Live theatre a forum for prisoners

In the past nine years Ruth Carraway has been taking a drama group at the Otago Corrections...
In the past nine years Ruth Carraway has been taking a drama group at the Otago Corrections Facility and in more recent years has enabled prisoners to take part in live theatre as part of previous Fringe Festivals. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Having introduced the Otago Corrections Facility to the restorative powers of forum theatre, Ruth Carraway is continuing the work in the community. She tells Rebecca Fox about the determination her cast members have to put on their latest show after Covid scuttled their Dunedin Fringe season.

Standing on stage acting out a scenario that is familiar to them all, a group of people who have all been involved in the criminal justice system in some way are taking a brave step.

Recognition of that bravery often leads audience members to behave in ways they would not ordinarily.

"They put their big girl’s [or boy’s] pants on and step on stage to help."

Forum theatre encourages members of the audience to step in with their thoughts to re-direct the play from its unfortunate ending to a more positive one.

Ruth Carraway, who has previously appeared in television programmes The Bill, Grange Hill and Prime Suspect, is passionate about the theatre form.

In the past nine years she has been taking a drama group at the Otago Corrections Facility and in more recent years has enabled prisoners to take part in live theatre as part of previous Fringe Festivals.

But it has always been her dream to have a theatre company and take forum theatre to the masses.

With some not-so-subtle encouragement from fellow Milton resident Kim Schiller, a former corrections officer and theatre student, Carraway set up Happy You ...!! theatre company in 2020.

"She said dreams only stay a dream unless you do something about it."

Schiller had attended one of the earlier performances and was hooked.

"There is the fun of performance with such profound meaning behind it and I just wanted to get involved with it.

"It was too much of an amazing opportunity to pass up."

Theatre company director Ruth Carraway and Kim Schiller, Been Through Enough.
Theatre company director Ruth Carraway and Kim Schiller, Been Through Enough.
Schiller has since performed herself a couple of times to provide a greater female balance to casts.

"I went to performing arts school straight out of school but did nothing with it but I’ve always had an underlying hankering to get back into performing."

She was also amazed at the mutual empathy created between audience members and the cast.

"Especially for our group of people who have never set foot on stage before, let alone spoken on stage."

For them, the knowledge the audience will take part removes a lot of the pressure.

"After the first show everyone’s like ‘Oh, that’s so amazing. It’s not like being in the spotlight so much’."

She believed forum theatre enabled the audience to understand and walk in the shoes of the characters on stage.

"They’re all based on situations from our own lives. It’s a beautiful interaction."

Schiller describes the experience as a perspective shifter.

"People want to help change things for the better. People might be nervous or tentative; one woman said she couldn’t help herself, she felt compelled to stand up, because of the bravery of those guys on stage."

The cast of Been Through Enough rehearses.
The cast of Been Through Enough rehearses.
Carraway, who directs and facilitates the performances, says another woman was shaking as she got up but still did it.

"How awesome is that? What growth for that person too, to know they faced their fear?"

The audiences’ different life experiences and perspectives often provided ways of thinking and solutions to issues the characters had never thought of.

"It gives food for thought for them and ideas to move forward. It’s been really powerful when you see the light bulbs go off on both sides.

"I try and create a cohesiveness between the audience and the actors right from the beginning so people feel they are part of the same thing, that we are all working together for positive change."

All of those involved in performing have been involved in the criminal justice system in one way or another, whether as a person who has been in prison, or serving a sentence or order in the community, or a former corrections staff.

"I know how powerful this is for those involved and the audience too."

Those involved have not had the best of starts.

Carraway had an OK start in life but when her mother died when she was 18 she went off the rails.

"I pushed the self-destruct button. I went off track but due to the foundation and nurturing I had, I was able to get back on track. For some of our guys who go off track they haven’t had that foundation, that nurturing to begin with. They have no reference point."

No reference point often led to crime.

"What we are hoping as a company is this gives the guys a reference point, where they feel included, where they feel they are not judged by their past."

This does not mean she condones their past behaviour; she believes they should not be defined by it, instead getting the opportunity to grow, learn and give back.

Schiller says while the performances are great, the lead-up to them, the team-building and development of skills, is amazing.

Carraway has known one young man for about 10 years and he was the first to get involved in the theatre company.

"He’s a fine actor."

The relationships that are built between the company’s actors are also precious.

"They come from so many different backgrounds but all have a common link. Their acceptance of others grows."

The plays are created by the company’s members from their own experiences.

They work out a basic storyline and main character and what happens to the character. Once Carraway has broken it down into scenes, they improvise together to flesh out the story and she writes "the gems" up as a script.

"It’s really collaborative. Each character has the ability to put their own nuances into it."

Schiller says having the storyline based on lived experience and the challenges faced from making some bad decisions makes it very compelling.

"It’s real-life scenarios with artistic licence on those scenarios."

The company’s latest production ,Been Through Enough, was to have been performed at this year’s Fringe Festival but Covid-19 intervened.

It is about Chris, a former prisoner, who tries to make a new life for himself and his children.

"I’ve been in tears already," Carraway says of the rehearsal.

The company had its first performance at a mayors zone meeting (both Schiller and Carraway work at the Clutha District Council) and was ready to perform Hashtag Messed Up in the Fringe in 2020 but it was cancelled because of Covid-19.

Not about to let a cancellation get in the way, they independently did the show a few months later when it was safe to do so. They performed four shows last year to two sold-out and two nearly sold-out audiences.

"It was our first big outing with eight of us and one show sold out and one was three-quarters full so we were really happy with that."

So with that experience in mind, they are more than ready to resurrect Been Through Enough with it opening tonight and hope to have live music at some of the performances.

To see

Been Through Enough, Te Whare o Rukutia
20 Princes St, Dunedin
May 26-27 and June 3-4, 7.30pm


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