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Inmates stage metaphors for modern life

PREVIEW What: Sleeping Giants Where: William Head Institution, Metchosin When: Oct. 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22, 27, 28, 29, Nov. 3, 4, 5. Gates open 6:15 p.m. and close at 7:15 p.m. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
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Kathleen Greenfield, director of the William Head on Stage production Sleeping Giants.

PREVIEW

What: Sleeping Giants
Where: William Head Institution, Metchosin
When: Oct. 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22, 27, 28, 29, Nov. 3, 4, 5. Gates open 6:15 p.m. and close at 7:15 p.m. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $20 at Ticket Rocket box office, 101 - 804 Broughton St. or 250-590-6291 or ticketrocket.co. All tickets must be purchased in advance. Must be 19 or over to enter.

 

An inmate from William Head Institution once took an escorted journey to Vancouver on a B.C. Ferry. Isolated by years of prison life, he craved some small interaction with the other passengers — but was taken aback by what he saw.

Everyone appeared to be plugged into their smartphone or computer. Eye contact — indeed, any kind of contact — seemed impossible.

“He was really trying to reach out for some sort of human connection,” said Kathleen Greenfield. “It was like an expression of him entering the world again, and everyone being just hypnotized.”

Greenfield said the anecdote, related by a prisoner several years ago, is partly the inspiration for Sleeping Giants, a new play she’s directing at William Head Institution. This original show was created by host company William Head on Stage, the prisoners’ in-house theatre troupe, in collaboration with outside theatre professionals who call themselves the Prison Arts Collective.

Sleeping Giants takes its cue from such tales as Rip Van Winkle, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Sleeping Beauty. It tells five fictional tales based on the real-life experiences of inmates. Greenfield said one of the themes is the notion of “long sleeps.”

“There’s the idea of people going to sleep for a long, long time and waking up and the whole world’s changed around you. It’s kind of a metaphor for prison life,” she said.

The chairman of William Head on Stage is one of 15 prisoners performing in Sleeping Giants. He said the play is also a critique of our technology-obsessed society. The inmates have a different take on the topic because this side of modern life is off-limits to them.

“We have no direct access to the Internet, we have no iPhones or gadgets to play with while inside,” said the inmate, who cannot be identified due to prison regulations.

Articulate and thoughtful, he has just been accepted into a PhD correspondence program at the University of Victoria. His area of interest is the possibility of “revitalizing Gitxsan [a B.C. First Nation] law through the theatre process.”

Sleeping Giant is this inmate’s first experience with William Head on Stage, this season marking 35 years of existence at the minimum-security facility. He said it has been both rewarding and “very challenging,” since the process has required the resolution of creative conflicts with other prisoners.

They have been rehearsing since July 1. The inmate is appreciative of the efforts of Greenfield and four outside theatre professionals, all women, who are co-creators and actors. These members of the Prison Arts Collective are generous with their time, sometimes putting in 12-hour days.

“It’s humanizing. There are points where I feel I’m not even in prison. I feel connected to the theatre community,” the inmate said.

Peter Forbes, an assistant warden at William Head, said both prisoners and prison psychologists find value in the in-house theatre program. The inmates are typically new to the stage — performing in front of peers and outside audiences is no easy thing.

“The fact that they’ve gone ahead and had success from beginning to end and overcome some of their fears, they find that very satisfying and very rewarding,” Forbes said.

Greenfield, meanwhile, has a word of advice for those considering a trip to Metchosin to witness theatre performed behind prison bars.

“I’d say, enter with an open heart.”

achamberlain@timescolonist.com