Many of you will know about Brecht and Boal, and will probably have come across some other theorists or theatre companies that create theatre designed to make a specific impact, and hopefully bring about some change in ways of thinking, behaviour or spur people on to take action to bring about some sort of change in their environment or society. Brecht work for us deals with history, so we can look at this issues from a distance, and relate safely to our own contact, Boal’s work deals with issues in the here and now, which can be raw, but always relevant and vibrant. This blog will look at how a historical issue can be brought into the present to address current issues, namely that of mental health.

Disorder, contained.

The other night I went to see a production entitled ‘Disorder Contained’ which was ‘A theatrical examination of madness, prison and solitary confinement‘. (page 1 of theatre programme produced by Shopfront Theatre, Coventry). The piece had been created through collaboration between a local Coventry Theatre Company, Talking Birds, and centres for the History of Medicine at University College Dublin and Warwick University.

This blog will look at what the objectives are of the groups, and share some theatrical techniques applied to turn academic research into performance. Before I go into more detail about their process, and the performance, drawing on the talk back after the show, I will first share what the company and researchers said about their work:

Talking Birds – ‘Talking Birds work explores the profound and complex relationships between people and place: in this case, the people in question are convicts, and their place a whitewashed cell, no bigger than 13ft x 7ft x 9ft, in an unnamed mid-19th century prison which could be in Britain or Ireland. We have tried to imagine ourselves in the cells (or felt slippers, or polished boots) of the people confined in (or staffing, or making decisions about) these prisons; and to weave together many of the stories the research has unearthed.‘ (page 2 ibid)

Research on the Separate System – ‘Under the new regime of separate confinement, introduced in Pentonville Prison, London in 1842 and later transported across Britain and Ireland, cellular isolation was initially endured for 18 months, during which time the convict had no contact with other prisoners, was to conduct himself in silence and on pain of punishment…..alone with his own thoughts and fears. All the convict required to exist was contained in this bare space – a time bowl and mug, a hammock or plank bed, a chamber pot, work materials and a Bible.’ (page 3 ibid)

After the show there was a talk back, and this is what they shared about their process, which I hope will inspire your own work, and give you some ideas for starting points:

  • Content regarding space, timings, objects and routine rooted in facts
  • Characters created by putting character archetypes together
  • Specific stories from staff used as starting points for stories
  • Repeating mental health issues mentioned in the research became the focus of the story
  • The dominance of religious scripture and denial of any creative literature became a focal theme
  • Staging and blocking rooted in the dimension of the original cells
  • Questions raised in the research were posed but not necessarily answered
  • The playwright, Peter Cann, chose to set the play in its time period to enable the audience to talk about the issues ‘at a distance’, but make links to issues in the present
  • Set in the round to create the idea of confinement of the convicts
  • As actors they had never experienced life in prison or in solitary confinement, so had to draw on research and their imagination
  • Many lines were Verbatim and taken directly from the research material

If you want to find out more about the research, the visit this link on The History of Prison Health.

If you want to read about the making of the show, then visit this link to the making of ‘Disorder Contained’ by Janet Vaughan, Talking Birds.