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Finding a voice

Theatre Nemo uses creative arts projects to help those affected by mental health problems express their feelings, and gain confidence and motivation. As well was working in the community, it also operates in hospitals and prisons, such as Glasgow’s HMP Barlinnie, the largest in Scotland. The charity has been using research into the history of the 130-year-old prison as subject matter for a drama performance it has been working on with prisoners.

The project is a good example of the benefits of two funding streams coming together. Theatre Nemo is one of the groups supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘All Our Stories’ project, which helps local communities to explore their history. In tandem with this, the AHRC’s ‘Research for Community Heritage’ programme provides funding for such groups to work with academics from local universities.

The AHRC funding enabled the University of Aberdeen to support the Theatre Nemo project at Barlinnie. Dr Adam Hanna, a Research Fellow based at the University’s Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, looked into the history of the prison, and also produced a step-by-step guide to searching archives which supported the charity’s workers and volunteers to carry on the research themselves. Dr Hanna is a member of the "Sharing All Our Stories, Scotland" programme, led by Dr Elizabeth Curtis of the School of Education.

“I went to the National Archives of Scotland and found some very dusty documents about the construction of the prison and the register of first prisoners,” says Dr Hanna. “You can see from the performance how the records really captured the imagination of the prisoners. No matter where you are, you still want to know about who has occupied that space before you. Today’s prisoners were really interested in the people who had walked those corridors in the past. These records told us about their backgrounds, ages, the sort of crimes they committed and streets they came from. I got the feeling that what interested the present-day prisoners were the continuities between them and the prisoners in the 1880s.”

Finding subject matter that engages inmates struggling with mental health issues is vital in addressing a serious need among the prison population. Research shows that prisoners have much higher rates of mental illness than the general population. The Mental Health Foundation has found that 16 per cent of British prisoners have several co-existing mental health disorders, and it’s estimated that the suicide risk for prisoners is seven times that of the rest of the population. Theatre Nemo’s Chief Executive and co-founder, Isabel McCue, set up the charity after being personally affected by this. Her son, John, took his own life following a long period of mental illness, during which he spent six months on remand in Barlinnie.

Prisoners with mental health problems can often find it hard to participate in the education, training and work options offered in their institution. Theatre Nemo works with Barlinnie’s Day Care staff to run arts activities which not only involve drama, but also painting, collage-making, animation, and short films. The aim is to help the men cope better with their sentences, give them the confidence and life skills to make positive changes on their release, and avoid reoffending.

McCue’s son, Hugh, who works as the charity’s project coordinator, found the research guidance provided through the AHRC funding very useful. “I didn’t know that you could just ask to go in and see the records,” he says. “We wouldn’t have known where to begin without the training.”

The weekly drama sessions involve giving the group some of the historical data and asking them to think about how they are going to turn it into a performance. “Through doing that, they’re not only learning about the history but also about how to work as a team,” he explains. “The dramatisation itself involves work on their physicality so they come across as more confident. It’s all about transferable skills that they can use in situations such as job interviews. Even with something like a doctor’s appointment, they need the confidence to say how they are feeling and what they would like to happen. It’s all about empowerment.”

As the project has progressed, the post-session feedback has begun to involve more discussion about their experience within the prison system, he adds. Some of this has definitely been prompted by the subject matter. “It’s brought their own situations into focus, and has made them question things a bit more and also think about the opportunities they have now which weren’t available in the past.”

Feedback from the prisoners themselves has been overwhelmingly positive. “The programme brought me out of my cell, and out of my shell,” said one. “It gave me the confidence to bring those walls down and trust people. I now know for the first time in my life that I have interests and have the ability to do well if I put in the time and the work. I’ve never had that before.”

Another added: “It’s good that people see that I have something to offer as before they only knew me for the bad things I did. I’m glad that the public will get the chance to see the work, and know that we’ve done something worthwhile in here.”

The dramatic piece the prisoners are currently working on, which is scheduled for performance in late 2013, is shaped around key points in prison and judicial history, such as the abolition of hard labour soon after the prison was built, the shift in emphasis from punishment to reform and rehabilitation, the end of flogging and of capital punishment — Barlinnie saw ten hangings between 1946 and 1960.

“Learning about how people in the past have campaigned to change things to get us to where we are today has helped the prisoners feel more confident that they can have the power to change things in the future,” says Isabel McCue. “They are getting very excited about the fact that they too can have a voice.”

You can read more about the project and view clips of the performance on the Theatre Nemo website.

Other Research for Community Heritage stories are available in a recent AHRC publication.

Article by Caroline Roberts

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