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Opening the hearts of young offenders

Patrick Ward joins a Catholic theatre company exploring morality through role play at a young offenders’ institute

By on Friday, 20 May 2011

Martin O’Brien, left, is pictured with Archbishop Vincent Nichols at the Plater Trust Awards                   Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk

Martin O’Brien, left, is pictured with Archbishop Vincent Nichols at the Plater Trust Awards Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk

“I got 20 years for murder,” says Willy – a tall, ungainly, 19-year-old lad from Nottingham. “It was only meant to be a fight, but he brought his mate and I was so off my head on drink and drugs that I pulled a knife on him.”

A few moments later, this young man is playing a drama exercise about status with a dozen other young offenders. As the tallest in the group, he has assumed the lowest status and plays his new role with conviction and skill.

Seeing a convicted murderer play-acting like a child is surprising and at first a little difficult to absorb. However, very quickly this becomes the norm and the barriers that many of these young men have built around them start to fall away.

I am in Doncaster Young Offenders Institution observing Ten Ten Theatre, the professional Catholic theatre company, as they run a week of sessions with a group of young offenders. It is day three of a five-day residency and I am immediately struck by the openness of the young men in the room. They are clearly on a journey of discovery during this week. Ten Ten Theatre is reaching the end of a nine-month period of work which has been funded by the Charles Plater Trust, part of the Catholic Education Service. During this time, they are running five-day drama projects in eight young offender institutions throughout Britain.

Last October the charity won the prestigious Fear and Fashion Award 2010 for its work with young offenders. “Drama is such an effective means of communication because it gives an opportunity to process thoughts, feelings and actions in a safe, controlled manner,” explains Martin O’Brien, the charity’s artistic director. “Normally, this kind of exploration would turn to anger and aggression but here it is being displaced through drama.”

This is certainly true. After the light-hearted status game, the young men are then encouraged to discuss and create improvised dramas around the first time they saw a knife, an exercise which brings out some fascinating insights and experiences. Willy, it seems, had very little exposure to gang culture, which is not what one might expect from someone facing a life term for a fatal stabbing. Others, though, are from a world in which knives, retribution and “respect” are a part of everyday existence.

In the afternoon the work goes to a deeper level as Barry and Margaret Mizen, parents of murdered Catholic schoolboy Jimmy Mizen and long-term collaborators with Ten Ten, are introduced to the young men. They tell their extraordinary story in the most ordinary fashion and the boys are transfixed and humbled. Barry makes it clear that he is not there to tell them off, simply to share his experience.

Having grown in confidence and trust with one another through the drama exercises, the young offenders have open hearts and minds to hear what the Mizens have to say. Ten Ten’s facilitator sensitively goes around the large circle and invites each participant to make a comment or ask a question if they feel able.

When Willy starts to speak, he breaks down in tears. He reveals to the Mizens and to the group that every day he writes a letter to the parents of his victim – and every day he rips the letter up, unable to find the courage to send it. Barry puts his hand on Willy’s shoulder and offers to accept the letter on their behalf until he can find it within himself to send it to the family. Willy accepts the offer.

The emotion and intensity of the afternoon is then released through a cathartic game of “pass the hand-clap”. The boys relish the opportunity to engage their hearts and minds on an entirely different type of activity.

“By using drama, role play and discussion in groups, some very good work can be achieved,” says Fr Roger Reader, the chaplain at Feltham Young Offenders Institution, who has worked with Ten Ten on very many occasions in recent years.

“It contributes to the rehabilitation of the boys. I met one in the supermarket recently, after he was released, and he spoke of how much the experience with Ten Ten had helped him.
“The Catholic ethos of the company clearly inspires what they do and underpins the content of the work. Matters of faith, morals and ethics are dealt with very sensitively in a way which does not proselytise but which provokes real thought among this group of young people.”

This is good news indeed for Catholic education. Within the space of four years Ten Ten Theatre has gained an outstanding reputation for its work in Catholic primary and secondary schools and also in parishes where they run Confirmation retreat days. O’Brien says that there have been five different Ten Ten teams working with over 70,000 children and young people this academic year – and the demand is increasing. As one teacher wrote afterwards: “You manage to translate and put into action the values and morals taught within our schools, making them more meaningful to children.

“I would like to think that what makes us special,” says O’Brien, “is that we explore matters of faith and Christian living by producing drama, workshops and education resources of the highest quality. We always aim to draw together the best writers, practitioners, education specialists and theology advisers we can find.

“This is as true for our work with five-year-olds as it is for young offenders and adults.”

Indeed, the charity’s aspirations exceed beyond the educational. Earlier this year, the Arts Council commissioned the company to write a new full-length play, called Good Creatures, based on their recent experiences in prisons which they hope will get a professional theatre run next year.

Ten Ten can also be seen producing its new adaptation of Pope John Paul II’s play, The Jeweller’s Shop, at the Leicester Square Theatre in London next month, directed by the West End theatre director Paul Jepson.

However, like many charities at this time, a lack of funding may bring Ten Ten’s work to a premature demise.

“The risk we face is very real,” acknowledges O’Brien. “As a fairly new charity with few reserves, we may have to cease operations by the end of the next academic year if we do not get core funding in place.

“However, we’re hopeful. We’ve recently set up a Friends scheme to encourage small monthly donations and we hope that more people will sign up to that. We’re also looking for kind people with spare beds around the country who can provide inexpensive accommodation to our team – there are usually three of them needing somewhere to stay for about a week.”

As the day in Doncaster draws to a close I ask Willy how he thinks the week is going. He explains that it has helped him to reflect on his time inside and what he might do with his future.

“I think God has a plan for my life even though I’m in here. I want to help others, like people who self-harm. There’s someone in here at the moment who is self-harming and I know I can help him stop.”

With that, Willy smiles and shakes hands with every member of the Ten Ten team, saying that he is looking forward to seeing them all again tomorrow.

The Jeweller’s Shop can be seen at the Leicester Square Theatre, London, on Wednesday June 22 at 7.30pm. Tickets are £10 (£7 concessions) via the Leicester Square Theatre link on www.tententheatre.co.uk or call the theatre on 08448 733433.

*Names and locations of the young offenders have been changed