A play performed in an actual prison by inmates? Who could pass up a chance like this? Not me and FG, who drove the 40 minute drive down the windy road to William Head Institution, a minimum security jail overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Performing since 1981, this year, and for the last three years, they’ve been writing their own plays. Here: A Captive Odyssey is the product of an intensive 6 month writing/production effort by the William Head on Stage Theatre Society (WHoS). As they said after the show in the Q&A: ‘every day a new script’. Warning: spoilers dead ahead!
Here: A Captive Odyssey Synopsis
HERE: A Captive Odyssey is a tale that is spun from archival research and oral stories of William Head, with inspiration from the book Quarantined by Peter Johnson. Two inmate friends are finishing their final years of their sentences at William Head and find themselves on a time-travel odyssey back into the history of William Head, complete with shipwrecks and sea monsters. Through drama, movement, shadow puppetry and live music, audiences will experience a haunting time-travel vortex that whirls through centuries of both First Nations and settler occupation. Before it was a prison, William Head was home to First Nations fishing grounds, a Scottish pioneer’s sheep farm, small pox quarantine centre, hospitals, dormitories, fumigation rooms and schoolrooms. This land has many intriguing and surprising tales.
You can’t bring anything in with you. Wallets, cell phones, gum packages, and purses all have to be left in the car. Each couple is allowed one set of keys (to get back in the car). All that you can bring in is your ID. The jail itself is right along the water. Picturesque. At the parking lot is a tower overlooking the water, a double set of chain link fences, and a guard station. They check your ID and you sign in with the name and time. The security guard give male visitors an invisible stamp that shows up under a special light. It’s an all male facility.
From there, two six man vans shuttle visitors to the gym, which is a minute or two down the road. The drivers are excited to host the event and are happy to tell stories about the prison. The last escape they had was a couple of years ago when a prisoner floated away in a coffin. Too bad the drive wasn’t long enough to learn more. A coffin? What, you would paddle with a stake? Very industrious. But I guess jail brings out industriousness in people, especially after many years.
Full house, all age ranges. Estimated capacity of the gym for the audience is 160. Lots of young folks in the 20s. Different than the regular grey haired crowd at the Belfry and McPherson. Tickets are a bargain $20. Large cast and crew. Roughly 22 acting roles and 3 support roles (lighting and music).
Assiduous readers will recall that the economics of live theatre has been one of my preoccupations. Here runs 12 times. Let’s say they fill up each time (if they had more shows I’m sure they’d sell out as well, quite a bit of good buzz in the air). So that’s 12 * 160 * $20 = $38,400 in revenue. Now, divide this up by the 22 acting roles, the 3 support roles, and the other writers, directors, and so on. Let’s say the number is 30. $38,400 / 30 = $1280 each person. That’s $1280 for 6 months of part time work. Let’s say they put in an average of 20 hours per week for 6 months. That’s a total of 520 hours (26 * 20). In the end, it works out to a renumeration of $2.46 per hour. I think this is part of the reason why so many theatre shows outside the jail are one man shows. $2.46 an hour is not enough to get out of bed for most folks.
But here’s the question of the day: are the prisoner-actors compensated or do they receive monetary consideration for their efforts? Presumably, they will get out one day and when that day comes, they’ll need some cash to keep them afloat while they look for a job, get a place, and integrate back into society. You’d probably need, say, $3000 to get a place, put down deposit, pay for a couple months rent, get some clothes, food, etc., Can they save up for this in jail employed at various tasks? To me, it’s a fascinating question.
Here The Play
It wasn’t till the end that the play came together for me. With plays I’m either really sharp or really obtuse. Genres that I know well, I’m pretty sharp. Take horror. If a guy goes down to check out something in the cellar, you already know before he goes down what’s going to happen. He ends up in trash compactor (or something like that). But if I’m not familiar with the genre, I’m thick as mud. With this play, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Actually, that’s not true. From the blurb, I had expected a documentary style play, more a history lesson than a drama. I was wrong. It was both.
There’s two main characters. They’re both in jail. One of them has his act together and a plan: do good works and get out of jail sooner. The other one is a slacker. They are fishing buddies.
Well, it turns out that the slacker hooks a magical sea monster that sends him time travelling from 1700s William Head to the present. The other fellow spends the play looking for his friend.
As the slacker travels through time, he witnesses the horrors of slave labour, court room injustices, and sees the effects of smallpox. When he gets back to the present, he understands that life is short: a life without a plan is an unlived life. He resolves to work hard to get out of jail. His friend, meanwhile, has also made positive strides: he reconnects with his estranged sister.
Fantastic play. The audience loved it. Lots of talent. Raw talent, as most of the inmates did not have theatrical experience. But it wasn’t the talent that made the play. I think what made the play was that everyone took a big chance putting it together. The audience recognized this and showered the players and the producers with applause. The risks they took in putting this on stage were real. And so was there enthusiasm. The difference is like the difference watching NBA basketball and college basketball. Of course the talent in NBA basketball is better. But boy do they play out their hearts in college. The prison production is like watching college basketball.
Perhaps my favourite part of the play was the Q&A session at the end. The audience got to ask questions to the players. Questions like: ‘How does being in the play help with rehabilitation?’ or ‘Do you plan on pursuing theatre on the outside?’. A lot of honest responses on how hard it was for them to open up to the process of theatre and work together. Some funny responses as well: one guy said that he volunteered because he thought ‘it would be cool to play a prison guard’.
What struck me the most is how likeable many of the actors were. They didn’t seem like they belonged in jail. They just seemed like regular dudes. Which they probably are. So this was eye opening. And the best thing was how genuinely happy they seemed to be to be able to put on Here: A Captive Odyssey for the packed house. Kudos. A real play by real people. Something real at stake: some kind of redemption, perhaps? I’m sure there were some tears in the eyes of both the spectators and the players by the end of the night.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work.