You Need Company in the Dark: Building The House of Bernarda Alba at HMP Holloway Prison

You Need Company in the Dark: Building The House of Bernarda Alba at HMP Holloway Prison

Williams, Rachel Marie-Crane


This article is about the production of The House of Bernarda Alba in Her Majesty’s Prison Holloway in London England. It is written from a personal perspective and focuses on the following topics, collaboration, a brief comparison of prison life in the US and the UK, the successful and unsuccessful experiences of participants, and their insights into being a Mother, Sister, and Daughter. The purpose of this article is to provide a narrative account of the difficulties and experience of working as an arts educator in prison. This article springs from the journal I kept while working, conversations with the participants, and personal observations. This experience changed the way that I work with women in prison and furthered my convictions that time and an understanding of prison culture are two of the most important elements in any successful education program. It is also important to decide if the program will be driven by participant needs, a pre-determined end goal or both.

You Need Company in the Dark

Since 1994, I have been an art educator working with incarcerated women and girls in the United States to create images and objects in which the artists can re-vision their choices and self-concept. The most successful projects involve collaboration, an understanding of the prison culture, and way to reach beyond the prison to the community.

In June of 2001, I was invited by The Inside Job Theatre Company to collaborate with Dr. Deirdre Osborne and the incarcerated women of Holloway Prison in London, England to produce The House of Bernarda Alba, written by Fedrico Garcia Lorca. We chose the House of Bernarda Alba because the cast is made up entirely of women, and it has themes throughout of imprisonment and repression. The original play is set in Spain in the 1930s and is about an overbearing mother and her five daughters. The mother will not allow the daughters to marry or leave her home. The daughters are prisoners; they each fear their mother, Bernarda Alba. During the course of the play, the audience sees each daughter’s reaction to their mother’s repression. The story of the play, in some ways mirrors the experiences of most women as daughters, mothers, and sisters.

Initially idea of collaborating with Osborne was appealing. Because we are both involved in community arts education through academia the partnership seemed ideal. In the past, she participated and worked as a co-collaborator in drama workshops with incarcerated men; she had not worked with women or directed. I have taught visual art workshops with women and men, but had little experience with drama or theatre design. My experience with women and her experience with drama came together to reveal new knowledge to us both. In addition to our collaboration, we also worked with an independent documentary film crew from Films of Record. The crew consisted of two women, Lucy Fyson and Fiona Melville, who work as filmmakers in prisons throughout Great Britain. Their input was invaluable and gave us a chance to view the experience through the distance created by the objectivity of the camera. The film, Artistic Convictions, Holloway, “House of Women”, was aired on an arts channel in the UK in October of 2001.

Working to make this production happen was one of the most challenging experiences I have faced as an art educator. The trial stemmed from trying to work within bounds and still consider and nurture the things that make an experience successful. It was difficult for me to operate within the prison culture and British culture because I was not a native. To collaborate with Osborne was also challenging because we had very different styles of working. We both struggled with the extreme time constraints, successfully communicating our needs to the prison and the filmmakers, and maintaining some sense of continuity between everyone’s objectives. This paper is based on my reflections, and the personal, social, and institutional policies, which shaped the experience. It is a story about the experience, women, and working.

Models of Working

In our project two models for working emerged; one model aided collaboration, the other seemed to make it more difficult. In the end we found that at times both of these approaches were in play and necessary for achievement. One way of working for community artists is to center energies on the project at hand and make the project the center of the process. In this mode the work is goal driven, the goals remain consistent, and the group fluctuates in number based on the external needs and personal motivation of participants. A hierarchy develops based on the agenda of the person who set the original parameters. There is little room for digression from these parameters because the thread of consistency is carried through by adherence to the original goal. This way of working offers little opportunity for collaboration between the artist and participants. It also offers little in the way of flexibility.

A second way of working is to make to participants the center of the project and their desires for the project become the focus. The second way of working demands that the participants take responsibility for the outcome of the project, interject their ideas into the process, and work together to create and realize the final product. The second way of working demands a great deal of time, is sometimes difficult because of disagreements with regard to power and ideas, and requires a great deal of group work in order to crystallize each person’s role and voice. Most of my previous experience draws on this mode of working.

Osborne and I worked from a combination of these two approaches. Unlike many of the projects I undertake, which have no timetable and can sometimes take over a year, we had less than a month to make this project happen. During this time we had to find 10 actors, draw out their skills, help them learn the play, and develop their characters. We also had to produce their costumes, develop sound scapes, and collaborate with three different departments within the prison. Our project was driven by the original vision of the production, but the participants shaped the outcome of the final characterizations within the play, including visual appearance of each character’s costume. All of Deirdre’s time was spent with the actors, while my time was divided between the actors and the costume designers in the sewing room.

As a director Osborne seemed to employ the first mode of working rather than the second. This meant that if an actor entered the group and their energy or personality did not contribute to the production then they were asked to leave. The second mode of working would have required that the group work as a community to include the actor in spite of the difficulty that it might cause in the short-term. Part of the reason for Osborne’s insistence that the project be production driven instead of participant centered was because there was so little time and there was an expectation from the theatre company that sponsored us to produce a very professional performance. Osborne was also interested in presenting a production that was as close to the text of Lorca’s original intent as possible. This meant that there were past performances that influenced her ideas about the characters, their skills, physical appearance, and stage aura. Her parameters were tightly defined from the beginning of the production. As time went on, like any good director, she changed her expectations and worked with the resources and people who were available.

In the costume shop/sewing room I found that it was easier to include everyone because there were so many individual tasks that could accommodate a wide range of desires and skills. I also found that different images conjured by individuals could be expressed easily because there were many different pieces that needed to be produced. There was plenty or room for multiple interpretations. Color was the thing that tied all of these pieces together so each one could be designed very differently. I wondered, was it easier to work using a participant centered mode in the visual arts? There were few specific texts or schema, other than the script and story, to which the visual ideas were tied.

As a group we decided we would use the 1930s as our inspiration for design. We also wanted each character to be seen primarily in black, because they were in mourning. In addition we added a color or two tied to their personality. Each character had to have one outfit, two fans, jewelry, and a veil. These were our only parameters. The rest depended on the individual choice and skill of the designer. The final products could function individually or with the group. There was enough unity in terms of the color black, the 1930s, and the idea of women in mourning to create visual cohesion between individual ideas, the story, and the collective whole.

Group Work and Time

In a prison, there are numerous restrictions and complications. It is important to understand the power structure, the institutional rules, and the unspoken rules and group dynamics of the inmates and staff. It is also important to understand what is popular, what is valuable, and the slang used by the inmates. Understanding all of these things takes effort and time. Having enough time is one of the most important things to consider when putting together an arts project. It is not only the key to catching on to the culture, but also to working within that culture to create something worthwhile. While it is true that people in prison have a tremendous amount of time on their hands, much of this time is controlled or interrupted by head counts, the number of available staff, canteen, medical appointments, visits, and meals. The women are only available during certain portions of the day from Monday to Friday in Holloway. In total they were only going to be allowed to work with us for about three and one half- hours each day. In my experience this a generous allotment on the part of the prison. We extended this time by working with the women and the staff to add an hour and one half to our morning workshops. The women agreed to leave their cells at 8:30 a.m. without breakfast and work until noon. The staff agreed to help us collect them from their wings in the morning so they could join us before movement. The prison also agreed that we could provide breakfast for them in exchange for the women’s added commitment in the mornings. This required additional paperwork and staff time. Our time with the women was always in competition with legal and family visits, doctor’s appointments, disciplinary measures, and the availability of space. We also found that it was important to be flexible and to understand that often our acting group would not start working until 9:30 because of factors related to the operation of the prison.

In addition to our difficulties with time, we found some difficulty in maintaining a regular group for the first two weeks. On most days at least one woman would be missing. This meant that one of us would have to step in to the woman’s role or the group would forgo rehearsing parts of the play. Our entire cast was not solidified until the last four days of the project.

Time and group stability were not the only factors to overcome, personal crisis and group dynamics made things difficult. One story is particularly illustrative of crisis and it’s effect on group dynamics. Mary, a beautiful woman in her late twenties joined our group after the second day and told us that she had been a child actor with various parts in a television series. For the next few workshops she participated fully and was enthusiastic. Toward the end of the first week she told us that she had just discovered she was pregnant and had a kidney/ bladder infection. This immediately inspired great sympathy from everyone.

Monday and Tuesday of the second week she participated, but clearly felt ill. On Wednesday she was dismissive and seemed angry and distant. With concern, we approached her and she disclosed the fact that she was in turmoil because her boyfriend was not making regular visits and she felt he had chosen drugs over his relationship with her. She was understandably disappointed and concerned because of the pregnancy. That morning she was considering whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. Not surprisingly, she was also considering quitting the play after she had landed one of the leading roles. By the afternoon her low spirits had completely shifted. She had reconsidered her decision to leave the group. Her mood improved because she had talked with the prison psychiatrist and had received a reassuring phone call from her mother. A feeling or relief passed through the entire cast. We were happy to see that Mary’s situation was improving.

The next morning her sour mood returned and she sat silently in the corner and overtly refused to participate in the workshop. During the break she told one of the women that she was bleeding heavily and was afraid she would lose her baby. The women urged her to seek medical attention. She also said that the other inmates on her wing were bullying her and that she wanted to be moved. Osborne and I noticed that the cast’s feeling of concern from the previous day had changed to irritation. Later we found out that there had been rumors throughout the prison related to Mary’s behavior. The next day, several cast members told Osborne and I that Mary told many different stories to women in the prison, each one was more and more outrageous. There had also been some suspicion that she was not pregnant. The group felt deceived and disgusted and their overall morale plummeted. They asked us to kick Mary out even though she was playing a leading role. In spite of our desire to help Mary channel her energy and creativity, it was clear that she needed help that we were not qualified to give. She seemed to be in a state of extreme crisis. It was also clear that the group’s energy and cohesiveness was at stake; the other women were drained by Mary’s presence and resented her deceit. If we had not had such a tight deadline Mary’s problems would have been easier to overlook in spite of their immediate effect on our group.

Because I had been working with women for a long time, and had spoken with Mary several times during our morning coffee/cigarette break, Osborne asked me to tell Mary that she could no longer be involved with the drama group. When I went to Mary’s wing the officers confirmed that experiences such as these were common with Mary. In the short time she had spent on her wing a pattern of isolating and pushing people away with lies and outbursts had developed. The officers also told me that a urine test had confirmed that she was not pregnant.

I walked down the light blue hall past locked double iron doors with small Plexiglas slits and openings. When I reached Mary’s room she was lying on her bed. There were three other women with whom she shared the cell. I was concerned about telling her the group’s decision in front of her cellmates. I decided to try and talk with her and “feel out” whether my timing was appropriate. Her eyes met mine through the milky scratched Plexiglas while an officer fumbled to unlock the hatch so we could speak. Our conversation was brief, but friendly. She told me during the first few moments of our exchange that because of her pregnancy she had decided to quit. I conferred with her decision and felt relieved that she had sensed the purpose of my visit and had spared me from delivering the unpleasant news. I knew it was inappropriate to point out how her continued deceit had affected the group. Instead, I urged her to continue to seek the support of her family as well as counseling. I knew that eventually Mary would learn from others that her self-destructive behavior was inappropriate and unacceptable. Mary met members of the group in the halls and myself on a few occasions and each time she said that she and her baby were fine. This denial of her pregnancy might have erupted into something more disagreeable if she persisted working with the group in the face of their skepticism.

Another instance of personal crisis and its affect on group dynamics was the case of Shelly. She had only been at Holloway for a week when she joined the drama group. It was also her first week of withdrawal from heroin and her introduction to methadone. During the early stages of recovery she was self-absorbed and physically ill. She had difficulty concentrating and would occasionally lash out at the other group members or us. She always followed these outbursts with the sentence, “I’m de-toxing, I’m de-toxing.” After a week of her interruptions we decided that she was not stable enough to participate as an actor in the production. I agreed to include her as a designer in the costume shop. When she entered the sewing room she informed me that she had been trained as an artist, and felt that sewing was beneath her. At first I was dismayed, but then tried to lighten her disapproval by pointing out that I was also trained as an artist, and that many artists, such as Tracy Emin Faith Ringgold, and Judy Chicago, sewed as part of their creative work.

The women in the costume shop told me she was extremely unpleasant and (as a group) they did not want to work with her. At first I thought maybe it was because she was new to the group, but later I saw that they accepted another woman without any problems. It became obvious as time went on that it was Shelly’s personality that was problematic.

Most of the women who worked as designers were pregnant and incarcerated for drug smuggling. They had worked together for many weeks before my arrival so they were familiar and jovial with one another. One afternoon, Shelly instantly created tension in the close-knit group when she loudly stated that the people who smuggle drugs into the country are the ones who should bear the consequences of all crimes involving drugs, including the actions of people, like herself, who were addicts. She relinquished any responsibility for her actions and addiction and blamed those who provided the drugs for her situation and offense. At once the subject was changed, but the air was thick with disapproval. She sensed the design group’s hostility and did not return to participate in either the acting group or the costume workshop. I felt that the timing of her recent incarceration followed by her withdrawal symptoms were too complex to deal with in the span of only a month so I did not ask that she reconsider her decision to leave.

Both Shelly and Mary had not been living at Holloway for very long when they joined our group. Both also seemed to have a variety of psychological and medical needs that might have been compounded by the stress of working under a deadline in conjunction with a new group of people.

In the past, I have found that often women such as Shelly and Mary will rejoin the group after they have taken some time to re-think their reactions, or they have spoken to group members and gained insight into their behavior and its influence on other people. Time is important in dealing with these kinds of group situations. Usually what initially attracted participants to projects will cause them to reconsider their initial decision to leave. It seems when women first come to prison they have a very difficult time adapting to the regimented lifestyle and the stress caused by separation from their family and friends. Usually this passes or subsides somewhat after a few months. All of the women are dealing with a serious crisis in their life. Most women will try to work through these problems alone or with the help of one or two people that they trust. One woman said, after a brief discussion about trust, “We all have our problems here, but we just get on with things.” Our project was on such a tight timeline that problems such as those encountered in these two examples could not be resolved.

In contrast to these two stories, the women who did successfully work with the drama project were those who had been living at Holloway for more than a few weeks and who had the desire and commitment to see the project completed. The ages of the women ranged from 17 to 49 and their experiences and offenses were varied. Farrah, one of the most consistent participants had been living at Holloway for many months. During the first few months she said she was extremely depressed. She overcame her depression by first accepting that her life had changed, and then by reaching out to others. She found that having a regular job within the prison helped to fill her time with purpose, feel a sense of normalcy, and provide an outlet for developing an identity within the prison. These are also the reasons she volunteered for the drama project. She said that the project gave her a sense of purpose and was challenging. Many women who successfully worked in the cast group agreed with the idea of filling their daily lives with purpose in order to make time pass more quickly and give a sense of meaning to their existence.

Trust is an important element in the culture of the prison. Women will often have many acquaintances, but only a few really close friends. I spoke with many women who said that it was important to find people in whom they could confide without the fear that the information shared in moments of intimate conversation might later be used against them. Women also rarely talk about their offenses, instead they talk about work, the experience of prison, or they tell stories about their lives before prison. Usually the conversation is kept light and optimistic. Perhaps this is because the women realize that they are all struggling with difficult situations in their lives. These situations are best shared with only a few people.

The women in our drama group were not strangers to one another. They all seemed to know each other or know of each other before the group came together. These networks strengthened the overall dynamic of the group, gave the women a sense of security, and made them feel as if they had allies. As a facilitator you are seen as an outsider. It takes time to establish intimacy and trust within a group of inmates. Most inmates realize that you are leaving and therefore some feel it is not important to become close with you or build a friendship. In the entire time I have worked in prisons, I have only had a few women keep in touch with me after projects have ended. Usually these women worked with me for a long time.

After a project ends there is often a severe sense of disconnection and in some cases even withdrawal. Some women will disconnect themselves in wonderful positive ways. For example when the project at Holloway ended we had a small party for the women and sat around and talked. Osborne and I also wrote them each a letter and enclosed our address so they could remain in touch if they wanted. Some of the women gave us a large bouquet of roses, others took time to give us hugs and thank us. Certain women find disconnection to be very difficult. One young woman, who was 17, Sammy, exploded into a rage at Osborne when she escorted her back to her unit. She screamed that Osborne was a “screw” (an officer), because she had keys, and that she didn’t really care about the cast, only the project. Then she ran away from Osborne in anger and refused to tell her goodbye. She seemed fine a few moments before the incident happened and so the outburst was very surprising. Osborne was hurt by Sammy’s anger. But, she also realized that Sammy had a very difficult childhood and an even more difficult adolescence. She was banned from most of the other prisons because of her violent temper. We assumed that the outburst was her method of disconnecting from people. Perhaps it was easier for her to detach from us if she felt that we were angry with her or if she could identify us with the institution.

Cultural Literacy

Cultural literacy is important to consider when doing work within an institution. Working in prisons has provided me with a general understanding of life in a women’s correctional institution within the United States. Often I see the same symbols over and over again in the artwork of women from different prisons. I also see the same themes addressed in their letters, poetry, and drawing. Tom Anderson (1995) states, “… a number of thinkers claim that the structures and institutions of culture, including language and the arts, frame the consciousness of those embedded in culture” (p. 202).

Clifford Geertz (1973), defined culture as:

(1) “The total way of life of people; (2) “The social legacy the individual acquires from his [sic.] group”; (3) “a way of thinking, feeling, and believing”; (4) “an abstraction from behavior”; (5) a theory on the part of the anthropologist about the way in which a group of people in fact behave; (6) a “store house of pooled learning”; (7) “a set of standardized orientations to recurrent problems”; (8) “learned behavior” (9) a mechanism for normative regulation of behavior; (10) “a set of techniques for adjusting both to the external environment and to other men”; (11) “a precipitate of history”, (p. 4-5,)

Using this definition I will try to construct a picture of the culture I observed within Holloway. My construction is framed by comparisons to the culture of Holloway to the women’s prisons in the United States, especially the Iowa Women’s Correctional Institution (ICIW).

My role in the culture of ICIW is small and defined by my status as a volunteer. Usually I work unsupervised in a classroom setting with 10-12 women. At Holloway I was in the presence of an officer or a trustee at all times, therefore, like the women, I was always being watched. This made me much more self-conscious and less open than I normally am in the United States. I thought that the atmosphere of the British prison would be similiar to correctional facilities in US. Instead, Holloway was much more humane in some aspects related to their treatment of prisoners. For example, the women are not as deprived of everyday things like lighters, bulletin boards, and women’s clothing. The officers are not armed and most are relaxed with the inmates. The inmates seemed to feel comfortable joking with officers, and even at times defying or ignoring them. The inmates are allowed to touch one another, unlike their North American counterparts, and have available to them a wide variety of opportunities such as pottery, rock climbing, swimming, team sports, and Karaoke. In US prisons these activities are rarely present, most inmates must wear men’s state issued uniforms or thin “house dresses” and usually their possessions are severely restricted for security reasons. In most US prisons women offenders must be submissive and respectful to the supervising staff; sometimes the relationship between staff and offenders is extremely adversarial. I have also noted, while at Holloway, that women are allowed to keep their infants until the age of 18 months. I only know of two programs in the United States where this is allowed. Women at Holloway are also allowed to smoke in their rooms and in certain places within the prison. I noticed that many women would smoke anywhere, regardless of the rules, especially if they were not in the company of an officer. In Iowa, the most recent place I have worked, inmates are not allowed to have lighters, and must smoke outside if they smoke at all. I realized that the differences might be a matter of security or simply due to the history of corrections in each country.

In Holloway, young offenders reside in the same prison as adult offenders; during free-flow and activities they mix with the adults. This is also quite different from the United States correctional facilities, where young offenders are kept in separate facilities from adults, education is compulsory, and they are treated more like children and less like adults.

There are some similarities between the prisons in the United States and Holloway. For example the cells are locked, and most women live with other women in their cell. However, single cells are available in Holloway to women who have lived at the prison without discipline problems for many weeks.

Holloway looks different from most prisons in the United States. It was built in 1849; in the 1960s it was demolished and rebuilt. In the center of the prison is a huge English garden with an aviary. There is also an entire wing devoted to arts and crafts, as well as education. The physical education department has a great deal of equipment: an astro turf playing field, a large well kept swimming pool, and body shop (weight room). In the gymnasium there is a sound system that is often used to play popular music and a climbing wall. The facilities look like what you might find available at a public school or a community college. The wings where the women live are fairly lackluster, but each wing has a small dining room and most rooms have windows. Most of the women’s prisons in which I have worked in the United States, are not well equipped for recreational activities. Most have adequate educational facilities, some have chapels and gymnasiums, and a small number have recreational arts facilities usually consisting of a room with storage and a sink.

The women in the United States and Holloway both complain that the food is unpleasant and the medical care they receive is inadequate. They also gather together in groups, which are composed of similiar people from similiar backgrounds, often with similar sentences and beliefs. For example, in Holloway there are significant numbers of women from Jamaica, many of whom are sentenced for crimes related to drugs. These women often make friends with each other. There are also many women who have been in prison before. This gives them some status upon entering, especially if they are familiar with the current system. Women also gain status through their jobs. If they are a wingcleaner, or they work in education, the library, the gym, or the chapel they are well-respected because they have a relationship with institutional staff. They seem to have access to goods and opportunities that other women don’t, and they can make up to 8 pounds per week. Other jobs and activities only pay about 2.50 L per week. This extra money means they can purchase more expensive canteen items. These observations parallel my experiences with women’s correctional facilities in the US.

Mothers, Daughters, and Sisters

Like women offenders in the states, most women at Holloway are mothers. For many their lack of control over the life of their young child or children is perhaps one of the most disturbing things about being in prison. In the United States 80% of the women are mothers with at least one child (Owens, 1998). We chose to use the play, The House of Bernada Alba, specifically because it contained many themes related to being a mother, daughter, and/or sister. When we asked the women in the drama group to share their ideas about these roles we were left with list of words that described each experience. For Mothers they listed the following: generous, caring, understanding, excellent, blind, neurotic, too protective, plays favorites. These themes were further explored through stories related to being a mother and being mothered. For sisters they listed: 2-faced, evil, nice, selfish, sharing, companionship, competitive, loyal, “takes the piss”, treats and treated differently depending on the order of their birth. We found this list to be the most useful in talking about the play and the interactions between the five sisters. The last list we made was about being a daughter. We found that all the women could relate to this discussion and did so with a great deal of enthusiasm. The final list about daughterhood is as follows: don’t feel loved, chose a boy or a girl over their mothers, they have different needs and desires than their mothers may have imagined or assumed, daughters can’t be forced to change, and they clashed with their mothers if they were too similiar to them in character. The last discussion became not only a reflection on childhood as a daughter, but also on their experiences as mothers of daughters. Using this discussion we unraveled the play act by act.

During our first discussion/read-through of the play we found that the women were eager to read the roles of different characters. They were eager to find a character to which they could relate. They were also curious to see how the play ended. These two factors helped to motivate the group. We did not finish the play until the end of the first week. Most of the women wanted to be Bernarda Alba, the mother because she was the most powerful and also because her name appeared in the title of the play. The women also wanted to be Adela. She was the youngest sister, the one who is the most romantic, and she also wears a beautiful green dress. The other sisters have complex characters ranging from pessimistic and bitter, to unrealistic, to conniving. These sisters appear in black throughout the entire play. After we finished reading the play and each woman had read a part it became clear who was best suited for each role. Our core cast group had diminished to about seven women so everyone was able to play a lead.

During the course of rehearsals each woman began to sink into her character and discover how she could connect to the part she was reading. Some women, like Sandy, felt very disconnected from their characters. She played the part of Martirio, a sister who had a hump backed, self-loathing, and pathetic to some degree. This character also had a sharp sense of humor. Sandy was extremely self-conscious about her appearance so the idea of having to alter her body and make it appear to have a deformity was far removed from her self-concept. Playing this part for her was difficult and required that she step away from herself in order to better play the role. As rehearsals continued it was apparent that the body language the role required was going to be very difficult for her. We tried several things such as tying her arm behind her back, tightening her brassiere on one side so that it was uncomfortable, and tying a band around her arm to remind her to stoop over. She suggested some of these things and found some to be quite helpful, but without some reminder she usually fell out of character by the second act.

Other women, like Anna fit their characters and easily fell into playing their role quite effectively. Anna was only 18, but showed an incredible amount of maturity throughout the entire process. She learned all of her lines before anyone else and worked hard to keep the group motivated. Her character was that of the middle sister, Amelia. In Bernarda’s family she was the peacekeeper and the pacifier. This seemed far away from her former life as a heroin addict and tough runaway living on the streets. Her demeanor was very morose at times and also edgy. She was one of the core cast members that held the play together.

Farrah, a woman from Ireland, played the part of Bernarda Alba. She was only 31 but had the wisdom to pull off the part. As time went on her energy seemed to grow in intensity. This intensity made her portrayal of the mother more and more believable as each day passed. She was strong and emotional. Her ability to boisterously order the daughters around one minute and worry quietly with the maid, Poncia the next was incredible. Her thick Irish accent worked to her advantage, added to the aura and stature of Bernarda, and set her apart from the other women. For Farrah, the play was very helpful in coping with her daily life and stress at the prison. She found out only a few weeks before we started that she could be facing a life sentence. This was piled on top of the pain of separation from her four children. She told us that working with the drama group helped her to keep her sanity while awaiting her trial. It might have been the stress that gave her the ability to be so intense during our rehearsals each day. Her energy set the standard for the other actors in the group. It also seemed that her experience of motherhood was also important in her interpretation of Bernarda. It gave her insight into the rage, the need for control, and the overwhelming feeling of attachment that Bernarda’s emotional mother image required.

Eventually our cast thinned out to only six women and Osborne picked up the part of Adela. She was very conflicted over directing the production and also being in the production. Part of her conflict arose from her desire to make the production cast all inmates. In some ways at first it did seem that there was a noticeable gap in her experience and the experience of the rest of the cast. This came through during rehearsals and required a great deal of adjustment in order to strike the right chemistry and tone. She was also conflicted because it was so difficult to direct and act. When our group became smaller there was an underlying concern that the play would have to change dramatically in order to make sense with three people missing.

One of the key roles was the role of Maria Josefa, Bernarda’s mother. She symbolically seemed to represent the repressed spirit of the house. She was constantly seeking a way to escape, find a man, and get married. These desires made her seem demented. In Lorca’s script she was 80 and at an age when stereotypically “normal” elderly women are supposed to suffer their alienation from the youth culture, aloneness, and their normal need for human sexual attention in silence. Without Maria Josefa the play seemed lacking. Then Micheline, a woman from Jamaica, took the part and was a natural. During our time at the prison, she lost custody of her daughter. This was a personal set back. She reacted understandably by sinking into a state of depression and withdrawal. We lost our Maria Josefa for a week and then she decided to rejoin the cast. He ability to overcome her personal crisis was incredible for her and for the cast.

All of these actors had experience dealing with the pressures of being a mother, a sister, or a daughter. Their reflection of their personal lives in the script provided some motivation for their actions and their imaginations. As an art educator this experience opened my eyes to a new way of working that was shaped by time, culture, and a final production. It was incredible to see a prison outside of the United States. Though many things were the same the differences such as the mothers and their children, the juveniles and the adults, the amazing recreational and educational facilities were awesome to witness and see how these differences influenced the dynamics of the system.

For me, working under such a tight deadline with a group of women living in a British prison, rather than an American prison was a new experience. It reaffirmed my desire to do more work with incarcerated women and also my desire to learn to work in different ways. It was heartbreaking at times to exclude women who made things difficult, but it was uplifting to see women succeed at creating such a fantastic production with only a few resources.

Working while being filmed was also informative. It made me very self-conscious and aware of everything I said and did. In the end, this was one of the things that helped Osborne and I work out our differences and see where our personal shortcomings had hindered the larger project.


Anderson, T. (1995). Toward a cross-cultural approach to art criticism. Studies in Art Education Journal of Issues and Research, 36(4), 198-209.

Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of cultures. Basic Books: New York.

Owens, B. (1998). In the mix: Struggle and survival in a women’s prison. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Biographical Sketch

Rachel Williams, an Assistant Professor of Art Education at the University of Iowa, edited Teaching the Arts in Prison published by Northeastern University Press. She also received funding from the National Art Education Foundation to study arts education in Juvenile Correctional Facilities across the country.

Copyright Correctional Education Association Dec 2003

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