Alix Harrow graduated from Exeter University in 2003 with Distinction. She has recently presented on several Badth open days and has presented a paper at the 2005 Conference about her prison work and published an article called “Dramatherapy and Alzheimer's Disease: Personality of a Syndrome” in the Autumn issue of the Dramatherapy Journal in 2005. She is currently working on a book outlining a method of working with Forum Theatre in small groups which has stemmed from her work in prisons.
It became very clear early on in my work that the prison population can fluctuate and can be full of uncertainty. Prisoners get moved, or de-categorized which means they leave and go to another prison. The prison population is growing and there just aren’t enough places. Prisoners have endless appointments which may happen in a short space of time. Appeal hearings, solicitors meetings, visits from family, drug testing and lock-downs all of which are not necessarily passed on to the mere sessional worker coming in from the outside. So the group that you are working with may be subject to change at short notice.
In terms of Dramatherapy this can be very disruptive in respect of continuity and safety in the group and sometimes you can be given someone else to replace someone else which again leaves the group in continual flux and it then becomes non –progressive.
It became clear on this occasion that the work needed to be a complete piece rather than a set of pieces put together. Although I was lucky enough to have a whole group when I did my research placement called “Five Men and a Fairytale” which lasted several months and the group did not change for that time. This seemed to be the exception rather than the rule.
I had been fortunate enough to be asked to teach the prison module on the Devon course at Exeter University in May 2005 which was in response to my research there. It turned out to be a logistical nightmare as I was unable to pin down a date a time a place within the prison. Members of staff left who I had been negotiating with. It couldn’t be decided to which department we would be attached to etc. I ended up feeling that I was totally incapable of organizing anything and felt like a failure. So I decided to forge ahead and become an expert as the form was great and I really enjoyed teaching. I didn't know how this was going to happen exactly. All I knew was I wanted to do it better.
I started to think about formulating a method that would prove to be extremely useful in terms of the nature of the establishment in the end.
I needed to be able to ring the prison and book in a session that didn’t require continuity of group. I needed to have a method that was extremely flexible so that it could be adapted very quickly. I needed to be able to begin and complete the work in one session to give the maximum of support to the group that I had now.
This method that I have developed was conducted with prisoners on a rehabilitation unit that means that they were either in work or education or both. This means that they were sufficiently well adjusted enough to follow a fast paced piece of work. I haven’t tried this with less able clients. Although there was still initial resistance from the group.
This work happened in situ and in the moment as it happened. There was no pre-determined plan.
I arrived on the wing to experience high energy in the atmosphere I was lead to the sitting room where the Dramatherapy usually took place. A large group of men trailed in and I could sense immediately that there had been disruption on the wing, and some of the men had noticeable injuries. I made an assumption that there had been some kind of fight.
I introduced myself and got the group to introduce themselves. There was much resistance at this point and I didn’t know if anything would work. All I knew was that I was going to look at issues related to parole and the consequences of that. I had discovered through the prison work that the more flexible you are the better.
You have to be a trickster to combat the trickster he does not respond well to rigidity. The trickster is a shape-shifter and needs to feel that he has the upper hand. In this respect when I am working with the prisoners I let them guide the process and feed their need into a tight structure which as we know promotes great creativity.
Why is this? It is important to realize that creativity is infinite in possibility so can often be chaotic. In this knowledge it makes sense that by guiding or designing channels for illumination ones creative abilities can be perceived with more ease.
So the group firstly was large about 9 or 10 it really was too big for the size of the room so I took a chance and played a ridiculous game that I had made up in the moment for the group so that I could see who would stay and who would go.
The room was on the wing so they could leave the group if they wished. At this point I didn’t know whether the whole group would leave or not. I was relying on the curiosity of the trickster to wean out the unsure. We must be ready to take risks. The trickster is a risk taker.
Sure enough about four men left mumbling under their breath that this was shit and they weren’t going to do it. All the time, allowing the group to feel that they were calling the shots. “OK” I said lets clear the space and I got the men to move all the furniture to one end of the room commenting jokingly about packing vans and removals which they enjoyed.
The energy in the room was still high and so once we were back in the circle I just sat down and the group followed this grounded the energy and gave us a good place to begin. I said that we were a group of elders come together to have a discussion and so we each introduced ourselves as a particular elder which they liked and I liked I initiated the game and then passed it on. This removed them from the prisoner status to an elder status, which gave us a shift into a more philosophical state as a group.
When the game had finished I suggested that the group tell me about issues that prisoners have to face when they get out of jail. A discussion ensued and the topic for exploration became apparent. There was a lot of discussion which I did not join in with, I observed. (The trickster studies the field. I had become quite proficient at using my internal trickster to help the processes I used in prisons and in other groups.) They decided although there was a likelihood of drug use it wasn’t a common denominator for all. The common denominator was how to get on with family and partners again. So this is what we worked with. Finding a common denominator for the group would be a universal commonality a fixed point to build on.
I stood up and the group followed, I said “OK” let’s find a name for the character in the story. So I stated that there was a story. I didn’t say “shall we make a story”. The use of language is very important as it can bypass some non-essential discussions. In this environment time is really limited. I try to have a name for the character that is not the name of someone in the group. I feel this is important as there could be underlying bullying or the prisoners may play with someone’s shadow or create a shadow which would be disruptive and detrimental to the process.
There is a conscious shadow and an unconscious shadow. Both aspects of the shadow are rife in prisons and therefore self protection is a must. Protection is found in supervision and therapy. But nothing can prepare you for the impact of the atmospheric pressures in prisons.
At this point I could sense that the minds of the men in the group were opening and so I seeded in that they were going to be participators in the play as well as observers of the action of the play. Play being emphasized as that of child’s play and that of the theatrical context that I was playing with. “OK” I said Sean gets out where does he go?
Prisoners more often than not want to go to the pub which was in fact where I knew they would go first. So I got them to build the pub out of the furniture in the room. Then I asked them what is happening in this scene.
(Never giving explanation to the format, but pushing forward. As we progressed the minds became very willing which enabled me to build a structure. Let’s describe it as water being guided through opening tributaries. So thought process was becoming more pliable and open to suggestion.)
All the time asking the group what happens next. We took Sean to the pub and the inevitable happened and Sean got drunk from all the free drinks and frivolity. I asked them to observe what was happening and a small discussion was had. I asked if anything could be different here. So another man took the role of Sean and he tried in vain to limit the amount of alcohol he had.
(By trying different roles we are expanding our role repertoire even if the roles being tried appear to be quite subtle. Each character has a certain thought process and even if you touch it for a moment that is enough for expansion to happen. Everyone in the group at this point is beginning to take on multiple roles. The expansion of roles is a key feature of this format. The more characters we play the more we expand our ability to ‘act’ differently. Our behavior changes through our new role repertoire as we begin to explore a range of possibilities.)
All the time asking the group what happens next. It appeared that Sean would go home to the girlfriend’s house. So we have built the scenes one by one using the paradigm of the participator and the observer. A visit to the pub. Seeing the girlfriend. Home to the parents. The appointment with the probation office. Back at the pub. At the girlfriends. At probation (6 months later). Each person in the group is given the opportunity to name a scene, to promote equality.
As the drama developed so did the confidence of the group as a whole and the individuals within the group. They mastered the structure, which enabled them to take control of the drama and move forward through to its conclusion which was a success as Sean had progressed through the drama, failing at every turn until he went back to the pub and asked someone to give him a job. This then lead him to be able to go to the appointment with the probation officer and tell the truth whereas in the beginning he had lied.
I could sense that the group felt a great sense of achievement
So this is how I made an interpretation of Forum Theatre which was developed by Augusto Boal.
What drove me to formulate ' Forum Theatre' in this way?
I wanted to use the form in a small group. It is not really possible to do an adequate forum in a small group. The conventions of ‘Forum Theatre’ require an audience and a group to perform and there is not always the facility to do this. Either the group is not big enough or you find that the group is not able or willing to fully participate. The more I observed ‘Forum Theatre’, the more I became aware of loopholes.
Places that people could hide and not be involved. Also I saw that although some people put up their hands to tell a story more than once, they were somehow not chosen for various reasons. So then that person looses the right to voice somehow. Others actively chose not to participate. So were ostensibly observers only. Forum Theatre in this format is moving from the totality of external dialogue into a more internal process. The ability to examine thought processes. To create internal roles, which manifest, through ideas? Enabling examination of a characters behavior. Opinions are formed and modeled through the drama, enabling the participants to examine their own ability to construct meaningful arguments and sustain participation. Ideas and opinions are activated through the external stimulus of the drama. Increased concentration enables the participants to concertize their ability and to increase their sense of themselves.
Cc. Alix Harrow