This blog post is for myself, as much as it is for anyone out there who reads it. I'm writing these thoughts down so that I can always come back to them and remember what happened last week. I've been gushy about performances and projects before, sometimes even humbled, but I truly think my experiences in Dartmoor prison may have been the most formative I've had to date. That's why I'll try as hard as I can to refrain from gushing and just put down as honest and bare a personal account as I can.
To put the whole thing in context for you, the premise (as relayed to me by the organiser - Adam Green) was simple - we put on a reduced version of Carmen in Dartmoor Prison, with a chorus made up of inmates. I had done quite a lot of outreach work before with ETO and Garsington Opera, and it had always been very rewarding, so of course I agreed to take part, looking forward to the warm feeling you get from 'giving back'.
It's been a couple of days, and to be perfectly honest, I don't have that warm feeling. The project was indescribably amazing and worthwhile, and the high I was on directly after the performance was probably the biggest I've ever had. I also feel and believe we managed to make a positive impact on the people we worked with, prisoners and guards alike, and they on us. I will always remember the zeal and abandon that our chorus performed with, the energy they gave me during the Toreador was electrifying, and goes to show how powerful the art of performing music can be (but also made me feel that in every performance I've ever given, I could have given more, held less back, been more invested in the joy of what I do). Through their sheer focus and enthusiasm, the chorus truly became the stars of the show, and their smiles in the curtain call as they bowed will stay with me forever. Plus the sound they made! Every time someone asked 'yeah, but can they actually sing?', I smiled the same smile Adam did when I asked him the same question, and replied 'just you wait until you hear them'. Visceral, full-bodied and joyous, I can only describe it as the sound of freedom... The freedom to express yourself in the most extrovert way imaginable; the vocalised joy of working together in a group; the sound of people forgetting who and where they are...
And here we come to why I'm not filled with a warm glow, despite being genuinely in awe of the experience we all shared. We all worked together on this piece. The prisoners worked on their back stories from day to day, and handed Tom (our director) pages of 'question and answer' homework every morning. During rehearsals there wasn't really any feeling of there being 'us' and 'them'. We joked, laughed, explored, played, sang, drank tea, everything as a group of artists. In tea breaks the music making would continue, someone grabbing a guitar and a small group launching into pop songs, or our pianist and an inmate playing showtunes on the piano together. And then the call would end, and we'd go home, while they'd be marched back to their cells, just at the point when normally a company would go for a quick one down the pub. The magic would always end so abruptly. Once, when we got stopped mid-rehearsal because there was an ongoing incident elsewhere in the prison and everyone had to be taken back to their cells for roll call, I actually cried. When we arrived on the day of the show only to be turned away with the words 'there's an ongoing incident, we can't let you in and we don't know if the show will happen' I couldn't believe we may not actually see the guys again... Thankfully, due to the determination of the prison staff to go make Carmen happen, it did go ahead.
I don't even remember what I was expecting before the first day of rehearsals with the inmates. I was nervous, perhaps slightly frightened... But after hearing them sing, chatting with them, I quickly realised - they are just people. We all have in us the capacity for all things human - good or evil, regret or obstinance, indifference or empathy. Of course, I realise there are reasons for them being where they are, and that prisons aren't supposed to be nice places. But I did find myself thinking as we went on a guided tour of the facility - nobody deserves this, there must be a better way...
To be fair to HMP Dartmoor, talking to the governors and guards, you get a feeling that they do want to do what they can to help the prisoners. There are courses in tiling, woodwork, bricklaying, and other qualifications the inmates can study for in order to have a chance of getting work after release. The atmosphere is respectful, even friendly. Everyone there is doing what they can to address the myriad of issues that crop up in a place like that - mental health issues, self-harm (the prison has pet ferrets that apparently help self-harming inmates), contraband, violence, a horrible drug called 'spice' that is so strong it can even affect guards who accidentally inhale it, the dietary requirements of each individual inmate (for the £1.30 the prison has to spend daily per prisoner on food), the need to exercise, and even the needs of pre-op transgender prisoners (one of whom was in our chorus). There is a lot of good will in that place. But the building is ancient and damp, the cells tiny, the number of staff inadequate (on weekends, when the prison operates on a reduced staffing, there aren't enough guards to let more than a small number of prisoners out of their cells, so most will be locked in their tiny room from Friday evening to Monday morning).
So while I feel immense pride in what our chorus accomplished, and gratitude for the chance to be involved in such a great project, I can't help thinking about how they must be dealing with the post-show come down (which all of us get) in that place. I simply have to have faith that they can hang on to the memory of that onstage feeling and go back to the world we created in the prison chapel, and that they can keep that feeling of freedom they had. I miss them...
One of our more shy chorus members came up to me before the show and handed me a folded piece of paper. 'This is a letter for all of you professionals, can you share it with them? Just please don't read it until after you've left, I'm too embarrassed...' I won't quote much from it, suffice it to say I cried reading it. He signed off with this:
'Thank you for treating us all like equals.'
Damn right. We all are.