William Head inmates escape into latest production

What: HERE: A Captive Odyssey

Where: William Head Institution, 6000 William Head Rd.

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When: Opens Friday, continues to Nov. 7. Gate opens 6:15, showtime 7:30 p.m. Must be 19 or older.

Tickets: Must be purchased in advance. $20 at Windrush Gallery, 4357 Metchosin Rd. or whonstage.weebly.com

 

More and more, Canada’s only inmate-run theatre company is speaking with its own voice.

On Friday, William Head on Stage opens HERE: A Captive Odyssey. Using two prisoner characters as time-travelling hosts, the 80-minute play offers a historical exploration of William Head.

Today, this Metchosin peninsula is best known as home to William Head Institution, a minimum-security prison. William Head on Stage has staged public shows there since 1981. Audiences enter a barbed-wire-fenced compound after being electronically scanned and sniffed by a contraband-seeking dog.

As well as being about the prison, HERE: A Captive Odyssey looks at William Head quarantine station (it opened in the late 19th century) and the locale’s history as a First Nation fishing ground, a Scottish pioneer’s sheep farm and a leper colony.

HERE: A Captive Odyssey is performed by 19 inmates and four female actors from Victoria. Director Kate Rubin said this is the third year in a row WHOS has penned its own script.

“This one’s the biggest original project ever, in terms of its creation,” said Rubin, who lately put in 12-hour days collaborating with inmates.

Members of WHOS proposed the idea of a historical play about William Head. The prisoners were inspired by Peter Johnson’s 2013 book, Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872 to 1959. At one time, as the only quarantine station on the Pacific Coast, William Head was where immigrants were checked for contagious diseases upon their arrival in Canada.

William Head inmates encountered Johnson when he visited the prison to do research and deliver a lecture on his book.

“They said to us: ‘Could we do something in response to this, because there’s all kinds of interesting stories in the book,’ ” Rubin said.

Rubin and writer Kathleen Greenfield helped WHOS shape their writings into a script. Greenfield also acts in the show, along with Katrina Kadoski, Jeni Luther and Monica Prendergast. The visiting creative crew is made up of nine women, including choreographer Ingrid Hansen and set/costume designer Carole Klemm.

“We walk in there and it feels pretty wild. All this estrogen walking into a testosterone world,” Rubin said with a laugh.

Rubin is a veteran director who runs the Kate Rubin Drama and Theatre Studio and has worked with the Belfry and Kaleidoscope theatres. She first got involved with WHOS a decade ago, when she was invited to act in Macbeth.

“I found at first it was intimidating and I was scared. I had all those nervous feelings,” Rubin admitted. Her initial feelings of discomfort soon dissipated.

The inmates were gracious, protective and happy to have support from a theatre professional.

“They have your back. If there’s anybody that could be potentially edgy, and there are men out there like that, there’s a good eye out there for that,” she said.

“In fact, you’re probably more protected out there than you are walking out here [in Victoria] at 11 o’clock at night.”

Ryan (who asked his surname not be used) is a former inmate who participated in 20 WHOS shows over 13 years as an actor, crew member and administrator. He now lives in Victoria, where he’s employed full-time.

He said participating in WHOS was of great personal benefit, helping counteract his feelings of introversion, narcissism and low self-esteem.

“With WHOS, you find you can accomplish these things. You’re not worthless. You’re not the sum of the prison sentence, basically,” Ryan said.

He has been out of prison for four years. In 2012 he returned to William Head to see the WHOS production of The Hobbit. He confessed he was “a little nervous” about the visit.

As a member of WHOS, Ryan once envied audiences who left the prison after the curtain went down. This time, as a civilian, he slipped through chain-link gate with the other theatregoers.

“The part of the show I was most looking forward to, and it was the most satisfying, was leaving at the end of the play.”

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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