Papertrail / Llwybr Papur are a theatre company based in Cardiff that work throughout Wales and beyond. Whilst firmly rooted in Wales and its bi-lingual culture, we seek to creatively connect the local with the global. Our work is site-responsive and we have created performances on beaches and buses, in shipping containers and in prisons. We make theatre with people in the places that are central to their story. Through co-creation processes which include actively listening we hear stories that need to be told in order to effect change. At the start of this year we began working with Clean Break on a new project Visits, collaborating with mothers and children impacted by incarceration. Our Artistic Director, Bridget Keehan, and playwright, Siân Owen, speak about their experience of working on this project during lockdown.
Bridget Keehan: ‘I begin work on each project by interrogating my connection to the subject matter. In working with other people in order to share a story that needs to be heard, and with the hope of effecting change, I have to know why I am in the room. There has to be a personal thread that links my daily life and lived experience with the subject or I feel like a tourist. My link to a project may be quite tenuous, but I always need to ask the question, what is my relationship to the story we are aiming to tell?
In the case of our current project,Visits, the connection is close to home. I have spent many years visiting a younger family member in prison and the journey to HMP ‘Middle of Nowhere’ has usually taken between 4-5 hours each way. Being processed through the prison and the environment of the visits hall can be quite an emotional challenge and, from talking to other visitors, I knew I was not alone in thinking this. So I wondered how might a theatre project help express the experience of visiting a loved one in prison and how might it be a catalyst for change. Through discussing the idea with collaborators from Clean Break it became clear that the most urgent story to be told was that of children and mums being separated and the difficulties of trying to maintain a relationship with your child through prison visits.
We began work on Visits at the beginning of 2020. Myself, along with Anna Herrmann, Co-Artistic Director of Clean Break and writer, Siân Owen, were scheduled to spend time at HMP Styal working with imprisoned women, exploring what could be done to improve the prison visits experience. This was to be the start of a series of workshops working with women and the families of women in prison so that we could listen to the stories of those visiting and those waiting to be visited. Then the outbreak of COVID-19 meant that the workshops in March and beyond had to be postponed. But crucially the outbreak meant that all family visits for prisoners were cancelled. It is difficult to imagine the emotional scale and toll of this on parents and their children.
In terms of how we continue to work on this project, despite the pandemic, I am thinking through the questions posed by Susanne Burns, Co-Creating Change Network Evaluator, ‘There are limits to what we can do online. And not everyone has access to the technical resources to take part online.’ This is clearly relevant to our work on this project. How do you co-create when you can’t meet? We’ve tried to find other paths and connections to enable co-creation and my colleague, writer Siân Owen, shares her experience of how we have gone about this so far.
Siân Owen: ‘Whilst we couldn’t be together in person through technology, we could still begin to build the story together. Clean Break arranged for me to speak to two of their extraordinary members on the phone. I was also honoured to be invited to meet members of a Children Heard and Seen peer support group via Zoom. These incredible children shared their experience of having a parent in prison.
It was a stark reality check when I was told that during the first lockdown, those in prison were being locked in cells for 23 hours and were denied all visiting rights. And I tried to remember throughout our lockdown that there are families and children living in this particular kind of darkness and separation all the time.
Our lockdowns are only temporary, and they are absolutely bloody awful. But there is a forgotten segment of society that have to experience this alone, with no support, no understanding and a whole lot of judgement. And that is not ok. And I understood from talking to the women and children that they wanted and needed their stories to be told. The children I spoke to at Children Heard and Seen work on Advocacy and they want people to understand their struggle. I asked them, what was the thing they most want people to listen to about their situation? It was clear that they want understanding, to be listened to and for there to be less judgement about them. They are judged for what others in their family have done. And it is frustrating, lonely and they are so misunderstood.
This is something I want to strive hard to address in this play, Visits. The ripple affects on those that end up experiencing the judicial system, through no fault of their own. And, in the case of many women given a prison sentence, how their actions rarely match the level of punishment that they receive.
Lockdown actually gave me even more of a drive and reason to tell this story. And what I learnt was that lockdown might have changed how we share stories and it forces us into uncomfortable boxes, but it does not squash people’s spirit and willingness to share and help and shine a light in the darkness. And I am going to do my best to carry that light on with the women we are able to speak to and the amazing young people from Children Heard and Seen’.