Performing arts in prison
Darstellende Kunst in der Vollzugsanstalt
Interview with Fiona Stewart 18.12.2012, Hobart/Tasmania/Australia
Nikkolo Feuermacher: As an artist, singer, composer, voice teacher, you are working in a prison now. What are you doing there?
Fiona Stewart: The project that I am working on currently is a ten week pilot program in a maximum security male prison in Hobart Tasmania. This is the first time that they have brought in an arts program to this particular security unit. It coincides with a new director at the prison.
I’ll give you a little bit of background of how it came to be:
I was working for a period of 2 1/2 years in the women’s prison which is on the same site. I had been going in there about once a week doing an expressive arts program, which meant that we did anything from relaxation to voice production, to singing, to drama games, to song-writing. This project had been initiated by the education department within the prison. They had approached the local theatre company, who had then approached me to come and do the work. This project had gone well over the time and we had created a lot of songs and done lots of different projects with the women. The population was changing constantly as they would generally have short sentences. As I was leaving after my very last session on this project, I literally crossed the path of this man who introduced himself to me as the new director. He was interested in the work I’d been doing and asked me to meet with him.
He had been brought from England to come and do this job of trying to improve the culture of the prison. This particular prison in Tasmania has a strong reputation for many many riots and lots of problems in the prison. His job is to try and improve the behaviour there, but also the quality in culture of the life there. I think in his past he has had a lot of experience with arts and cultural programs in other prisons. So he wanted me to come back.
He is wanting to make arts projects work in the prison. But this now is just a pilot. It depends entirely how it goes in this first ten weeks as to whether more projects will be developed.
Nikkolo Feuermacher: What are you going to do in these ten weeks?
Fiona Stewart: I am working with Peter, a film-maker, and the objective of the ten weeks is to write a song and to make a video-clip. We decided to do it in two sections. We have just finished the first three weeks and we decided for this first section that it would be good to do something very light hearted and almost silly and at the same time give the participants an experience of how it is to work with the camera, sing and perform something. We suggested to work with a Christmas song and they changed and wrote their own lyrics. Peter brought in a blue-screen and they did some action in front of it and he went away and edited in different images that he filmed. There is Christmas imagery in the background, but also with the story of an escape from the prison and finally going off on a cruise ship. – Laughs – It was done very quickly but with that sense of humour about the content, all suggested by the prisoners. When we move into next year it’s with the intention for them to write a song themselves and to perform it and to make a clip.
From a teaching point of view my interest is just to provide an environment where expression and a sense of their own self might be known differently through this project than perhaps they might know otherwise in day to day prison life.
Nikkolo Feuermacher: How much time did you spend in prison in these three weeks?
Fiona Stewart: Very short. We have two times of two hour sessions on a Tuesday and Wednesday. Peter does a lot of work outside of that time shooting pictures around town and editing the work that they have done while we’ve been inside.
Nikkolo Feuermacher: How do the participants get involved?
Fiona Stewart: They volunteer to participate. When the director asked us to propose a project, I discussed it with Peter and we designed a very brief page of information for the prisoners to be told about this project and if they were interested to come along to a meeting. We met with ten prisoners three weeks before the project started, just to introduce ourselves and also to talk a little bit about what we do and of the kind of things that me might do together. Then we met with them a few weeks later. So it is very much a choice to participate. But obviously in prison: if you are seen to be productive and making positive actions towards your situation, then that is regarded well in terms of your stay in prison and things can improve for you, as a result.
Nikkolo Feuermacher: If you had the possibility to meet with people who do cultural projects in prison in Austria, would this be interesting for you?
Fiona Stewart: Yes, very interesting. Because I feel that I am just exploring this work by myself. I have read bait some projects on the internet and done some research about some of the things that other people have done, but I have had no direct contact with anybody who is actually working artistically in prisons. So it would be fantastic to meet with other artists who have been in this area of work. And to hear about their experiences and maybe even observe them at work.
Nikkolo Feuermacher: You are an artist and invited to work in a prison. What is the difference to a social worker who has been trained in an arts-workshop to use e.g. theatre work in his projects in prison?
Fiona Stewart: I am not a social worker, so I can’t speak with any direct understanding of how it is to be a social worker who is trained in arts practise. But I can speak about arts practise and the personal empowerment that it may give an individual, and the sense of exploration and expansion that an individual can know through an arts practise. If there is therapeutic or, I suppose in this case, rehabilitative benefit of the work, then that is secondary for me as an artist. My aim is to provide an environment where the individual might experience him or herself through the practise in a new way. Whether that makes him or her a better person and less likely to commit crimes is something else. I would love to think that arts practise rehabilitates somebody to make him or her less likely to commit a crime, but that is not my motivation to do the work. My motivation to do the work is to provide an experience that will enhance the individual of their sense of being a human being. If you take that to a logical conclusion then that would imply perhaps more awareness about ones actions in the world. I guess if you were a social worker that would be number one on your priority: that anything you suggest would always have that as it’s foundation for the motivation. But I’m only assuming that, I don’t know.
Nikkolo Feuermacher: Could you imagine to do a workshop with social workers to give them artistic tools that they might use in their work?
Fiona Stewart: Sure, if they are interested in working with voice, song and body. Because that’s the media I work with. I could share what might be useful or helpful for them. But I think they would need to be interested in these particular media: voice, sound, song, song-writing and working with the body.
Nikkolo Feuermacher: When you work in such socially dense situations like a prison, where you are instantly confronted with the images and projections of the people who are kept there – about who you might be and how you interrelate with them: being a woman, coming from the outside world – do you use Supervision or Balint-work to reflect projections and interrelations?
Fiona Stewart: It is very new to me working in mens prison, we’ve just finished week three. We discussed at the beginning, when setting up the project, that there be access to debriefing at any point, when I or Peter felt the need to discuss anything that was impacting on us in a session. We talked about the importance about feeling free to voice that. If we have the need to talk about something, we would make that need known and we would be listened to and get that support. So far nothing has occurred, there is no sense of concern for me about the interaction between me and the prisoners. But I am very pleased that it has been set up in this way at the beginning of the project: that if should anything arise, a sense of concern, uncertainty, any sense of danger or threat, then the opening is there to seek out the support and supervision should I need it.
I think that is what was different when I worked at women’s. None of that was discussed really at the beginning of the project. So I felt quite alone with the journey. I was by myself at women’s, I didn’t have anybody to talk to. I think it is important that one can have a place where one can dumb one’s experiences, because it is such a dense environment. Sharing time with what some prisoners may be experiencing can sometimes be heavy to carry.
Nikkolo Feuermacher: You call this debriefing?
Fiona Stewart: Yes, Supervision is a term that is used in many other professions, but it hasn’t been set up formally in the sense of there being a specific person for me to go and see at a specific time in order to speak about my experiences. It’s there is an option, should I need to speak with anyone of the officers about it.
I had an experience at women’s at the very end of my time there. Where there was a sense of danger and threat. It wasn’t with any of the women I was working with. It was some of the other prisoners who were not in the program. And because of that experience, I was offered some psychological supervision in order to look at the experience and how it affected me. When I had been threatened and stood over. I appreciated that.
Perhaps it would be useful to have someone more formally set up if I want to speak with someone. But at the same time, what is interesting for me, is the sense that I am working with individuals rather than with prisoners. I forget that they are prisoners. I feel that I am working with men rather than with prisoners.
I suppose that, if you are an officer working in the prison eight hours a day, it would be much more difficult for you to forget that these people are criminals. But for me, coming in for two hours with a specific perspective to work on a creative process, it is much more useful to think of these people as human beings. That’s much more comfortable for me to do my work.
Nikkolo Feuermacher: Is it a quality of your visit, that you are NOT interrelating with these people because they are criminals, because you want to make them better human beings, or because you want to keep them away from others? Is it your perspective that you just want to assist human beings to explore their expressive or imaginary abilities? Does this give a quality that only an artist coming from outside for a limited time can offer?
Fiona Stewart: Perhaps it’s because we artists have more an understanding of how chaotic life is. We accept that perhaps a bit more readily than many other people, who try to have a structure that has an objective and will aim for the objective. The understanding from the artistic perspective: that nothing is certain, is perhaps more unique.
Nikkolo Feuermacher: Is there something else that you would like to tell?
Fiona Stewart: It is an ongoing experience and it just affirms what I feel about creative expression: that it is a birth right for any human being. I guess the prison environment gives a greater intensity to that. Because so many of these individual’s rights are taken away, the right to be a creative human being seems to be fairly important.
Nikkolo Feuermacher: Thank you.