Empathy the lesson in prisoners' theatre work

Malcam Charitable Trust youth worker Ruth Ratcliffe leads an interactive drama performance...
Malcam Charitable Trust youth worker Ruth Ratcliffe leads an interactive drama performance starring inmates of the Otago Corrections Facility. Photos: Gregor Richardson.
A radical form of theatre with Brazilian origins is being used as part of the rehabilitation of prisoners at Otago Corrections Facility, under the direction of a former English television actor.

Malcam Charitable Trust youth worker Ruth Ratcliffe, who had previously appeared in television programmes The Bill, Grange Hill and Prime Suspect, leads the Otago Corrections Facility (OCF) prison drama group.

On Tuesday, her group staged Cool or Fool, an original play the small group of male prisoners wrote and starred in.

The performance was a Forum Theatre production, a type of theatre Mrs Ratcliffe had studied in England.

Ruth Ratcliffe.
Ruth Ratcliffe.
Developed by Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal as part of his "Theatre of the Oppressed" theatrical forms, Forum Theatre allowed audience members to stop a performance, often when a character was being oppressed. The audience member then stepped into the shoes of the oppressed character and attempted to change the course of events for the better.

Tuesday's production centered on the challenges faced by a new maths teacher from Hamilton, Mr Moll, as he entered a high school in Otago and attempted to reach a group of at-risk pupils, while dealing with cynical teachers who had given up on them.

After an initial run-through of their 10-minute performance, the group of prisoners re-staged the play and the audience of education professionals immediately got stuck in. One would shout "freeze," before taking over the role played by one of the prisoners and demonstrating how events could be handled differently.

Mrs Ratcliffe said the theatre technique helped the prisoners "learn empathy," while the rush of stepping up and performing in front of other inmates gave them a valuable outlet for their risk-taking tendencies.

"Drama gives them the same flood of dopamine they get when they're offending.

"It's not molly-coddling, it's showing them they can do other things with their risk-taking."

She eventually hoped to take the technique outside the wire and into schools to help at-risk youth.

Max (not his real name) said he and the other inmates relished the chance to be part of the production.

"All the men are proud to be doing it."

OCF had afforded him educational opportunities he had not received elsewhere, he said. The day before the play he had earned his learner's licence. He had also completed NCEA levels 1 and 2 at the prison, while developing his artistic talents.

One of Max's artworks, a contemporary Maori piece representing creation, hangs in the home of assistant prison director Gill Brown.

Ms Brown said because 66% of prisoners had no formal qualifications, it was essential to provide a wide range of learning opportunities and diverse experiences before they were paroled.

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