Every fall, since 1981, William Head on Stage (WHoS) has been attracting audiences of up to 2,500 over 15 nights. William Head Institution, a thirty-five minute drive from Victoria, B.C., is the only federal prison in Canada that has an inmate-run theatre company.
Performing plays for local community audiences for 40 years says a lot about commitment.
Originally, Simon Fraser University and University of Victoria offered credit drama courses to the offenders in the institution (then medium, now minimum security). While the program was cut due to policy changes in 1993, the men wanted to keep it going. With the assistance of staff and volunteers from the local theatre community, offenders at William Head continued putting on the theatrical productions.
“I think from the beginning there was lots of support, especially from the staff and management perspective, we saw what it brought out in the guys,” said Cecilia Rossander, Social Programs Officer at William Head. “I believe in this initiative and see the transition from the expressions on their faces to the stories they share, and how the participants come out of their shells. I see the results in the individuals who take part. Management is also supportive, and notice the many benefits.”
The inmates are involved in every aspect of the creative process, from rehearsal to performance. They design and build the sets, costumes, props, lighting and sound, or play live music. They act, write, and stage-manage.
“There are many advantages to participating. A sense of community would be top of my list, as well as belonging again,” said Paul, the inmate chair of the five-man WHoS board and a participant since 2018. “You get involved with WHoS and it’s a whole group of individuals, from all walks of life, who come together, and develop common goals and direction, and make things happen.”
Recruiting participants inside the institution is usually not too difficult. For example, almost a third of the institution’s population was involved in the cast and crew of the 2018 production of Crossroads (approximately 50 of the 180-inmate population).
“It’s being able to find your voice again, having different conversations that connect you with people both inside and outside prison,” added Paul. “There’s a confidence that comes back to a lot of us that either we had and lost or like some of the participants never had the experience, and then an opportunity like WHoS comes along and there are opportunities everywhere.”
Over the years, WHoS has performed existing scripts, such as MacBeth, and adapted books for the stage (e.g. The Hobbit). They have also created or devised their own plays, coming up with creative concepts and writing the script.
“The devised work has been powerful in that it opens up opportunities for men who can’t read or have issues around reading,” said Kate Rubin, a professional theatre artist and a volunteer with WHoS since 2006. “Also, scripts are still basically from a white perspective…and in jail, there is a predominance of Indigenous people and other cultures who would not be comfortable doing a play written from a white, privileged perspective.”
As a result, Kate noted, the productions incorporate the diverse ethnic backgrounds, cultures, and languages of the men involved.
Typically, 10 to 12 volunteers assist with each show. Beginning in February, the volunteers run drama workshops, coaching the men on acting and character development, and mentoring them on how to produce a play. In June, they work together creating the live production. Volunteers also act onstage alongside the inmates.
The support and commitment of staff also makes the WHoS productions possible.
“I am the on-site staff liaison for the WHoS production. Anything to do with WHoS is my area,” said Cecilia, who acts as liaison between the William Head residents, staff, community suppliers, and the volunteers. Cecilia purchases the materials, coordinates schedules for meetings and rehearsals with management and staff involved, including stores and security. “We’ve done this for so long, it’s second nature for the site. We have developed good procedures over the years.”
After each performance, there is a Talk Back session when WHoS participants sit on the stage and answer the audience’s questions about their involvement in the production process. This is a unique opportunity for both audience members and offenders to connect and learn from each other.
“Before the show, there is always a sense of mystery and nervous energy going into the prison,” said volunteer Kathleen Greenfield, Co-Artistic Director of Victoria’s performing arts company SNAFU Society of Unexpected Spectacles. “Then seeing the audience leaving, having learned something really important about humanity. Those Talk Backs help that sense of connection.”
In 2020 and 2021, WHoS cancelled their shows because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they turned their talents to a different medium, creating a podcast that would be available to audiences on digital platforms. CFUV, University of Victoria’s radio station, offered to broadcast it.
“The guys don’t have access to digital technology, but they do have access to radio stations,” said Kathleen, who produced and edited the three-episode podcast and coordinated with CFUV. “So, all participants should be able to listen from inside.”
The WHoS podcast, called Dark Traveller, was recorded inside William Head during the pandemic lockdown. It is the first public podcast created by inmates in Canada. The three-part series includes the radio play Northern Lights, along with interviews, original creative writing pieces, and a look behind the scenes.
It was an ideal opportunity for WHoS members to be creative, learn new skills, and keep connected during a year of isolation. They anticipate getting back onstage in 2022.
Released on June 2, 2021, it is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, and RadioPublic.
You can access the podcast here:
CSC is very proud of this inmate-run initiative that has given back so much to the inmates and the community for 40 years. CSC , and those in our care and custody, gain so much from the collaboration with community partners. CSC cannot do this work alone. We are grateful for the support provided to inmates from staff and the volunteers from the SNAFU Society of Unexpected Spectacles.