Rowan MacKenzie’s research explores how Shakespeare’s work can be used in unconventional performance arenas, such as prisons and mental health institutions, to help disadvantaged people liberate themselves from physical or emotional constraints and establish fresh connections with society.

Can Shakespeare transform the lives of people who find it difficult to communicate?

How do you use Shakespeare to help people for whom communication may be an issue?

 I’m working with a range of groups – people with learning disabilities, mental health issues, from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, the homeless and those within the criminal justice sector. I’m interested in how spatial theories can be used to analyse how Shakespeare’s characters, language and stories can enable those groups to enlarge and manipulate the space in which they are living and operating.

 I believe that Shakespeare offers individuals and groups the opportunity to move outside these boundaries and consider new possibilities and opportunities for their future.

 My research on Creating Space for Shakespeare: non-traditional and applied theatre settings considers how his work can be used to create heterotopias (cultural or discursive spaces which unsettle those who experience them) and social spaces which may transcend the boundaries that participants feel otherwise imprison them.

How are you building on existing research to help these people?

Generally, existing material on applied theatre concentrates on a specific environmental space, such as the criminal justice sector.  My research demonstrates the vast overlap between people who are incarcerated, people with mental health or learning disabilities and people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Many people have elements of all of these issues, and whether they are in the health system or the criminal justice sector is often more circumstantial than specific to their needs. People often do not fit neatly into a single diagnostic box; whether as a criminal, an addict, someone with mental health issues or a person with learning disabilities.

Exploring how individuals’ circumstances and needs overlap these diagnostic labels allows us to consider how best to address many of the issues they face. This research into how Shakespeare can offer an alternative dialogue and perspective on the world for people with communication and emotional constraints is not limited by the space in which the individuals find themselves.

Why are spatial theories important in helping such people to explore their lives?

Taking spatial theories as a foundation, my focus is specifically on the use of Shakespeare’s plays to develop these often-constraining spaces, such as prisons and mental institutions, into somewhere which gives the participants the freedom and space to explore alternatives to their previous experiences of life.

The concepts of French Marxist philosopher and socialist Henri Lefebvre on the creation of social space and the importance of the process of creating space serve us well as a framework to consider the way in which space is both the physical entity, where performance takes place, and also the resultant mental and social capacity created by such activities. I use his concept of space being socially constructed, as a lens to consider how Shakespeare can enable those who are imprisoned in some way to create mental space within their confines or, indeed, to transcend the restrictive boundaries.

French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault wrote on the importance of space and the way in which it is used to embed power and control; a concept which is particularly useful when considering how Shakespeare can create space for those incarcerated.

How have you used Shakespeare in this way?

The current body of published work focuses on a specific space, such as prison or Broadmoor. In these settings a space is created both physically within the institution and mentally for those involved in the production; challenging them to open their minds to his narratives and characters.

With the approval of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probate Services (HMPPS) National Research Council, I have undertaken a six-month project in a category B men’s prison; working with a group to edit and rehearse Macbeth. This project has brought together men from multiple nationalities, over four decades of age-range and from a number of wings within the institution.

How did the men involved respond to the project?

Many of the men were initially nervous about the vulnerability involved in drama, but we run one session each week and over the months they have gained confidence in themselves and the rest of the team.

During the sessions, they speak not of the library space in which we rehearse but of the castle, the moors and the battlefields. It allows them to engage with something outside the prison environment, and their commitment to the work is demonstrated through their learning of lines, taking directorial notes for each other and assisting those who have issues reading. It was humbling to hear one of the men ask if he could miss rehearsal for a visit from his wife and to say that if I needed him he would cancel the visit.

I edited Macbeth to a 35-minute version with a stripped back cast of nine and played the role of Lady Macbeth myself, as none of the men was willing to play a woman. The group further edited the script and we have all directed elements of the play, working as an ensemble. This has enhanced the men’s interpersonal skills and forged new bonds within the prison. Rehearsals culminated in a performance attended by staff and men in October 2018.

What impact has Shakespeare’s work had on the people you’re working with?

The impact of experiencing Shakespeare like this varies widely across individuals and groups. For those with learning disabilities, it may be the opportunity to be more physically free in their movements or the sense of achievement of performing Shakespeare with its cultural cache. For those in prison, the benefits include increased confidence, ability to work in a group, and a desire to further their education, listening and empathy.

A recent participant commented at the end of a two-hour workshop in prison: “This is the first time I’ve spoken in a group. When they try to get me to do group therapy I go out when it’s my turn. I’ve never had the confidence to speak in front of a group before today.”

Much of my research is practical in nature and I am cataloguing feedback from participants and others engaged in the projects to be able to document these fully, as they may prove useful in shaping future policy for arts with marginalised groups.

How will you ensure your research benefits as many people as possible?

Much of the existing Shakespeare work in these non-traditional spaces is ephemeral and not adequately recorded; largely as the work is carried out by theatre practitioners rather than academics.

As these projects are often produced at a local level, there is often no funding for archiving and recording the productions. This, combined with a practitioner’s desire to move onto the next project once a piece of work is completed, often means there is little preserved for future research.

My research has already given me access to a number of original scripts, recordings and interviews, which will also be archived as part of my project and made accessible to fellow researchers.  In this way I hope to create a body of research that will encourage more use of Shakespeare’s work to offer individuals and groups the chance to stretch their physical and mental boundaries – creating exciting personal development opportunities for their future. 


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