BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Inmates of Tasmania’s Risdon Prison are sharing personal stories through the Convict Monologues project.
Composer Chris Williams is translating this into music.
During the past 10 months, inmates have embarked on their own journeys of writing and research, and will now perform a theatrical production inspired by the lives of those in Tasmania’s colonial history.
It’s a collaboration between the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, the Tasmanian Theatre Company, Risdon, and Chris. While it’s wrapped in historical tales, it’s also an important vehicle for its Risdon creators to develop their own skills in storytelling and collaboration with one another.
Chris, a former TSO Australian Composers’ School participant, tells us how projects like these can change lives.
What research did you undertake with regards to the Risdon Prison and Tasmania’s convict history?
I read about the prison a lot before visiting. Honestly, I was just nervous; the kind of nervous you get when doing something you’ve never done before. I didn’t, and still don’t, know a great deal about prisons; though, the experience of visiting was profound.
I relied heavily on the research of the inmates: their retelling of the history. For me, making something which is honest and personal is more important than something which is academically accurate – most of the time.
How did you get started on the Convict Monologues and how much engagement did you have with the inmates?
Once I was in the prison, it really was like a meeting for any creative project. The inmates told me what they were hoping for, we talked through the script, technical details, asked questions and then parted ways.
What are some of the stories the inmates have chosen to share?
There’s a really diverse range of narratives that show you how fickle fate and circumstance can be, and ultimately show the humanity in us all, no matter our circumstance. They’re all historical, or based on historical accounts. Paul McIntyre (playwright and project leader) and Natasha Woods (Risdon Prison Arts Officer and former Churchill Fellow) organised some academics to visit the prison, too, and talk about the experience of historical convicts as a way to inspire the writing process.
Why do you feel the arts are beneficial (or essential?) to the lives of people in prison or experiencing the justice system?
I should say, up front, that I think the arts are invaluable for anyone. I’ve never encountered anyone who regrets involvement in the arts, and by contrast I often meet people who regret losing their involvement in the arts or never having had the opportunity. Perhaps, in the past, the arts weren’t something that were really thought about for prisoners. So in a sense, this invaluable potential was denied to them through simple neglect.
I think the arts are fundamentally about empathy and critical thought, and by definition eschew superficial engagement. In the case of the Convict Monologues, these inmates are telling stories that resonate with them in a particular way that might not be the case for other people, so they have something to say about them. They are interestingly told stories, but also an opportunity for people in prison to really have the time and space to reflect on their own experience in a new way.
What have you learnt from this project?
It’s made me continue to think about the place of art, why we make art, and why we might make art. None of that’s easy, but this project is such an incredible intersection of practitioners, ideas and influences that it fuels a lot of that thought.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I really can’t sing the praises of Paul McIntyre, Natasha Woods, Jenny Compton and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra enough, so I’ll just mention them all again now. Thank you!
The Tasmanian Theatre Company will join with musicians of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Risdon Prison inmates to present two public readings of Convict Monologues in the Hobart Convict Penitentiary, 12 November, at 2pm and 4pm. An event will also take place in the prison on November 8 for inmates, friends and family.
This interview also featured in Warp Magazine, November 2017.