Award-winning doctoral researcher Rowan Mackenzie of the Shakespeare Institute responds to Coronavirus crisis in prisons

mackenzie-rowan-Cropped-300x300
Rowan MacKenzie

Rowan Mackenzie, doctoral researcher at the Shakespeare Institute, is a multi-award-winning practitioner of ‘Applied Shakespeare’, the founder of Shakespeare UnBard, and creator of Europe’s first in-prison theatre company jointly owned by her and the inmates, the highly successful Gallowfield Players of HMP Gartree.

A raft of new projects and theatre companies followed in prisons across the country, including the inauguration of the Emergency Shakespeare company in HMP Stafford, seeing her win award after award. Following an Award for Best Provocation for her lecture about her pioneering work, delivered at the Teaching Early Modern Drama conference at the University of Warwick, Rowan won an Outstanding Individual Award from the Prisoner Learning Alliance in 2019, following 11 separate nominations from HMP Gartree (the largest ever number of nominations for any single winner). Further recognitions were not long in coming. The Worshipful Company of Educators created a new category of award to honour her work, identifying her as Highly Commended Prison Educator of the Year 2019. The Company quickly followed this up by awarding her the Trust’s main prize, the 2020 Inspirational Educator Award for ‘Teaching Shakespeare in Challenging Settings’

A prop crown which the Gallowfield Players in HMP Gartree made for their production of Macbeth

A prop crown which the Gallowfield Players in HMP Gartree made for their production of Macbeth

While the Coronavirus crisis has seen increasingly stringent measures across prisons, temporarily halting in-house theatre programmes, Rowan has not allowed this to stop her vital work. “One of my actors described our theatre work as the closest thing to freedom I’ve experienced in prison”, commented Rowan, “and this sense of mental freedom is ever more important during this worrying and confined period.”

In response to the crisis she created a series of Shakespeare distance learning packs which are allowing inmates to continue the education programmes she has established, as well as widening participation to many more prisoners. As Rowan confirmed, “providing our inmates with activities to keep their minds occupied is crucial to their mental health, now more so than ever.” So successful have Rowan’s initiatives been that Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Services have made her activity packs a formal part of their ‘In Cell Activity’ resources, available to all prisons, and her work forms a key part of the Prisoner Learning Alliance COVID-19 response resources.

To date over 20 prisons have proactively commenced usage of Rowan’s Shakespeare education packs and the HMPPS Learning and Skills Manager for the Long Term High Secure Estate stated that Rowan is “doing an amazing job and we thank her so much for the support and creativity. It is so important to provide things that help inmates to focus attention on something other than the current difficult situation.”