Dark Room, a play about life in prison, finds resonance with different communities.
The seed for Dark Room was first planted when director Edith Podesta came across a letter by Oscar Wilde, in which he decried the “secret disgrace” ex-prisoners never cease to carry with them when they re-enter a society that continues to judge them. Having known people in her own life who faced the same struggles, the sentiment struck a chord. When Podesta was approached to do something for RAW, the incubatory platform offered by Esplanade’s The Studios series, she decided to develop this idea.
She spent the next two years finding and interviewing former inmates, with the aim of crafting a piece of verbatim theatre that used their own words rather than scripted text.
It’s a very particular experience, and I wanted to have their voices represented on stage. So often in this type of narrative, the audience is put in the perspective of a jury, and I didn't want that.
Inspired by influential theatre practitioner Anne Bogart’s conception of theatre as “gyms for the soul” that exercise the audience’s imagination, empathy and tolerance, Podesta says of her chosen form: “My main objective was to put a brake on that cog of judgment that I think spins too quickly in this day and age, and try to allow the audience to find a space in their heads where they would start thinking: if it were me in that cell, would I be this guy or that guy? What would I do?”
Encouraging self-expression among ex-offenders
Dark Room’s journey from prison cells to the theatre stage would eventually come full circle, with dramatised readings of the play going out to voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) that help ex-offenders in recovery and at-risk youth. It was an eye-opening experience for its creators and collaborators in how the arts can reach out to specific communities, and play a role in encouraging self-expression and reflection.
The first iteration of the play, Dark Roomx8, was staged in 2014 as a fairly bare-bones scripted reading featuring eight male characters. “It was an invaluable experience; it’s not often you get that scale of feedback,” Podesta recalls. A section about how inmates would break into spontaneous song, for instance, proved very popular with the audience. “One person said his takeaway from that was that people of different ages and races in such a bad situation can still find joy together.”
But another piece of feedback also recurred often: “A lot of people said they found it hard to relate to the characters because they didn’t know their crimes, and how long they were sentenced for. They wanted to know who they were empathising with.” For her though, “it’s not about the crime, it’s about the experience. If society has deemed this is the time you pay for the crime you’ve committed, then why are they still paying for it when they get out?”
Dark Room returned in 2016 as an Esplanade commission for its The Studios season, with support from Centre 42’s Basement Workshop programme. This time, in addition to a more detailed set, costumes and sound design, Podesta decided to include the perspectives of the inmates’ parents and a female inmate. “All the decisions for the second iteration rested on the feedback from the first reading,” she says. “And things like court hearings and sentencings that had been very factual the first time round now became very harrowing because everything had that pressure of the parents being present and hearing it for the first time.”
The addition of a female inmate also provided a different perspective of isolation, as the woman the character was based on had been kept in a room all by herself for a month before she joined other inmates. “The male inmates learned things off the older inmates, who became their confidants and mentors,” says Podesta. “This girl was so impacted by the experience of being alone that her self-esteem was completely broken.”
And things like court hearings and sentencings that had been very factual the first time round now became very harrowing because everything had that pressure of the parents being present and hearing it for the first time.
Going out to VWOs
Dark Room’s creative team also began to broach the idea of doing off-site dramatised readings of the play, in collaboration with Esplanade’s community engagement team, and with support from the National Arts Council Presentation and Participation Grant. Producer Michele Lim was particularly interested in how a piece of art could extend its lifespan beyond its original performance space, and she believed that staging these readings at halfway houses would serve two purposes—give the residents of these institutions exposure to good theatre, and use their encounter with the work as a way to tease out issues they would benefit from dealing with.
In other words, this would serve as a platform for applied art, which Lim defines as art whose objective is not about performance or aesthetics. “The intent is to use the art and processes of art-making to meet another objective, such as personal development, rehabilitation, education or communication,” she says. “With applied work, we can then start talking about how the arts can be used in other areas of our lives, and its relevance becomes not purely tied to enjoyment of the aesthetics, and just for a certain sector of people. When you can see the relevance, then the arts become part and parcel of one’s life, something indispensable. And as an institution that commissions new works, Esplanade is more able to ensure the sustainability and reach of artworks than any individual artist.”
They ended up staging shorter dramatised readings of Dark Room at three VWOs: Teen Challenge, The Turning Point, and the Singapore Boys Home. These were well received, and the Teen Challenge director even asked if the residents could watch the full staging at The Studios in 2016 as well, which they did, hosted by Esplanade’s community engagement team. Stanley Shadrak, an ex-offender in recovery, was one of those who watched both versions. “All my thoughts about those days came back. It was like watching my friends and I sitting in the cell, talking about visits from our families, speaking the lingo,” he says. “It made me even more sure that I’m not going in again, no way. I hope the play will make more people want to help and give ex-prisoners a chance, instead of condemning them.”
The intent is to use the art and processes of art-making to meet another objective, such as personal development, rehabilitation, education or communication,
At the VWOs, each dramatised reading was followed by a post-show dialogue, during which trained facilitators sussed out possible topics for future exploration. After discussions with the directors and staff of the VWOs, the facilitators then held several workshops with the residents, using devices like applied drama, visual art, music and creative writing to trigger reflection and encourage expression.
For instance, at Teen Challenge, a halfway house for male ex-offenders in recovery, the objective was to help them with self-expression. Facilitator Oniatta Effendi asked the men to take part in exercises like drawing outlines of their feet, and listing for each foot their answers to the questions “Where should I not go?” and “Where do I want to go?” For Turning Point, a halfway house for female ex-offenders in recovery, facilitator Rosemary McGowan used techniques like writing exercises to encourage the women to face their anxieties.
Impact of applied theatre
Indeed, Podesta believes Dark Room could potentially have a long afterlife. In addition to reaching out to more VWOs, families of ex-inmates, and the prison guards and counselors who work with them, “there could be a Dark Room 3, I could interview a whole new range of people and focus on new topics,” she muses.
A prison sentence is something that keeps on giving. You do your time, you’re out, then you face judgment from family and friends and society at large; and every time you apply for a job, or every time you fill out a customs form. How do people survive?
If that third iteration does happen, ex-offender turned Teen Challenge care worker Bruce Mathieu may have some relevant feedback. “I found some of the scenes where they got out of prison too eager—the gates open, they step out and smell the fresh air of freedom. To me, that only happens in the movies. Real life is not like that,” he shares. “The first time I was in prison was for six years. When I took my first few steps outside in shoes after wearing slippers for so many years, I felt like I was floating and walking in zero gravity because I was so unaccustomed to those bouncy shock-absorbent soles. My sense of direction was screwy too, I was very disoriented. Getting used to life again takes time; you don't know whether you feel happy or sad or lost.”
Beyond Dark Room, this approach of connecting the arts with communities may well prove to be instructive for future productions. Esplanade’s Head of Community Engagement Grace Low describes the experience of bringing dramatised readings and applied arts workshops to the VWOs as eye-opening. “We witnessed the impact of applied theatre first-hand, and would like to continue on this track. We hope to work with artists who are keen to take a socially-conscious script to VWOs through readings and workshops. The arts has a lot of potential to transform lives in underserved communities, and the arts community should work together to do something about it.”
To find out more about Dark Room or the dramatised readings, download the programme notes from the 2016 production, or contact Esplanade's Community Engagement team.