August 27, 2020

Shakespeare UnBard

Rowan Mckenzie
Artistic Director of The Gallowfield Players and Emergency Shakespeare
Shakespeare UnBard

I’m delighted to work within a number of English prisons, facilitating collaboratively owned theatre companies in which I and the inmates involved work together to choose, edit, adapt, rehearse and perform Shakespeare plays. The positive impact of creative arts in the criminal justice system is widely known and the physicality of theatre means that it appeals to a wide cross-section of inmates.  I have been working in prisons for a number of years and have the pleasure of being the Artistic Director of The Gallowfield Players in HMP Gartree and Emergency Shakespeare in HMP Stafford. The theatre companies give those involved the opportunity to develop a wide range of transferable skills such as public speaking, working collaboratively, memory exercises and confidence. The rehabilitative benefits of them developing positive autonomy, emotional resilience and a sense of supportive community are significant during their sentences and upon release.

The Gallowfield Players was founded as a theatre company in spring 2018 and since then have produced adaptations of Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice. We were beginning the read-through phase for our next play – Sycorax’s Storm when COVID-19 temporarily suspended our rehearsals. The inmates take ownership for everything including script editing, props and costumes, fundraising, inviting dignitaries, programmes, and supporting each other with line learning and rehearsals. The Merchant adapted Shakespeare’s famous play so that it opened with Shylock at the gate of HMP Gallowfield – awaiting his release and considering how society would judge him as a released lifer. His daughter hated him for the missed years and his criminal record made life difficult for him on the outside. Those involved used this play to explore some of the issues which are real for them and their loved ones (many of whom shared in a special Family Day performance of it and who gave a tearful standing ovation at the end).

Emergency Shakespeare began the following year and follows the same model – the group make the decisions and work closely to create productions, with the support and involvement of numerous members of staff (many of whom play roles in the performances and join us for rehearsals). The first two plays were Macbeth (although vastly altered and set in a modern day theatre company where the first death is accidental but from there life spirals out of control) and The Merry Wives of Windsor and the third, Othello, was just being discussed as the pandemic took hold. We have been involved in the Talent Unlocked Festival and were delighted to be part of the Rehabilitative Culture Day in 2019.

During the pandemic I have been writing Activity Packs which have been made available to all prisons (public and private) using the stories and themes from Shakespeare’s plays to encourage creative writing and drawing whilst inmates have been in their cells the majority of the time. These packs take a different play each week and are produced at three levels –

Level 1 – limited literacy or limited use of English – responses are often drawn, language used is very simple. Level 2 – average literacy (can read a newspaper unaided) with slightly more complex language and a mix of activities. Level 3 – higher levels of literacy, using some of Shakespeare’s quotes, inviting creative writing responses.

Rowan Mackenzie is the founder of Shakespeare UnBard and Artistic Director of The Gallowfield Players (HMP Gartree) and Emergency Shakespeare (HMP Stafford.) Both are collaborative theatre companies based in prisons  which work on editing, adapting and performing Shakespeare plays.  She co-own the theatre companies with the inmates in the prisons. All decisions - from choice of play, setting, costumes and adaptations are made collectively and the actors own the process end to end. Throughout lockdown Rowan has maintained weekly communication with prisoner colleagues and in HMP Gartree managed to edit a full length script of an adaptation entitled Sycorax’s Storm (the prelude to The Tempest) through correspondence. Join Rowan for an InsightsOnline webinar on 3rd September and learn more about how this amazing project is making a huge and positive difference to the rehabilitation of men in custody.

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More information about Rowan's work can be found in the following articles

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