What happens to people when you take away their freedom, their control and their responsibility?
Across three nights in Bristol, HMP Frogmarsh opened its doors to a new intake of 300 ‘fish’ (that’s new prisoners to you and me) in a game-powered immersive theatre performance.
WIth a crew of 70, including probably about 50 performers, for an audience of about 100 a night this was surely the definition of a crowd made production. Everyone worked for free with funds raised being donated to Amnesty and the Prison Reform Trust.
The project was the vision of the frankly marvellous Lydia Coen Mason who brought an unlikely but ultimately flipping brilliant crew of people together to run 3 nights of unique experiential theatre with a Kafkaesque feel.
Prison Break began with the audience being sentenced by a judge, put into uniforms, photographed and processed into small prisoner groups and assigned a prison guard. They were then transported via prison bus to HMP Frogmarsh – a specially constructed prison with cells, a canteen, visitors centre, workshop, interrogation room, and exercise yard. Prisoners were escorted about the prison by their guard and experienced a series of different interactions with the old lags, all the while trying to ascertain when the Prison Break would happen and where the escape would be from. The aim of the game was to escape without being caught at the final climatic mass jail break.
The aesthetic, the hierarchical structure, the systematised and sometimes boring routine of the prison were designed to put the audience into the world of prison life. This wasn’t parody or pure entertainment; our writers had been or worked in prisons and this needed to taste real. Part theatre, part social experiment, we didn’t know how the audience would react until the first night – the feedback was interesting – they wanted the guards to be tougher. In rehearsals, highly conscious of the outcome of the Stanford Prison experiment, we’d been very careful drawing the line with how guards behaved, but we realised we were being too nice and it didn’t reflect the tough world of prison life. So on the second night we stepped it up a gear – with brilliant results, now the prisoners had something to rebel against the atmosphere was electric – and we found ourselves in a near riot-situation toward the end of the night and the game mechanic started to break down (although no one but us noticed that bit!)
By night 3 with a bunch of new game elements, including a new bonus scene called “Paradise” for prisoners to escape to if they broke early, we were sailing – the atmosphere was still electric but game also worked beautifully, and the performers were so into their characters it was hard to get them out of it at the end of the night.
Feedback at the after party was great – people had really had a taste of prison life and also managed to break out or get caught trying – which was always going to be fun.
Big credit to all of the incredible performers and crew (too numerous to list), Artspace Lifespace College for letting us build a prison on their grounds and of course to Lydia (the Guv) who had the genius to make it happen.