With thanks to lovely Jan Capiński for the encouragement to share thoughts about this project - here are a few long, rambling paragraphs - tired, caffeine-fuelled with absolutely no interest in grammar, but wanting everyone to know what an amazing thing Adam Green made happen.
I have a tendency to throw myself into situations knowingly unprepared. I mean I knew the notes, I’d just about mastered this new English translation, I’ve sung Carmen a few times before, have a useful resting bitch face and can do a passable post-tequila impression of some flamenco-esque dance moves. But when someone asked me towards the end ‘What did you expect this project to be like?’ I admitted I’d no idea. I really hadn’t thought ahead about what it would be like. The extent of my research was glutting on 5 series of Orange is the New Black, and I’d quietly expected there might be fewer Latinos, American accents and tampon jokes down in Devon.
One thing I knew I did have, was an raw interest in how people live their lives, serve their time and attempt to develop whilst in prison. And I was happily relatively free of judgement regarding their crimes - always open to context - knowing people’s backgrounds, the circumstances, the addictions and struggles in their lives. Being open to the capacity we all have as humans to make mistakes and hope to feel that the rest of our lives are not indelibly marked by them.
What this did mean was that I went into the room on day one, with open eyes and I hope an open heart. Despite this, I never could have anticipated how much this week would surprise me.
Firstly, my gosh could these guys SING! A 14 tenor rendition of ‘when the factory bell echoes through the air’ in Act One left me totally speechless. I heard both a beautifully blended, carefully coloured sound with shimmering soft tones as well as rambunctious, dynamic chorus scenes full of life. The acting was beautiful too - at all times watching 17 characters each playing out their own individual experience, striving to tell their own stories. Throughout the week I delighted in watching people gain in confidence - making themselves vulnerable by committing to the experience and offering ideas at every turn.
One of the most moving things was watching the inmates listening to our director's instruction with such intensity. Propelled perhaps by a sense that this experience wouldn’t last forever, they listened and approached each task with a singular determination. One day when we came in, one of the prisoners was already leading a warmup - they seemed to have so much purpose, a determination to get everything out of this week that they could. Because when we leave, it’s over, and it’s back to the cells. It also makes me wonder about the difference made by having no mobiles - no distractions, the ability just to concentrate on what is happening ‘live’ right in front of you.
And after listening to instructions they immediately offer ideas; throwing themselves into the drama with both a sense of having perhaps nothing to lose, but also wanting to show us what they are capable of - proving their worth. When one guy said ‘I can’t believe how good you all are’ I felt an awful subtext of ‘I can’t believe you’re willing to come here and bother to give this amount of energy to us.’ But they could perhaps never know how much talent and skill we see in them.
One of my my favourite moments is watching an huge, stacked, heavily tattooed inmate (the cast will know him as 'Kangaroo Poo’) carrying out a slow motion scene change - lifting a table over and above his head and resting it down in super slow time. He is striving for absolute perfection of detail, shifting his weight perfectly, not rushing a moment and making the heavy table look like polystyrene. I have never watched someone be so careful, so determined. This is a common theme - as well as not judging on appearances - it is often those with tattoos, beards, and muscles who have the most overwhelming capacity for gentleness.
Someone asked - did I feel safe? A fair question given that singing as Carmen, you dance, flirt with and swirl around people that are initially strangers. Whilst of course we had to use common sense, in this project we were inviting exchange - wanting to know the participants better, rather than trying to keep our distance. But yes, I felt truly safe, respected, and supported at every turn.
We didn’t know details of anyone’s crimes - it felt totally inappropriate to ask what anyone had done - it was about individuals, human experience in this singular moment. If I could find out what their crimes were afterwards (with safe distance of risk of judging them) perhaps I would want to know, but not in morbid fascination, only in the same way that I’d want to know where they are from, what their interests are. All part of building up a bigger picture of them as individuals. In a conversation with one of the inmates, he was keen to know what we thought of them - how they were perceived. It seemed so simple - they are all just people.This idea of normality was supported by the sheer amount of laughter and good will in rehearsals. The inmates seem to have a desire to show what they are capable of, both in skill but also in kindness to each other. Wanting people to see their faces individually and not thinking of them en masse like caged animals or statistics. In the breaks, people bring in guitars and sing sensitive love songs. They show us pictures of their wives and after the show introduce us to their parents. It’s like they are saying - we are humans, people, individuals - please see that. When we hand out posters and cards at the end, share hugs and applause for every inmate, there is the sense that people were getting the recognition they perhaps never had in school/families. It is heartbreaking to overhear one prisoner admit he ‘was worried they were all thinking we were monsters”.
Lots of the time I simply forget we are in a prison - when the prison goes into lockdown over a spice (drug) overdose, or when the performance is nearly cancelled over an escaped prisoner on the roof, of course you are reminded. But most of the time we are just people making a performance, treating each other with equal respect and support. This matters for the inmates I think. In some ways there is an idea that this ‘putting on an opera' thing is something extraordinary, but in fact it is the ordinariness of it which I’m told appeals to one prisoner. Sometimes, when able to forget that we are in a prison, this could be an am dram production in a village hall.
It makes sense when many of the prisoners say they love using this project as a way to structure time. Boredom is destructive and I have always wondered how someone could be locked up and isolated for decades, stripped of self worth and limited in human interaction, then supposedly come out a better person?! Self harm and other mental health issues abound - an estimated 93% of prisoners have some kind of mental health condition. So it just seems obvious that these guys need activities, focus, structure, ambition.
As the week progressed there were two things which I loved most. In an environment that strips everyone of their personal identity, it was so good to see them as individuals. At the same time, in an institution that separates and divides, I was happy to see them come together with kindness to one other - with common endeavour.
As with every other ‘outreach' project I’ve done - it’s never a one way exchange. The prisoners encouraged me to find more colours - more truth in Carmen. I loved exploring the idea of things ‘costing’ Carmen (our director Tom’s phrase), perhaps spurred by a desire/need for things to be as real, as far from a false pantomime as possible. To find as much of the drama and emotions that might relate to any of our lives. Decisions made, loves lost, risks taken, lives at stake - all seem the more apt in this environment.
This experience wasn’t without ‘moral maze’ questions. Things I asked myself driving home included: what about the victims? What if the normal sense of rehabilitation doesn’t exist, as inmates may never be let out? Why should we prioritise the development of criminals over those living faultlessly in poverty? When we leave, where does this lead? Was the project just escapism? (haha) How can there be continuity to this experience?
I’m not sure I have answers yet to those questions, but walking around the rest of the prisoners’ cells, seeing only a name and photo, made me aware of the capability, talent and promise I was sure to be locked up behind each door. And the feeling that to encourage self-worth and fruition of these beautiful lives is such a valuable thing. The inmates in Carmen showed a beautiful humanity in tough circumstances. One of the guards was so right when he said following the performance, “What this has proved is that you ALL have value - and you must never forget that.”
a recent blog by performer Jan Capinski - Toreador | Carmen Dartmoor
The show that almost didn't happen
This blog post is for myself, as much as it is for anyone out there who reads it. I'm writing these thoughts down so that I can always come back to them and remember what happened last week. I've been gushy about performances and projects before, sometimes even humbled, but I truly think my experiences in Dartmoor prison may have been the most formative I've had to date. That's why I'll try as hard as I can to refrain from gushing and just put down as honest and bare a personal account as I can.
To put the whole thing in context for you, the premise (as relayed to me by the organiser - Adam Green) was simple - we put on a reduced version of Carmen in Dartmoor Prison, with a chorus made up of inmates. I had done quite a lot of outreach work before with ETO and Garsington Opera, and it had always been very rewarding, so of course I agreed to take part, looking forward to the warm feeling you get from 'giving back'.
It's been a couple of days, and to be perfectly honest, I don't have that warm feeling. The project was indescribably amazing and worthwhile, and the high I was on directly after the performance was probably the biggest I've ever had. I also feel and believe we managed to make a positive impact on the people we worked with, prisoners and guards alike, and they on us. I will always remember the zeal and abandon that our chorus performed with, the energy they gave me during the Toreador was electrifying, and goes to show how powerful the art of performing music can be (but also made me feel that in every performance I've ever given, I could have given more, held less back, been more invested in the joy of what I do). Through their sheer focus and enthusiasm, the chorus truly became the stars of the show, and their smiles in the curtain call as they bowed will stay with me forever. Plus the sound they made! Every time someone asked 'yeah, but can they actually sing?', I smiled the same smile Adam did when I asked him the same question, and replied 'just you wait until you hear them'. Visceral, full-bodied and joyous, I can only describe it as the sound of freedom... The freedom to express yourself in the most extrovert way imaginable; the vocalised joy of working together in a group; the sound of people forgetting who and where they are...
And here we come to why I'm not filled with a warm glow, despite being genuinely in awe of the experience we all shared. We all worked together on this piece. The prisoners worked on their back stories from day to day, and handed Tom (our director) pages of 'question and answer' homework every morning. During rehearsals there wasn't really any feeling of there being 'us' and 'them'. We joked, laughed, explored, played, sang, drank tea, everything as a group of artists. In tea breaks the music making would continue, someone grabbing a guitar and a small group launching into pop songs, or our pianist and an inmate playing showtunes on the piano together. And then the call would end, and we'd go home, while they'd be marched back to their cells, just at the point when normally a company would go for a quick one down the pub. The magic would always end so abruptly. Once, when we got stopped mid-rehearsal because there was an ongoing incident elsewhere in the prison and everyone had to be taken back to their cells for roll call, I actually cried. When we arrived on the day of the show only to be turned away with the words 'there's an ongoing incident, we can't let you in and we don't know if the show will happen' I couldn't believe we may not actually see the guys again... Thankfully, due to the determination of the prison staff to go make Carmen happen, it did go ahead.
I don't even remember what I was expecting before the first day of rehearsals with the inmates. I was nervous, perhaps slightly frightened... But after hearing them sing, chatting with them, I quickly realised - they are just people. We all have in us the capacity for all things human - good or evil, regret or obstinance, indifference or empathy. Of course, I realise there are reasons for them being where they are, and that prisons aren't supposed to be nice places. But I did find myself thinking as we went on a guided tour of the facility - nobody deserves this, there must be a better way...
To be fair to HMP Dartmoor, talking to the governors and guards, you get a feeling that they do want to do what they can to help the prisoners. There are courses in tiling, woodwork, bricklaying, and other qualifications the inmates can study for in order to have a chance of getting work after release. The atmosphere is respectful, even friendly. Everyone there is doing what they can to address the myriad of issues that crop up in a place like that - mental health issues, self-harm (the prison has pet ferrets that apparently help self-harming inmates), contraband, violence, a horrible drug called 'spice' that is so strong it can even affect guards who accidentally inhale it, the dietary requirements of each individual inmate (for the £1.30 the prison has to spend daily per prisoner on food), the need to exercise, and even the needs of pre-op transgender prisoners (one of whom was in our chorus). There is a lot of good will in that place. But the building is ancient and damp, the cells tiny, the number of staff inadequate (on weekends, when the prison operates on a reduced staffing, there aren't enough guards to let more than a small number of prisoners out of their cells, so most will be locked in their tiny room from Friday evening to Monday morning).
So while I feel immense pride in what our chorus accomplished, and gratitude for the chance to be involved in such a great project, I can't help thinking about how they must be dealing with the post-show come down (which all of us get) in that place. I simply have to have faith that they can hang on to the memory of that onstage feeling and go back to the world we created in the prison chapel, and that they can keep that feeling of freedom they had. I miss them...
One of our more shy chorus members came up to me before the show and handed me a folded piece of paper. 'This is a letter for all of you professionals, can you share it with them? Just please don't read it until after you've left, I'm too embarrassed...' I won't quote much from it, suffice it to say I cried reading it. He signed off with this:
'Thank you for treating us all like equals.'
Damn right. We all are.
Rehearsals are in full swing at Dartmoor Prison with an impressive bunch of singers slowly but very surely getting to grips with the choruses from Bizet's Carmen. Our tenors have triumphed over the Toreador, we've subdued the Habanera and danced to the Chanson Boheme. It's gonna be an almighty performance when we bring it all together in the prison with professional soloists, orchestra and audience on 28th July.
It has been a busy few weeks for the Prison Choir Project - a recent launch at the China Exchange has raised over £16,000; I listened in awe to an inmate play and sing Stevie Wonder on the piano at HMP Pentonville and I'm heading to the all female HMP Drake Hall for a meeting this Thursday to discuss the possibility of putting on Britten's Ceremony of Carols. We remain committed to staging Bizet’s Carmen in Dartmoor Prison, likely to take place in July this year, and couple that with opening a merchandise store and meetings with the National Criminal Arts Association, BNP Paribas and GlaxoSmithKlein, it feels like we have a bit of momentum behind us.
So who are we? The Prison Choir Project is a charity that hopes to rehabilitate prisoners, ex‐offenders and those experiencing mental disorders through participation in and performance of music, in particular song. We run workshops in Prisons getting inmates singing alongside professionals, working towards concerts and performance opportunities.
Why? We face a crisis in Prison and barely a week goes by without another headline grabbing story - riots, drugs and drones, overcrowding and staff shortages. The stats are pretty frightening: half (51%) of people entering prison were assessed as having literacy skills expected of an 11 year old; there were 32,313 self-harm incidents in 2015—a nearly 40% rise in just two years; reoffending by all recent ex-prisoners costs the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion annually. A recent interview with an ex-prison officer on LBC radio revealed just how terrifying radicalisation in prison has become. Khalid Masood had spent three years in a jail before the recent atrocities in Westminster.
How are we going to make a difference? singing opera and choral music at inmates and half reoffending rates? I doubt it, but there are many benefits to singing - physical and mental well-being, a boost to self-confidence, a sense of achievement, collaboration, pulling together to create something unique - a shared experience - cooperation, negotiation, relating to others. Confidence in one’s own abilities, in one’s self. This is the human capital in which we wish to invest. And it is this that contributes to the development of social capital - opportunities, connections, new horizons - and from my experience working with people in Prison it is worth every penny. Let's not forget that with current staff shortages many prisoners face 23 hours a day locked in their cells. If nothing else we can give them something to do.
Our great ambition - to set up prison choirs in prisons across the UK, prisoners coming together with a common aim, competing in a national prison Choir of the Year competition; a Christmas number 1; centres for arts for those recently released from Prison; a mentoring system involving local business, giving those that have committed to and benefited from our projects the chance to start again.
We hope to provide a pathway towards establishing a reduction in reoffending, building self‐esteem, improving self‐confidence and employability skills for all those involved. Let's keep hold of that key for now.
Founder - the Prison Choir Project
How can you get involved?
Like us on Facebook
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Support our CAF online campaign
Buy a t-shirt http://stores.clothes2order.com/prison-choir-project/
Give us a call +44 07958 786 153
The Prison Choir Project now has it's very own merchandise store where you can buy t-shirts, bags, hoodies, sweatshirts, even tracky-b's in a variety of splendid designs and colours . Simply click on the link below:
We've raised an eye-watering £11,000 at the launch of the Prison Choir Project. A huge thanks to all those that believe in what we WILL achieve.
Here's a link to our CAF donate page if you feel you can help us:
A few words from our Patron read at the launch of the Prison Choir Project:
'I am really sorry that due to the fact that's I am in New Zealand I am not able to be with you tonight.
Music has always meant a great deal to me and I appreciated just how much in meant when for five years as a hostage I was totally deprived of music of any kind. There was one exception. One night I was awakened by the sound of singing in the street outside the building in which I was kept. It was a lovely melody and was the first music I had heard in years. It was repeated the second night and the mystery singer continued for several nights after that. Then it ceased as suddenly as it had started.
I puzzled about this and only much later did I discover that the singer was someone walking through the streets before dawn broke to waken faithful Muslims so that they could eat before starting the long day of fasting in Ramadan.
Music has the capacity to breath harmony into the soul and the music I heard brought me some peace during troubled days.
I am a great supporter of music in prisons as it can be a part of a process that enables individuals to find harmony in their own lives.
I hope you will give your full support to this worthwhile project.
Very much looking forward to our launch and fundraiser at the China Exchange, Soho, London on 26th January. Guest solo appearances from Royal Opera House stars Sophie and Mary Bevan, Alex Edwards and Stephen Aviss accompanied by Phillip Thomas (piano). Also with speeches from James Sanders and the Earl of Devon.
One or two tickets remaining so if you'd like to come do get in touch. It promises to be a fun evening with kind sponsorship from Sipsmith and Fever Tree.