Drama workshops for fathers in young offenders institution

When director Jim Pope started drama workshops at a young offenders institution he did not realise that the experience would be translated into a play at London's Roundhouse Theatre. Louise Tickle reports

 Jim Pope (right) running a rehearsal for Inside at the Devas Club, Battersea

When director Jim Pope started drama workshops at a young offenders institution he did not realise that the experience would be translated into a play at London’s Roundhouse Theatre. Louise Tickle reports

Five years ago, actor and director Jim Pope was running drama workshops for inmates at Rochester Young Offenders Institute when he realised the sessions were helping some young fathers to explore the anxiety, hurt and dilemmas they experienced about being a parent.

“To survive prison, a person has to wear a mask of toughness and I’d make a definite thing of that in the sessions, the mask could be lifted to allow the work to take place,” says Pope. Convincing inmates to engage with the deeply felt, often quite desperate and panicked emotions they feel about fatherhood during the tailored drama sessions took time and effort, he admits.

“Through structured games, we were able to get people to open up and do lots of learning in a safe way. Eventually a lot of trust was built up. The support towards each other was surprising, as was the intelligence and awareness of issues and parenting. The stereotypical view – that they’re not touched by parenthood and haven’t considered it – is not true. They were receptive to new ideas and always interested.”

The sessions were raw and testing for all involved, but the human drama inherent in them gave rise to a play called Fathers Inside, written by Pope’s colleague Philip Osment and now being staged as Inside at the Roundhouse Studio Theatre in London.

The play, which follows a group of young inmates as they take part in drama sessions exploring their attitudes to fatherhood, shows how the relationships between inmates shift and change on the wing as the young men learn more about each others’ feelings for their children, their fears about the fragile relationships with their girlfriends, and recall painful memories of their own absent, abusive or failing fathers.

Although becoming a father at a young age is often derided, Pope found that the young offenders had enormous pride in their children and wanted to do the very best they could by them.

“We have this footage of the family day we ran when they were just being normal dads, holding their babies; you could see their faces open up. Apart from in the workshops, it was the only time I saw that mask drop,” recalls Pope.

The play was first performed in front of young offenders at Cookham Wood Youth Offenders Institute in Kent by actors recruited through a National Youth Theatre social inclusion programme. Many of these young actors were themselves homeless, in trouble with the law or experiencing social problems.

Pope admits the actors found that first performance “initially terrifying” but says the audience of 14- to 17-year-olds sat through the play in silence and afterwards engaged in active conversation with the actors about the issues.

Now they are staging it publicly with the same group of actors, two of whom are now at drama school, while others have gained qualifications.

“Drama makes people more confident but it does that through putting them in a very scary place first,” says Pope. “To make it work, everyone has to learn to prioritise the group over the individual.” This has been a process experienced by both the inmates, doing the original drama workshops, and the young actors involved, he says.


 Segun Olaiya, who plays Brownie in Inside

Actor: ‘Something like this is very necessary’

Segun Olaiya, 30, plays Brownie, the role he originally helped to create for the National Youth Theatre production of Fathers Inside.

“Acting’s beautiful, but it’s the process that happens beforehand that really works for me, you can explore so many issues. I feel in certain communities we’re forgetting how to communicate and we seem to use violence to do that instead. I made certain choices when I was younger, and I always ask what responsibility I should take for that.

“This play is about a group of young men in prison learning that the way they deal with certain situations in life isn’t working, and that there has to be some change. After showing it to young men in prison and hearing their silence, and then their questions, I’ve learned that something like this is very necessary. The reasons they’re in prison and what it does to them – this is a problem that can be helped.”

Inside will run from 12 to 27 November at the Roundhouse Studio Theatre, Chalk Farm, London NW1 3EH  Tel 0844 482 8008


This article is published in the 4 November 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Helping young fathers to open up”


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