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Take Up Space

I'm tired of being strong

Prisons are full of sharp edges and hard surfaces – no sofas, few hugs, scratchy blankets and cheap washing powder. What would it mean to explore softness and vulnerability through movement in this intense setting?

Body language speaks volumes in the changeable prison environment. Would young men in prison be interested in doing a movement project? Using their bodies in such unfamiliar ways? Performing to an audience? I have previously delivered poetry projects in prisons and know the importance of access to creative opportunities whilst serving a sentence, but I had no idea what the uptake would be for something like this.

Artsadmin partner with social justice charity Catch 22 on Take Up Space. Catch 22 are based in the prison and escorted me onto the wings to meet potential recruits. On hearing the word ‘art’, many of the men I spoke to assumed this would be a visual arts project and expected painting rather than performance. However, there were lots of positive responses and forty men signed up. This list then had to be vetted by various prison staff with potential participants being taken off for reasons such as negative behaviour or being deemed too high risk. After this, we were left with a group of fifteen.

On day one, thirteen people arrived for the workshop, and by the end of Take Up Space, six men completed the project and performed their work. Those taking part found some of the others dropping out difficult to deal with. I reminded them that whoever is in the space is the right group. It’s not a numbers game and there are so many factors that can keep someone from attending a workshop in the outside world, let alone in prison.

At the beginning of each session, artist Lanre Malalou led circuit training as a warm up. We thought that the young men would be receptive to this, but we were wrong. We hadn’t realised that, although it was the afternoon, they had just woken up because ‘sleep is the only way to get through lunchtime bang up’ (when they are locked in their cells for 2 hours before afternoon activities). Of course, their grogginess then made sense and reminded us that in a prison environment, the regime rules.

Each week we would dive into complex topics such as masculinity, racism and vulnerability. We attempted to unpick the experiences and ideas of the group through conversation and movement. Guided by Lanre, they would work in duets, creating original movement sequences and sharing what they had created. I was amazed at what was achieved in a noisy, cold sports hall in limited time. It didn’t feel like a place that lent itself to creativity, but the group pushed through it all.

They spoke about being insulted back on the wings for taking part in these ‘dance classes’. Sometimes other prisoners would gather outside the glass-fronted room we were in, watching what we were doing. This would bring the whole session to a halt; the group did not want to be watched by their peers. One of the group explained: “the guys doing this course are well known in the prison, they are well respected. Taking part in something like this is not easy for them.” Each week, at least one participant would tell me they didn’t want to carry on with the programme either because they were not confident enough or felt that they couldn’t do it. We talked it through and they stayed, pushing through their uncertainties, creating and performing. It always felt like a fragile space – a house of cards that could topple at any moment.

We ran sessions without officers present but unusually, during one session, three arrived. They asked for one of the group to go with them, giving us no indication why. He reappeared fifteen minutes later and, as though he was used to it or resigned to it, muttered: “strip search”. It was worrying to me that his body had just been through that ordeal and we were then asking him to explore his body creatively, but he got on with the session anyway. They hadn’t found anything on him.

At the beginning of every workshop we would do our usual check in, each sharing a positive and negative moment of the past week. The mood felt particularly low on this day. We came to the most dominant person in the group, an intelligent and outgoing individual whom the other guys looked to as a leader. He sighed and said: “I’m tired of being strong.” In that moment we all appreciated his vulnerability. We had found the title of the piece.

On week five of the six-week project, I was informed that the security team in the prison would no longer allow the participants’ families to attend the performance. This was devastating for the group and two of them left immediately, feeling so disappointed at this decision that they no longer wanted to take part. They had all been so excited to show their families what they had created. Just the week before one of the group had been grinning whilst telling me that his girlfriend would not believe what he was able to do and how proud she would be. It was dreadful to have to deliver this news. One of the participants summed it up:

“This gave me a little bit of hope but now it has totally crushed our spirits.”

This was by far the most difficult time in the process. We were allowed to have professional visitors but not families. Was it right to perform to a large group of professionals when family are not allowed? The decision had to come from the participants and myself and Lanre would support whatever they decided. By the end of the session, the consensus was that the performance should go ahead. It had been an emotional and difficult, but they had decided as a company.

On the morning of the performance day I had arranged an extra rehearsal and the group were in good spirits. They had created a brilliant piece of movement work as a team, despite all of the challenges. One of them had been telling me each week about a new tracksuit he had ordered especially for the performance. These things can take a really long time to get through the prison system but he had kept chasing it. At the end of the rehearsal, an officer appeared with a shiny new tracksuit in hand. Knowing he wanted to look his best, the officer had pushed it through the system a little quicker than usual. It was a lovely moment.

In the afternoon, we welcomed twenty external visitors into the prison and also had a large group of Catch 22 staff in attendance to see the work that had been made. The group were very nervous; they had never done anything like this before. They performed ‘I’m Tired Of Being Strong’ fantastically.

Afterwards we had a discussion and the group talked about the process, recounting the highs and lows and the sense of achievement they now felt. One of them explained how at times he felt out of his comfort zone and knew that, creatively, he couldn’t go as far as Lanre was encouraging him to. His awareness of his own boundaries really struck me, but so did his potential. While it may have felt like too much for him at that particular moment, who knows where he could go once he feels ready to overcome those boundaries?

One of the group asked each member of the audience to introduce themselves and it was great to see the tables being turned and the spotlight being shifted in this way. This was unplanned but was a really great way to enable further conversation when it was time to mingle. I stood outside the room, looking in through the glass (lots of glass fronted rooms in prisons) and saw every single performer engaged in lively conversations with different pockets of the audience. Many of the group are interested in future creative opportunities and so this time to talk to arts professionals seemed valuable. Artsadmin hopes to work with all of the participants again when they are released.

Participant responses

“I enjoyed being able to come and express in a safe place and the feeling of normality.”

“Prisons should do more arts activities because it lets people express themselves in ways that cannot on the wing.”

“I learnt I can do anything I put my mind to.”

Read more about Artsadmin’s creative criminal justice programme.