Skip to Content

Arts feature

Putting criminals on stage

Danny Kruger explains how his theatre company helps offenders to go straight

12 November 2008

12:00 AM

12 November 2008

12:00 AM

Danny Kruger explains how his theatre company helps offenders to go straight

Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson was a drug dealer, with a five-year stretch for murder behind her and no nice future ahead. But then a random meeting in a Baltimore nightclub, with an actor in the hit TV show The Wire, led to a starring part for herself in the story about the lives and fortunes of hustlers and cops and pimps and politicians. She plays to type, a drug-dealer and murderer, and in the role she has found a sort of redemption, and a deeper truth: ‘Ain’t saying I’m the best actor out there — I know I’m not — but I also know that acting, by showing me how to feel, also showed me I hadn’t been feeling at all. You can’t sell dope all day and still feel. You can’t kill niggas and still feel. You just can’t.’

My wife Emma and I use that quotation to explain why we put criminals on stage, and sell tickets to the public to come and watch them. Creative expression feeds the soul, while the sensation of applause mainlines affirmation into people who have usually got their kicks and their comforts in other, more destructive ways.

The useful irony of acting yourself, or someone like yourself, is that it creates a distance from the personality you have assumed — one’s ‘character’ is revealed as just that, an acquisition which can be analysed and altered. We have seen great changes in our members, and so far none of the men and women we have worked intensively with has returned to prison. Audiences, meanwhile, get more than the voyeuristic tingle of ‘reality theatre’: they watch actors who make up for their lack of professional polish with an abundance of raw integrity.


The process is this. Emma goes into prisons — so far HMPs Wormwood Scrubs, Pentonville and Holloway — to lead workshops and direct plays for audiences of prisoners and outside guests. She actively seeks out those who have an aptitude for the arts, both the show-offs and the shy. Once they are chosen, we help our new members prepare for release, trying to put in place the support they will need when they get out. At that point, they come to our theatre in King’s Cross, to work together over six weeks on a drama production and resettlement programme. Mornings are spent in rehearsal, and afternoons in a structured programme of group work and one-to-one sessions with counsellors and advisers.

The programme reflects the wisdom of E.M. Forster’s famous line from which we take our name: ‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.’ The men and women we work with are often intelligent, charismatic — and failed at school. They got bored too soon, caused chaos in the classroom and were thrown out. What they needed, and still need, is passion: the creative stimulation, within clear professional boundaries, of a collaborative arts project.

The ‘passion’ of theatre work establishes a relationship, builds up trust, and opens the heart so the ‘prose’ can get in. This is the difficult, often boring, always challenging business of life: training and employment, accommodation, financial management; the vital things which ‘passionless’ agencies and organisations struggle to make interesting to people with creative imaginations, short attention spans, and a history of disappointment in their dealings with officialdom.

For most of our members theatre is the means, not the end: we don’t try to guide them into careers as actors. But we want to do more than simply neutralise criminals. The prospect of going straight, for a prolific offender, can seem a descent from someone to no one, from an identity to a nullity. Our members are the charismatics, the natural leaders with the authority and wit to command attention. Indeed, acting ability chimes sweetly with the qualities of leadership. So the ultimate intended outcome of our work is the creation of a body of crime-fighters — former offenders equipped and inspired to lead young people off the road that leads to prison.

Our current project, Any Which Way, is a short play commissioned by Only Connect from the playwright David Watson, produced by Joanna Morgan, directed by Maggie Norris and starring six male ex-offenders alongside three professional actresses. The story follows Stephan, a young man on the run after fatally stabbing his friend. It is being performed to public audiences in the evenings and to groups of young people from schools and youth projects in the afternoons. Following the performances, the ex-offender actors talk directly to the young people about crime, prison and their consequences. Needless to say, they have an authority and persuasiveness which parents, teachers and the police can only wish for.

We want to do more of this, leading arts-based crime-reduction projects in schools and neighbourhoods. Our vision is that our members, who leave prison with a pronounced deficit relationship with society (the social and economic costs they have imposed on the rest of us), actually get out of the red and end up net contributors through the pro-social work they do stopping crime among young people.

We are, I hope, in a sort of tradition. The social realists, from John Osborne to Howard Brenton, were defeated in the end by the reluctance of the working class to storm the barricades under the banner of the kitchen sink. Campaigning drama became as dreary as its subject matter, because the analysis that underpinned it — the guilt of the rotten British establishment — wasn’t a sufficient account of the problems of society.

But it would be a shame if what the old Left used to call ‘committed’ theatre were to cease, extinguished by the failure of the old Left’s politics. And in fact it is a former Marxist, the Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal, who helps show the way to a new genre of artistic social activism. ‘The Theatre of the Oppressed’, Boal’s movement, uses drama as an alternative to the tedious didacticism of 20th-century radicals, seeking to empower and liberate slum-dwellers and persecuted minorities by involving them as actors in dramas about themselves.

Boal’s disciples often do silly things (bourgeois thespian activists trying to inspire the proletariat to revolution by launching ‘happenings’ and ‘nonmatrixed’ performance, free of the deceit and abuse of power apparent in traditional theatre) in the cause of a social analysis which is, in my view, very bad and wrong. But his central assumption is powerfully true. Theatre which preaches change (especially at audiences at the bottom of the economic heap, the people who are supposed to benefit from change) is often simply indulgent, and rarely works. It is participation, not enlightenment and explanations of their own false consciousness, that ‘the oppressed’ need. Theatre is powerful at provoking personal, not political change. It can help with the only really necessary revolution, the proper object of artistic endeavour: revolution in the heart.

Any Which Way runs at the Only Connect Theatre, London WC1, until 29 November. See www.onlyconnectuk.org/aww for details.


Show comments
Close