Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

ROWAN MACKENZIE (HMPs Gartree & Stafford)

ROWAN MACKENZIE (HMPs Gartree & Stafford)

COMMENDEE 2020-21: Rowan is Commended, as a volunteer Drama Tutor, for setting up highly successful theatre companies for prisoners at HMPs Gartree and Stafford, harnessing the power of Shakespeare to transform people’s lives.

It’s a testament to Rowan Mackenzie’s work as a Volunteer Drama Tutor that two prisons in which she works independently sent in nominations for her to the Butler Trust Awards. A further – and rather remarkable – testament to her ability to pass on her love of Shakespeare to prisoners is that one prisoner’s nomination began with… a sonnet.

Andrew*, a prisoner at Gartree, called his sonnet ‘My Hero’:

Not every hero wears a mask or cape
But mine does, and crowns and costumes
As she illuminates the darkness of prison with her grace
Using books as her lanterns in many volumes
Does she show us the power in words
And teaches us a new language, one of hope.

Giving us the Bard from ages past
She guides us to leave a legacy that lasts
Helping to show that we can be something more
As she nudges us towards freedom’s door
From self-doubt and shattered confidence she lifts us
Showing that we too are worthy of trust.

So while these words feel distant and empty
All I can say is thank you, Ms. Rowan Mackenzie.

Andrew, in an affecting and carefully handwritten letter worth quoting at length, ‘explains’ his sonnet further: “Rowan is the most worthy person for recognition even though she hates the limelight she has taken a group of disparate men and moulded them into scholars of Shakespeare, writers and directors. Moulding us all into a community, which is no small feat anywhere but one of gargantuan proportions here at Gartree.

“She gives us a taste of what goodness should look like and through her examples all those involved in the Gallowfield Players become better people, more caring people who look out for each other beyond the group.

Rowan “even managed to arrange a severely dyslexic inmate to produce 2 plays, full length works that have been performed,” he says, and adds a remarkable anecdote: “Perhaps the most powerful achievement I have witnessed is how her classes prevented a friend taking his own life. He did not want to let down his friends in the group or cause Rowan any pain and despite being in one of the darkest moments of his life and openly discussing suicide, it was the support found by members of the group that Rowan created that saved him.” He adds “There is an almost endless list of achievements, moments of time where you can see change visibly happening in front of your eyes. It’s a miraculous thing to witness.”

Francesca Cooney of the Prisoner’s Education Trust, in her own Initial Nomination, says Rowan “has consistently gone above and beyond in her work establishing collaboratively-owned theatre companies in HMP Gartree and HMP Stafford. She has been tireless in her engagement with the men in the theatre groups, who now co-own the theatre companies which Rowan first established, both prior to and throughout the coronavirus lockdown.”

During the lockdown, which prevented her usual sessions from taking place, “Rowan has produced weekly learning resources packs for three different abilities. PET have seen all the materials to date, and we are amazed by the creativity and variety of the resources Rowan creates, and her commitment to producing them every week. They are interactive, thought provoking and engaging, and are a testament to Rowan’s dedication and commitment to the people she works with.”

Rowan’s commitment to the deepest inclusivity has also involved working with children and adults with learning disabilities, autism and mental health issues (e.g. Blue Apple Theatre, Acting Up! and Flute Theatre).

Francesca explains that the co-ownership model of the companies means “all members have an equal voice in decision making, creating a space where prisoners can have ownership and feel in control. Inviting families to attend the final performances helps to boost their confidence, morale and aspirations, and to strengthen their family support networks.”

Prison staff have responded very well to the impact of Rowan’s work, too, with Gartree’s Governor deciding the Shakespeare programme “would become a permanent part of the prison regime and with Rowan’s continued support, the group then elected to become a theatre company (The Gallowfield Players).” Meanwhile, in HMP Stafford, the Governor became personally involved by playing a cameo role in one of the group’s plays!

The Gallowfield Players is now supported by The Shakespeare Globe, Royal Shakespeare Company and the Donmar Warehouse theatre. Meanwhile, she reports, “two of the men Rowan worked with who have been resettled into their communities have set up local drama groups to help them develop support networks outside the estate.”

She concludes by saying Rowan is “an outstanding individual working in prison education, both in terms of her drive, passion and commitment, and the outcomes of her original, inclusive and transformative projects.”

Karen Mushet, Butler Trust Local Champion and Learning, Skills and Employment Manager at HMP Gartree shares more powerful testimonials, with one performer writing:

“The Gallowfield Players Drama Group is possibly the most amazing project to be found in the entire prison estate. It has offered the participants the closest thing to true freedom that incarceration allows.  Perhaps this is due to the timeless themes to be found in the works of Shakespeare or the way we are given a voice to express ourselves so freely.

It might be the sense of achievement to be found in performing or even the community spirit so engendered within the group but no matter what the reason, the sense of pride in being part of it is overwhelming.”

An audience member from a prisoner’s family, meanwhile, wrote to say that “having attended the previous performance of Julius Caesar, may I comment on just how much the Gallowfield Players have improved in ability and confidence? Their camaraderie was evident throughout the play.”

Another performer talks of “a community where the men all look out for each other and, given the five decade of age ranges, multiple nationalities and religions and a transgender participant, that sense of community cannot be underestimated. Our rehearsals involve much creativity, laughter, empathy, unending support and love for each other as we adapt a play and prepare it for performance.”

Another performer adds that “I am proud to say that my identity has changed from being a Gallowfield Player and I can’t picture my life without it. In a place where there is judgement and violence at every turn there’s also a place of peace and tranquillity” and calls Rowan “the pillar that anchors us, guides us and provides us the space to be ourselves. In this group we have been given a voice, we are no longer shadows in daylight but people once more. This is a gift indeed.”

Karen says the impact of the theatre group “is immense”, with many who attend developing skills “they were never aware of, in writing, performing, public speaking, musical arrangements and set design.” She adds that alongside this, “life skills have been developed and built on, for example listening to others, appreciating alternative points of view, supporting each other through darker moments and team work.” She notes the encouragement “to build and use these skills can be seen when they are replicated in the participant’s lives whilst in prison and their interaction with others.  For some, this has been the first opportunity in life in which they have felt that they have support around them.”

Calling Rowan “instrumental in this key work”, she adds that “I know from talking to many of the participants that “the anticipation [of attending the group] will keep them going in more difficult times during each week.”

She concludes by describing Rowan’s enthusiasm as “boundless” and noting that she is “a key feature” within the prison’s activities provision.

Acting Gartree Governor Colin Hussey says that Rowan has demonstrated “a real commitment to HMP Gartree and everyone involved within Gallowfield players, as she is a volunteer who has attended weekly prior to this pandemic and since the period of lockdown, Rowan has developed distraction material and course work for all the drama students, to help keep them occupied and feel supported during these unknown times.”

He describes the creation of the Gallowfield players as having “an extremely positive impact for all of our community, we have had one person within our care, who has been restricted to the wing due to no fault of her own. She has been able to fully participate in the performance and feel a sense of belonging that she has not felt previously, this is a credit to Rowan for developing a supportive and inclusive group of residents.”

At the heart of this work is a theme that Shakespeare – no stranger to the criminal justice world himself – would surely recognise: the rich variety of human life, and its endless capacity to enrich us all.

* Names have been anonymised.