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29 August 2017

'A felon, a convict, a human being'

A detail from a convict diary from 1837 - <a href="http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-229728538/view">browse John Robinson's diary</a> on the National Library of Australia's Trove. Image: A detail from a convict diary from 1837 - browse John Robinson's diary on the National Library of Australia's Trove.  

Chris Williams writes about his involvement in writing incidental music as part of a creative writing and performance project Convict Monologues by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and the staff, volunteers and inmates from Risdon Prison. The invitation-only first performance of Convict Monologues will take place on 8 November.

In many ways my first creative meeting for Convict Monologues was like the first meeting of any creative project. I chatted with a group of theatre-makers and their director about a new piece of writing, listened to their musical impulses, added some of my own, and then talked through the script in detail, marking musical cues that seemed to make sense, occasionally wandering off-topic to just chat. It was, however, the first time that I'd had this kind of meeting inside a prison and, for that matter, it was also the first time I'd ever been inside a prison, though - and I hope this won't be misunderstood - I hope it won't be the last time.

Convict Monologues is another collaboration between the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Risdon Prison. Following the Australian Composers' School in Hobart last year I was asked if I might want to write music for the project. Truth be told, I'd have jumped at any chance to work with the TSO again, and it was dumb luck on my part that the project is such a fascinating, vital, artistic community collaboration.

Playwright, author and ABC Hobart content-maker Paul McIntyre has been working, this year, with prisoners at Risdon on scriptwriting skills and also inviting guest lecturers to the prison to talk about the history of convicts in Australia. Prisoners who have volunteered to take part in these sessions have now written their own monologues, from the point of view of historical convicts, in response. These monologues are to be performed in the prison by the authors, accompanied by players from the TSO.

The Risdon Prison Sport and Recreation Officer, Natasha Woods, is a driving force behind it all. A former Churchill Fellow, Natasha travelled to investigate prison arts programs in the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Her research focusses particularly on how prisoners who participate in arts programs are significantly less likely to subsequently reoffend. Very early on, the reality of this was put to me simply by Paul. The overwhelming majority of inmates return to the community after serving their time. Anything that can be done to help prisoners develop skills and encourage participation will benefit the individuals involved but also the community at large. This is the biggest single hope for 'The Convict Monologues'. One prisoner, close to parole, might even be able to participate in the Risdon Performance in November, and then attend the planned subsequent public performance, outside the prison, as a 'free man', granted his 'ticket of leave', so to speak. I wonder how different those two performances will be for him.

Before our meeting in the prison, a trip was arranged for the prisoners - all from the minimum security wing - to attend a TSO rehearsal. This was when I first met my collaborators. While my visit to prison later that day was my first time in a prison, for some of the inmates this would be their first time attending an orchestral rehearsal. For the historical convicts in their script it was their first time crossing the seas, an almost unimaginable undertaking at the time, under terrible conditions.

Firsts can be both scary and rewarding. It was only later that I realised my ease at an orchestral rehearsal and uncertainty entering prison was perhaps the reverse for the prisoners, whose occasional hesitancy at the morning rehearsal had disappeared by the time of our meeting in the prison. As I relaxed at the prison, I recalled the end of the TSO rehearsal. As we left, one prisoner who had been particularly quiet suddenly exclaimed 'that was cool beyond cool', another said simply, 'that was incredible'.

Paul, like a true person of the theatre, has excellent timing. As I was reflecting on how to finish this blog, I received an e-mail from him out of the blue, including the final words of the monologues, which I had not yet read. They include some lines for an infamous convict, which struck me as pertinent and have continued to bound around in my head - 'I am Mr. Hunt, a felon, a convict, a human being.'

None of this project would be imaginable without the vision, invention and hard work of Natasha Wood, Paul McIntyre, the tireless Jennifer Compton and the extraordinary care and generosity of the TSO players, to whom I am indebted and with whom I am humbled to be working.

Further links

Chris Williams - AMC profile

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra - media release about Convict Monologues


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