The Playing for Time program at the University of Winchester in the U.K. brings students engaged in community theater courses into the local prison to produce a play in collaboration with prisoners and professional staff. The program has led to powerful and long-lasting relationships between the prison, the university and the graduates of the program.
The primary program activities are the creation of theatre with a mixed group of students and prisoners. Major theatre projects have been taking place since 2003 and 6 productions have been staged in the prison. Winchester University students work alongside prisoners on all projects working as mentors to the prisoners helping with aspects of literacy, line-learning and self-presentation skills. Working in the prison gives these students a learning experience which goes beyond conventional learning. They have to work as a team and take responsibility for others. Their work as mentors engages them with people from social backgrounds they would not normally encounter and promotes a sense of responsibility through community involvement and service. Working in the prison stimulates understanding and empathy and engenders attitudinal change. As an education for citizenship the prison offers a unique learning experience. A number of students are now working within the criminal justice system in the UK as a result of these projects. Kate Massey-Chase, a 2nd year student at the University of Winchester and a Playing for Time participant, cites a performance of the prison theatre group that she attended in high school as one of the main reasons she decided to attend the University of Winchester. She remains passionate about community theatre and hopes to work in the criminal justice system after graduation.
Playing for Time seeks to address prisoner rehabilitation focusing on low levels of educational achievement amongst the prison population in the UK, providing transferable skills such as: communication and self-presentation skills, literacy skills, team building, enhanced sense of achievement and confidence, and personal responsibility. Plays staged in Winchester Prison are chosen for their content so that prisoners can draw parallels between the events and characters in the play and make links with their own lives and experiences which might have led them into patterns of offending behavior. All work delivered through the theatre projects is accredited and prisoners receive certification which can be shown to prospective employers. The prisoners’ work is accredited by an external Adult Education College. For many men, engagement with this work is the first time they have gained any kind of educational qualification, having dropped out of school at a young age.
Some prisoners who have participated in the program have even gone on to study at the University of Winchester after their release, including Louis Nelhams. According to Nelhams, “In jail you have to put up a front,” and Playing for Time helped break this down and let him express himself. The program benefits not only the prisoners, but also the prison staff. According to Annie McKean, the program manager, “Prison Governors have always been supportive of the work, acknowledging its value and have grown even more enthusiastic over the years,” adding, “We are encouraged by a positive shift in attitude by some officers who can see the value and speak positively about seeing the prisoners as people with talent and not just a name and number.” Thus, the Playing for Time Program provides a unique model of community engagement with a focus on a particular population (prisoners) that benefits not only this population and the students involved, but society as a whole.