(photo by Gordon Lee)Inside the Pen
Audiences over 19 experience something utterly new
by Ingrid Hansen
Ingrid Hansen co-founded SNAFU Dance Theatre in 2006 to collaboratively create and perform live theatre, dance theatre, and puppet theatre. Raised by pro-nudity Danish parents and fuelled by a love for talking with strangers, Ingrid is fascinated with ways of creating temporary communities out of groups of strangers. She tries to push polite Canadian boundaries with great mutual respect and humour. Her favourite performances are in found spaces. She has created and performed original work with SNAFU at events curated by Suddenly Dance, The Belfry Theatre, the SummerWorks Festival, ITSAZOO Productions, The Great Canadian Theatre Company, The Vancouver Fringe, Centaur Theatre, The Phoenix Theatre, and the PUSH Festival. For the past six years, Ms Hansen has built an ongoing collaboration with the inmates at the prison theatre company William Head on Stage, which operates inside a federal prison near Victoria, BC. She spent four summers performing as a lead puppeteer and voice actor on the children’s television series Tiga Talk on APTN. She has toured across the country performing her solo show Little Orange Man at Festivals and schools, and worked as a designer on the Dora-Award-Winning Ride the Cyclone with Atomic Vaudeville. Ingrid loves to teach students of all backgrounds, especially beginners, and has taught theatre workshops for children, adults, actors, dancers, puppeteers, and prison inmates.
Prison Theatre. The inmates perform for the paying public, inside the prison gymnasium theatre. AND the inmates also build the sets, promote the show, coordinate the box office, act as ushers, concession, stage management and crew for the production. Anyone over the age of 19 may buy a ticket, go through prison security, watch the show, and talk to the inmate actors after the performance. The inmate-run theatre company William Head on Stage (WHoS) has been running for over 30 years inside a minimum-security prison on the west coast of Canada. It has, in the words of one audience member, “the most passionate actors and audience I have ever seen. This program is priceless for the questions it raises and the barriers it takes down.”
I've been working with WHoS off and on for the last six years: teaching, performing, designing, choreographing and directing with the inmates in various shows. I'm always on the lookout for people I think would be a great fit working out there--and when I met Pete Balkwill at the Banff Puppet Intensive and saw what a passionate, caring and inventive teacher he was, I told him, "You should do a show with WHoS." I showed him photos from past WHoS projects I had worked on, and he said, "No, WE should do a show with WHoS."
So we did.
Our guys also work harder and quite possibly care more than any other group I've ever worked with.
This year there was a huge turnout of inmates interested in being involved--upwards of 27 people. Puppetry is a perfect fit at prison because it offers creative jobs to people who might be hesitant to get onstage and call themselves actors. It's also a universal access point to the innocence and confidence we all experienced when we puppeteered our toys as children. In addition to the inmate puppeteers and actors, we have a whole entire crew of guys you won't see onstage, who have been working with us from day one, sharing their stories and collaborating to conceive, design and build the puppets and the puppet world.
Our guys have an unending supply of captivating stories. This show is the first in a long time that WHoS has written their own show, telling their own stories, along with fictional fables inspired by true life experiences. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Come opening night, our guys always get nervous. Possibly more nervous than any other group I've ever worked with. Understandably so, as the stakes couldn't be higher. Could you imagine living 20 years in an closed-off institution, learning to hide your emotions and survive within the rules and logic of that system, and then stepping on stage in front of the public for the first time in 20+ years to tell strangers, in your own words, stories about who you are?
Our guys also work harder and quite possibly care more than any other group I've ever worked with. I'm currently plotting ways to do more similar projects in the future, with new groups of participants - perhaps in partnership with a women's shelter, women's prison, or Juvenile detention.
At WHoS I feel honoured to be able to work with such a team of devoted, caring, hardworking individuals. The other day we left prison after a long slogging day of technical rehearsals, and as we left I turned around to see one guy in particular who really struggles with the material with a huge grin on his face. These guys are gearing up for their eventual release back into society to live as our neighbours again, and I feel honoured to watch the guys tackle this challenge together. You very tangibly get to watch people come out of their shell, and learn to trust again.
I'm beginning to learn how to create an environment that unleashes the creative power of the group. I continue to learn how to trust, and have patience--PATIENCE. I'm a very impatient person, which is a quality that gives me the fuel to tackle huge projects but also sometimes causes me to steam-roller over moments and opportunities. The show needs breath and space in order for the group to get the chance to bring it to life.
Everyone meets the challenge full on, buzzing with fear and adrenaline and ready for new beginnings. We laugh a lot--we have to, the whole project is so impossible and the potential for growth is unending. The most amazing thing for me is to watch inmates who are ‘old hats’ at the theatre company counsel the newbies, and talk them down from the ledge when the stage fright sets in. Together, we tackle the impossible. I have been working with WHoS since 2007, and they’re not getting rid of me anytime soon.
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