William Head On Stage, Canada’s longest-running prison theatre company, has made several groundbreaking developments during its 40-year journey from inside William Head Institution.
Another innovative step forward is underway with the theatre company’s recent foray into podcasting. Dark Traveller, a co-production with Victoria’s SNAFU theatre company, which has co-produced the prison’s theatre program since 2010, is said to be the first podcast series created by incarcerated artists in Canada.
The inaugural 45-minute episode, recorded inside the minimum-security federal correctional institution, was released this month on platforms such as Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. Another episode arrived this week, with the final entry in the series scheduled to drop on June 16.
The content — from creative writing and old-time commercials to a reading of The Northern Lights, a science-fiction radio play written in 1949 by Wyllis Cooper — is vastly different from other podcasts in that much of it was either written or voiced by incarcerated artists. The participants have adopted stage names such as Midnight, Paul Dark, Dr. Percy, and The Captain for the podcast, in order to protect their privacy.
SNAFU’s Kathleen Greenfield, who worked with William Head to arrange the team of actors, directors and writers into groups, and edited everything that was recorded inside the prison over six sessions into the final product, is not aware of another podcast of its kind in the country.
“Ear Hustle, a podcast that comes out of San Quentin prison in California, was the first podcast created by artists in prison, but we are the first Canadian one.”
The project was done with the endorsement of Corrections Services Canada, and used during the workshop phase a secure video-call service employed by William Head to connect five participating artists from inside the prison with SNAFU representatives on the outside. But COVID-19 made what should have been a fairly straight-forward process into a scheduling headache that required months of planning, Battle said.
The participants all wore masks during the process, even while recording, and the sound recorder had to do battle with a furnace that kept going off during the sessions. Due to time constraints and health protocols inside the prison, poor audio could not be re-recorded. It was many months of hurdles being jumped, Greenfield said.
“We stumbled through figuring out what we could do and how we could work with restrictions, and limited time inside of the prison. It came out of necessity, but it was a way that we could still create together that we could share with people.”
The podcast replaces William Head On Stage’s annual in-person play, which takes place each fall in the prison’s gymnasium. The company’s 60th production was scheduled for October 2020 was canceled due to health protocols. Though the effects of the pandemic are lessening somewhat, Green doesn’t expect audience back inside William Head On Stage this year, William Head On Stage’s 40th anniversary.
Co-productions between SNAFU and William Head On Stage will continue despite the changing landscape, Greenfield said. Dark Traveller is a natural placeholder until live performances return, and gives incarcerated artists a valuable outlet for their work. “That exchange is so worth it,” she said. “Getting a response from people is life-changing for the guys inside.”