Call it the "Orange Is the New Black" effect. The inside of a maximum security facility has become a trendy backdrop for both new plays and productions of classics. In 2013, London’s Donmar Warehouse brought their production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. The all-female show was set in a women’s prison, with actors playing prisoners essaying all the parts. To get the crowd in the correct mood, the audience entered through a grim holding pen manned by security guards.
This fall, the Donmar returns to St. Ann’s with its similarly conceptual Henry IV. Phyllida Lloyd again directs and Harriet Walter is once more in the cast. Like its predecessor, it was acclaimed by critics.
Recently opened at Second Stage Off-Broadway was Whorl Inside a Loop, a new play by frequent collaborators Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott about an actress who attempts to teach male prisoners how to transform their stories into narrative drama. It received positive reviews as well.
Over in Edinburgh, meanwhile, at the city’s famous Fringe Festival, Key Change, a play partly put together by women prisoners based on their experiences inside, recently won the the Carol Tambor Award, the festival’s top prize. It was the work of Open Clasp Theatre Company, a troupe founded in 1998 and based in Newcastle. Winning the honor ensures that Key Change will play a four-week run Off-Broadway at the Clurman Theatre sometime in the future.
Cynical observers who think these companies are hopping on the "Orange Is the New Black" bandwagon would be wrong.
"I hadn’t seen 'Orange Is the New Black' until after Key Change was created," said Catrina McHugh, the artistic director of Open Clasp, a theatre that focused on works about women on the fringes of society.
Scanlan did McHugh one better. He doesn’t watch television at all. Friends and colleague did indeed bring up the subject of the popular Netflix series as he and Scott worked on Whorl, but "we didn’t want to watch it because we didn’t want to be influenced in any way."
Whorl was born of real experience. Scanlan had an old friend who volunteers for an art rehabilitation program at a prison. "She was teaching improv comedy and she was just on fire," told Scanlan. "She was transformed by the experience. I got excited by her excitement."
Scanlan and Scott — whose past works include Everyday Rapture, a musical which drew on Scott’s past — decided to observe a class in action. “When my friend told the guys in the class the kind of work we’d done in the past, they shared with her that they’d always wanted to do personal narrative work,” said Scanlan.
Scanlan and Scott’s commitment to the Woodbourne Correctional Facility was supposed to be a one-day master class. But at the end of the session, some of the inmates asked them to come back and build it into a show, an experience that Scanlan found particularly rewarding.
"There’s nothing worldly to gain by whatever’s going to happen in that class," he explained. "No one’s going to be discovered. I’m not going to help anyone’s career. All we have is the work we’re doing together. It makes the work very true and authentic and creatively pure."
The workshop ended in 2011. Some time after, Scanlan and Scott began talking about turning the experience into a play, which they began writing in 2013.
"Because Sherie and I are writers, almost anything that happens to us becomes grist for that mill," said Scanlan. "The experience was so overwhelming that day, and I was so moved by what had happened to my friend, I thought, 'Is there some kind of story in her transformation that might be interesting to explore?'"
Open Clasp, in contrast, did not find their inspiration by accident. The company was commissioned by Dilly Arts to work in Her Majesty’s Prison Low Newton to give the women in the prison a voice. Several female inmates told their stories to the members of the troupe, both McHugh and her actresses.
"The driving force behind the piece was led by the women we collaborated with," said McHugh. "Each week we would pick a moment in a character’s backstory and examine and debate it, place it within the context of the world we live in and silently scream at the injustice of the majority of women’s lives, this for me particularly relates to the crime of domestic violence, and childhood sexual abuse. That’s not to say the women didn’t take responsibility for the crimes committed, but if the world was different would the crime be committed in the first place? For the women we worked with I would like to think not."
Key Change originally toured male prisons before moving on to audiences and critics at the Edinburgh Fringe. The company presented the work before a traditional theatre audience with some trepidation.
"We thought long and hard about taking this show to the Edinburgh Festival. It was a huge cost for a small company and the risks many," said McHugh. "We had no idea how it would translate, as we’d only performed it to the men’s prisons, with one public performance at Live Theatre in Newcastle. But it did translate. Day after day we filled the theatre, and then midway through it sold out: 160 seats for a mid-day performance."
As to why audiences flock to such grim material, McHugh points to the inspirational aspects of the script.
"The characters in this piece aren’t victims," she said. "They’re heroes in their own personal story to survive, and they do it with a sense of humor and humanity." She added, "it’s also really exciting to see an all female cast, playing strong characters, that are funny and break your heart all at the same time."
The clutch of prison plays also arrives at a time when the mass incarceration of people has become a hot political topic. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world at 716 per 100,000 people. The UK, meanwhile has one of the highest rates of women's imprisonment in Western Europe.
Scanlan thinks a play like Whorl Inside a Loop offers an audience a dramatic insight into a world that they sometimes complacently convince themselves is completely foreign to their own.
"When you’re in prison," he said, "sitting across from people who are incarcerated, especially for serious crimes, and you start to bond with them and form a relationship and they tell a story that reveals their humanity or context, the inescapable truth is the context you’re born into, and the context you created for yourself out of that, plays an absolutely undeniable role in your destiny.
"It’s easy for us to drive by a prison," he continued, "and think everybody is in there because they’re fundamentally bad, and I’m driving by because I’m fundamentally good." Plays like these make a supposition like that far less easy.