CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 6 . . . .November 12, 2004
William Head Penitentiary in Victoria, BC, runs a unique program that attracts inmates and public alike. It is a theatre society known as WhoS (William Head On Stage), and it was created in 1981 by the William Head prisoners themselves. Visiting directors oversee the productions, and women are imported to take female roles, but otherwise it is the inmates who make up the cast and crew of the plays and run the show.
Criminal Acts, a video from the National Film Board of Canada, takes a close look at this theatrical phenomenon. The play in the works this time is The Cage, and the video follows its progress from initial tryouts to the finished production. Ironically or perhaps the choice is intentional the play is about a man who voluntarily lives inside a cage to keep himself from hurting the ones he loves. Interviews with the various cast members shed light on the acting process and explore the prisoners' reasons for taking part in WHoS. The handful of inmates interviewed all claim to have grown personally as a result of their acting experience.
The film follows one prisoner Paul more closely than the others. Not only does Paul have the lead in the play, but he is also up for parole, and clips of the hearing are sprinkled throughout the video. Clean cut and articulate, Paul seems a model citizen, and viewers feel certain that the hearing will go in his favour, but as more and more of Paul's past is revealed, viewers realize how they have let his onstage persona colour their judgment, and though they are hoping for a positive result, they wonder how a three-and-one-half year sentence for bank robbery could grow into sixteen. They are also skeptical about Paul's claim that he has kicked the drug habit and faced the personal issues behind his problems. Or is he only a model citizen because his incarceration leaves him no other choice?
Contrary to the stereotypical image of prison life, Criminal Acts depicts a very different existence. Yes, the institution is isolated. It sits on a peninsula surrounded by treacherous water. The other boundaries are double rows of barbed wire fence. And, yes, there are guards and iron bars and security checks for anyone coming into the prison and going out. There are nightly lockdowns and, according to the inmates, very little in the way of privacy. But as far as prisons go, William Head is a luxury resort, nestled in a scenic woodland area with a sea view. The inmates reside in houses, not cells, and they wear normal clothing, not prison issue. The only time they are locked in their rooms is at night. They help to maintain the prison -- the video interviewed one fellow as he chopped wood, and if the video is any indication, inmates are well-treated.
At the time this film was made, William Head was a medium security prison. It has since had its designation changed to 'minimum security.' Another change is that WHoS has been reduced by half. The video claimed the theatre society was so popular that inmates from other institutions were lining up to transfer to William Head. Why then is the program shrinking instead of growing?
Criminal Acts is definitely worth sharing with students. It is sure to get kids thinking and stir up a raft of questions. And that is a good thing.
Kristin Butcher lives and writes in Victoria, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.