William Head Institution in Metchosin opens its doors for The Emerald City Project, an original play created by its resident theatre company.
William Head on Stage – or WHoS – is Canada’s longest-running prison theatre company. WHoS has collaborated with SNAFU Dance Theatre to co-produce an original dramatic comedy that riffs off character archetypes from The Wizard of Oz.
The men in WHoS co-devised, performed, produced, co-composed, costume designed and constructed the play.
In it, Tin Man, Lion, Scarecrow and The Witches take a journey that leads to the discovery they already have what they seek. The play explores themes such as how boys are conditioned to be men, transition and transformation and looming gentrification.
It is set in 2019 on a run-down Kansas Avenue where residents are dealing with the issue of renoviction. Featuring live music and hip-hop, the play explores what home means to a community that is trying to find balance on unsteady ground.
Ingrid Hansen, co-artistic director with SNAFU, said the men in the show did free-writing and invented songs, images and character ideas that would form this original play.
“Creating a play from scratch is an incredibly challenging task for any group of humans and this group has risen to the challenge,” Hansen said. “Being a part of this requires an intense level of teamwork, trust, overcoming fears and supporting each other.”
Prison theatre projects are in institutions around the world, providing a challenging and rehabilitating experience to prisoners. Director Kathleen Greenfield said theatre gives men the chance to work towards a collective goal, despite social behaviours being discouraged in prison culture.
“Theatre allows them to practice social scenarios both on stage and in producing a play with their incarcerated peers,” Greenfield said. “William Head on Stage is not a mandatory program and the men freely choose to be involved in the process. This gives them a sense of ownership for the outcome and the product.”
Greenfield said she has enjoyed seeing the men in the show make discoveries about their skills and gifts as singers, dancers, writers, designers and leaders.
Actors in the theatre company, whose names are required to be anonymous, said they felt supported and encouraged by their peers and were able to face their fears and build confidence by being a part of it.
One of the actors said the theatre company has given him a chance to change his life for the better.
“WHoS is a safe place where we don’t have to wear a mask or project an image that we think we need when living in a prison population,” he said. “When guys like me become involved with WHoS they enter into a positive environment where they are supported in what they are trying to do; the positive chances they are trying to make.”
There will be performances of The Emerald City Project every weekend from Oct. 4 to Nov. 2. Audience members must arrive early to go through prison security and no latecomers are allowed. Tickets must be purchased in advance and must be printed out. Those in attendance must be 19 years of age or older with valid government-issued photo ID.
Personal items including wallets, purses, phones and money are not allowed in the facility.