the theatre. I would love to see Glory Whispers as a full-scale production and for the voices of the protagonists that Sonya has created to be heard by a wider audience.” Andy Watson, Artistic Director, Geese Theatre
Although the tour to HMP Send for Glory Whispers was cancelled and The Monkey was unsuitable for performance in HMP Thameside due to its content, the first two acts were read and discussed by nine prisoners in the Reading Group, and copies of the playtext distributed and donated to the prison library. Extracts from The Monkey and Glory Whispers were also used on playwriting courses at HMPs Isis and Thameside. Writers on both courses participated in creative writing exercises, engaging with the craft of playwriting and learning how to apply elements to plan, create, shape and develop stories for the stage.
The production of The Monkey and rehearsed readings at Theatre503 reached audiences of over 750, playing to capacity houses in the final week with gross sales of just over £6,000. Readings at HMPs Thameside and Isis played to audiences of over 100 prisoners. Based on advance bookings, Synergy is confident that it would have exceeded targets if Glory Whispers had played its full run at Theatre503 and visited HMP Send.
Accessing art and gaining skills
Professional companies were assembled with casting led by Nadine Rennie, Casting Director for Soho Theatre, attended by professional directors Juliet Knight and Russell Bolam and the two ex-prisoner playwrights. Four ex-prisoners were directly employed in the roles of Assistant Directors and Assistant Stage Managers. Two further ex-prisoner writers attended rehearsals and performances of full-length readings of their plays at Theatre503. The festival productions and readings engaged a total of eight ex-prisoners as direct participants. Thirty serving prisoners at HMPs Isis and Thameside participated in practical playwriting workshops delivered by professional playwrights Michael Bhim and Phil Davies. Eighteen of the prisoner participants went on to have their new plays performed in extract performed by professional actors at the prisons to audiences of over 100 prisoners and prison staff.
"Being in this negative situation, this is one of the most positive things I could have done" Emerson, prisoner writer participant at HMP Isis
Both writers were consulted on show marketing and participated in casting and rehearsal, gaining enormous experience from observing the rehearsal process and seeing their plays performed. They have also progressed in their creative careers through the platform of Homecomings: Sonya was commissioned by Clean Break Theatre Company, participated in an Audio Drama writing workshop at Theatre503, an Arvon Foundation writing for television retreat and has developed two further plays which were produced in 2018, “Dean McBride” won the Heretic Voices open submission competition and was presented at the Arcola Theatre and Sonya was commissioned by The Big House to write “Bullet Tongue” which opened in November 2018. Writer John was developing The Monkey into a screenplay and is in conversation with directors about his next play. He continues to write with support from Synergy's New Writing Manager.
Writer Martin continued to develop new screenplays and had a writing credit on My Name Is Lenny, released in 2017. There Is A Field has secured full funding including an Arts Council Grant and will premiere at Theatre503 in February 2019. John, Martin and Sonya are all currently writing new plays as part of an invitation project which Synergy have been running in partnership with Soho Theatre.
Writer Ed continued to develop The Political History of Smack and Crack with director Cressida Brown and a full production of the play visited the Edinburgh Fringe, Soho Theatre and played to prison audiences in 2018. Stage Manager Karl took up a 12-month paid placement as Studio Assistant at Synergy, as part of its ex-prisoner training and employment programme.
Whilst ex-prisoner writers reported positive changes in terms of self-confidence, self-belief and their own potential, ex-prisoner crew members focused on the benefits of participating in the work of theatre-making, reporting positively on being a part of a successful working team and widening their circle of friends.
"I have found that working with the production team and cast has allowed me to find new friendships and better working relationships." Karl, ex-prisoner and crew member on The Monkey
Artists gained unique access to the criminal justice system and prisoners’ and ex-prisoners’ stories, develop their practice and became advocates for the work:
"Having the opportunity to work with ex-prisoners gave me the knowledge and authenticity I needed to play the character as truthfully as I could" Danielle, cast of The Monkey
The professional cast and crew of The Monkey appreciated the value of working on new writing by ex-prisoners, in some cases it provided a new context for their practice; in others the presence of ex-prisoner writers gave them confidence in delivering the work and for those who were new to participatory work it created confidence in the value of such work.
"Working with fresh voices and dynamic people is inspiring. Seeing lives changed by Synergy is uplifting and what it's all about." Morgan Watkins, cast of The Monkey
Being heard and developing talent
"The play I wrote was about losing a child in addiction and it enabled me to heal massively around this - like all that pain and heartache has not gone to waste. Writing this play also enabled me to have greater dialogue with my son and our relationship is really flourishing:" Sonya, ex-prisoner writer of Glory Whispers
Homecomings, and especially The Monkey, raised awareness of the issues around the criminal justice system, challenging perceptions about prisoners and ex-prisoners with their audiences; the production humanised ex-prisoners, as recognised by a reviewer from a peer organisation:
"This portrayal of life after prison is frank and heartwarming in places. It shows the inner conflicts that underlie the want and need to start afresh coupled with the contrasting magnetism of home" Kate Davey, National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance on The Monkey
Audience members were overwhelmingly positive in their responses to all the work in the festival, highlighting both the quality of the work and their enjoyment of the plays, as shown by the word cloud.
Synergy hosted two pre-show panels which were attended by public audiences including ex-prisoners. In addition, there was a post-show discussion and audience Q&A featuring the cast and writer following the performance of The Monkey on 9 March. These were lively, frank discussions which helped audiences to understand the challenges faced by people moving through prison to life on the outside and to illuminate the ways that artistic participation, specifically writing, had helped them to find ways to articulate their feelings, find empowering ways to make use of their past experiences and gain confidence and validation through doing so.
Within the arts sector, Synergy demonstrated that these voices create powerful, compelling drama that is relevant to society at large and of equally high quality as non-participatory performing arts. Theatre503 is a respected venue and platform for first-time writers (to have their work performed), as many progress to theatres such as the Royal Court. Synergy felt the benefit of this partnership, as Theatre503's Artistic director Lisa Spirling announced Homecomings at the press launch of the new season in front of members of the national press and senior theatre industry professionals, and Synergy is now an Associate company. The season was given parity with other professional productions in marketing, Theatre503 introduced Synergy to Chloe Nelkin Associates, who ran a positive Press and PR campaign. The readings of Glory Whispers were attended by industry representatives from The Royal Court Theatre, Clean Break Theatre Company, Soho Theatre and The Yard, which led to discussions about future productions with leading companies.
The main challenge was the unforeseeable loss of a leading professional actor so close to the date of the first performance, and although mitigated through the rehearsed readings and additional plays, it underlines the economics and pitfalls of small-scale touring: understudies are expensive, and three weeks is the minimum rehearsal time required to stage new, full-length plays. Synergy has revisited the recruitment process and put extra reference points into the process to ensure professional commitments are honoured.
The impact of cancelling the visit to HMP Send was minimised because although prison publicity had been distributed, Synergy intervened before the posters went up and the relationship with HMP Send remains positive.
Synergy worked with Theatre503 to manage the change, and good communication on a daily basis strengthened ties with the venue. The success of The Monkey demonstrated Synergy’s ability to deliver a high-quality production with strong reviews and sold out performances.
The legacy of the project included the opportunity for participants to engage with Synergy Studio's programme of free theatre-based training and employment opportunities, with courses available both in the prison and outside alongside work placement opportunities for prisoners on temporary licence and ex-prisoners.
Selina Busby, (Principal Lecturer and Course Leader, MA Applied Theatre), Central School of Speech and Drama has conducted interviews with Sonya Hale and John Stanley which are contributing to a longitudinal study which Central is carrying out into the long-term impacts of Synergy's work. Preliminary findings from the first phase of the study, which includes Homecomings, are summarised as follows:
" ... it is possible to identify three key areas of immediate impact for the individual participants: the development of aspirational thinking and goal building, the enhanced peer support and the development of key or transferable soft skills. The development of self-esteem and confidence is present in all three areas and is a fundamental by-product of participation in the projects." Selina Busby, May 2017
Through the process, Theatre503 has become more open to future arts and criminal justice projects, and advocates of participatory work. The theatre has committed to a long-term relationship with Synergy, which has become an Associate Company, in addition to delivering a second Introductory Playwriting course for ex-prisoners in collaboration with Synergy. Synergy will present There Is A Field at Theatre503 as part of their Spring 2019 season.
Following the success of the playwriting course at HMP Thameside, Synergy has consolidated its position by delivering two further projects, broadening the appeal and reach of their work by offering new opportunities for prisoners to write, perform and participate through spoken word and devising projects. Synergy has also delivered further projects at HMP Isis since Homecomings.
"We would welcome working on another project with Synergy", Neil Barclay, Librarian at HMP Thameside
Writers completing the courses at HMPs Isis and Thameside were encouraged to submit their plays to the 2017 Koestler Awards and invited to participate in the Synergy Studio series of theatre-based training courses for ex-prisoners, as well as playwriting courses for ex-prisoners, scheduled to be hosted by Theatre503 in Autumn 2017.
Bari, then a prisoner at HMP Thameside, won a 2017 Koestler Gold Award for his stage play Purple One and is currently seeking to self-produce his next play The Strip King at the 2019 Brighton Fringe Festival. HMP Isis participant Trey is now in discussions with Synergy for an Assistant Stage Management role. HMP Isis participant Ernest subsequently joined Synergy Studio after release, stage managed Synergy’s young people’s touring production of Blackout and gained his first ever accredited qualifications in acting and stage management.
The festival left a strong positive impression with other arts organisations working within the criminal justice sector including members of staff from the Koestler Trust who attended multiple events.
Synergy successfully partnered with The Koestler Trust to deliver the stage play category for the 2018 Koestler Awards, providing playwriting workshops in six prisons. Outcomes included double the number of entries and performances of the winning plays in extract at HMP Whatton and the Royal Court Theatre. The partnership will continue in 2019.
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