© 2016 by No Mean Feat

The contemplation of space

By Adam Benjamin

2006

 

Adam Benjamin was one of the first recipients of the Rayne Fellowships for Choreographers in 2006.  As part of the Fellowship he spent two months working with some of the inmates of Dartmoor Prison.  During the residency he kept a diary -  from which the following extracts have been taken....

 

I have been attracted to the landscape of the South West for many years. As a visual artist in the early 1990s much of my work drew on the wild un-peopled spaces of Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor, until a career in dance took me away from landscape and toward the play of bodies in space and light.

In 2002 I moved out of London, settling in the Tamar Valley to the Cornish side of Dartmoor. It was only as I grew familiar with the area that I became aware of the prison situated at Princetown. Its imposing grey, granite, buildings casting a shadow in my mind on each journey east through the national park. From that first view, every walk since, and every taste of that extraordinary Atlantic blown air, has been held in tension by the knowledge of men, held behind stone walls. Space and captivity vie for my attention, freedom and restraint bend the light.

Initial contact with Dartmoor came through Sharon Berry of 'Story Book Dads' an organization that helps inmates maintain and develop their relationships with their children by writing, read and recording stories on CD. Sharon then introduced me to The Telephone Box Performance Company, a small theatre group also working within the prison, suggesting that this might be a more relevant contact. An initial meeting in Princetown gave me some background on the group which had been set up by Samantha Parry and Karen Denning in 2001.

 

My first time in a prison of any description.  As the keys turn and doors shut behind me there was an accompanying nervousness, not dissimilar to arriving for the first time in Ankara or Soweto, with little idea of what it is that you have let yourself in for, or just how useful dance is going to be you or those around you. Curiosity about what lies ahead, mixed with a little fear, or is that fear about what lies ahead mixed with little curiosity?

 

Waiting on the strangely named Amethyst* Support Unit for the inmates of D Wing, I try to find myself in my own bones, know the place to be, the place to look out from as the men filter in; hard, tattooed faces that scan me, wary, indifferent or overly interested.  Within half an hour of theatre warm up (which I join in) led by Sam and Karen, these same men beam amusement, jokes pass, faces crack, laughter erupts. I am quickly made to feel at ease and welcome.

A drama session in which we must all play a character of our own making and introduce ourselves to the group. I am a octogenarian Cornish farmer with a penchant for Tina Turner and fast cars. As I begin my introduction my words are interrupted by thunderous shuddering sounds from the pipes in the roof, a scene develops in which uncontrollable farting alternates with Cornish whimsy, and my place is secured in the hearts (if not the bowels) of the men from D Wing.

The work of the theatre project is simple, pitched neither too high nor too low, the making of work left to the ideas and choices of the men themselves with Sam and Karen guiding and shaping.  Physically I feel there is immense room for new challenges and for an exploration that might draw in some of those less involved in the group.

*Later looked into the origin and found - 'Latin Amythystus, from the Greek Amythustos (not drunken) because the stone was believed to prevent intoxication.'                                                                                              

 

What untapped creative resources lie hidden here. Musicians, rappers, story tellers, artists. Phil is six foot six, tattooed, muscular and broad as a barge. He is also immediately like-able and nervous about a forth-coming audition. He has applied for a BTEC at Bath College and the audition (after much persuasion on the part of Sam) will take place in the prison.

Sam asks me if I will coach Phil on a piece of devised physical theatre. I readily agree. We work alone in the privacy of the 'family room'; a strange amalgam of items intended to convey the intimacy of home for family visits, but which only succeeding in creating, with the utmost conviction, that this is a room in a prison and home to no one. It is in this slightly surreal environment that we explore the art of mime and movement. We settle on a story that Phil tells me: a friend, breaking up a fight between two youngsters, is stabbed in the back by one as he tries to reassure the other.  Both then run away leaving him bleeding in the street.

Another surreal moment - while I try to get Phil to be more realistic in his movement, I tell him that it doesn't really look like he is trying to stop someone having a fight. "I'll try and get to the door now, and you try and stop me" I suggest. As Phil all tattoos and muscle wrestles me back from the door, and I am thinking "Probably not a good moment for the guards to look in!".

Phil is diligent and earnest and makes real progress. To the confessed surprise of the lecturer who comes to examine him, he passes the audition with flying colors and although unable to make the start of the course, his place is held and he enrolls six weeks late.

                                                                                              

Each day Amethyst has a decidedly different air. On the day, that I have agreed to lead a movement session, there is a leaden tension in the air, the inmates are sullen, uncommunicative and even those I have made good contact with seem distant. Days like this descend without warning. Like any group living and working intensively together there seem to be cycles, it is just that here, when that mood is down, it is deathly.

Things seem to settle slightly by the afternoon though the atmosphere isn't helped by the introduction of three inmates I have not met before, all twitchy and wired to distraction. It does not feel like a good day for dance.  We push back the furniture to make as much room as is humanly possible. In the cramped setting, the low ceiling with its insulated pipes offers little in the way of encouragement. My initial attempts fizzle like a damp firework in the rain. It is too long since I have worked with anything but willing and respectful students and it takes a while to realize that an increase of several decibels is going to be needed if my voice is to reach any, let alone all of those gathered joking, talking and lounging in the room - oh, and it is one thing to shout at young teenagers, another to shout at a group of men most of whom have committed the kind of violence I have only ever come across in Tarantino films.  Shout I do (at the smallest and most timid looking inmate who has probably only poisoned someone), and little by little the men take note, and even those who don't move don't leave, but stay to watch, some gradually being drawn in by the others. There is a surprising amount of mutual support behind the bravado and the macho posing.  In the end nearly the whole group are involved in devising material involving supports, lifts and counter-balances. The work progresses interspersed with bouts of cajoling and more shouting. Karen and Sam are wonderfully supportive and the session ends with the men watching each others short performances.

                                                                                            

The most serious limitation to the work it seems to me, is the room in which we work. A low ceiling ribbed with pipes and air ducts lowers over our heads, the stained carpet and beat up pool table do nothing to alleviate the sense of weight. I long for space and harbor dreams of transforming the vast chapel that lies unused at the centre of the prison, part derelict, part scattered with laundry bags, part filled with a port-a-cabin.  A tragic waste, and a symbol, if ever one was needed of the death of the spirit (in whatever vein that might be taken) and the failure of society to replace it with a viable alternative).    A huge cavernous space hidden within the walls of the prison, the empty unused heart of this place of incarceration.

Following the delight we all felt at Phil's acceptance at Bath College, the inadequacies of the environment in which the group works are suddenly brought to the fore. Sniffer dogs are brought in and Amethyst Unit is closed due to security infringements. Were the prison to have a clear space suited to the needs of the theatre company, and to movement work and other performing arts in general, the undoubted talents of those incarcerated at HMP Dartmoor might be given real support and outlet, and more offenders like Phil might find their way into meaningful studies and possibly, meaningful careers.

The secondment has been a very important one for me. It has shown me a part of the world (on my doorstep) I might never otherwise have seen. I am tremendously grateful to Sam and Karen for sharing their work with me and am hopeful that further developments might ensue.

Names of inmates have been changed.