A rare opportunity is afforded me to try my hand as a sketch artist for a rehearsal session of the London Shakespeare Workout programme directed by Dr. Bruce Wall, where I aim to capture some of the live performers as they practice their craft in a most unexpected venue in London.

I arrived to the gate with my pens and sketchbook… waiting to be registered, checked off the list, given a visitor’s pass (to be worn at all times). Anticipating the day and a little bit nervous (I shouldn’t have read those articles the night before; someone died here, not too long ago).

Guided through a maze of corners, past the glittering Christmas tree, narrowly brushing by the incongruous painting which wouldn’t be out of place above a matching sofa …more corridors and locked doors… to room C3, splashed on all walls with the kind of colourful signs reminiscent of primary school, letters 25-cm high cut from cheery flowered paper, spelling out “food poisoning”, “Campylobacter”, “Clostridium perfringens”… A few empty paper cups are accompanied by bits of rubbish, untidy stacks of paper strewn about, mismatched chairs abide patiently in an haphazard circle. It’s pretty much a performance rehearsal space anywhere…

The musicians set up and began to practice, working out some of the more difficult cues. I found a table to lay out my pens, my sketchbook, all of us warming up our instruments…and waiting for

…the actors to arrive.

Four energies burst in all smiles and a handshake, Wayne shining confidence in a dancer’s step; Vlad his spirit gently glowing with firm purpose; Edwin, solemn, kind, a professor, a mentor, someone’s dad perhaps, in another life… Jacob with his whole soul in his eyes, not sad exactly, but something’s there, just behind the dignity and resolve.

Welcome to Pentonville.

Model prison, Pentonville, from The Illustrated London News, 1843. Illustrator unknown.

After polite introductions all around, the actors begin to rehearse their lines of Shakespeare, drinking in stage direction from Dr. Bruce* like eager blooms sipping the rain after a day of too many fiercely rooted under the burning sun…

I tried at first to move my pen in time with the actors and saw many things too important to miss in a downward glance… my pen just stopped and started; it’s impossible to grasp a whole form so I am concerned only with the fleeting gesture of lines, a posture, and I focus on the between-moments

…self to character to self again.

Three more actors arrive, two whose names I can’t quite hear over the musicians testing the newest phrase, the first tall and well-met with the easy smile full of welcome, the second whose spirit, unlike the others, is a carefully guarded mask. Still I’m not convinced by the tough-guy-i-don’t-care exterior, who pretends to be here for a change of pace – I can feel the gusto with which he gathers his why-not in a fist to shout in chorus “I’m free!” …and Daniel, a spark about to ignite… and I saw it happen when he became an old man, palsied and stumbling, unable to speak…around him courage swelled and defied all weakness, to help him raise his hand, grasping an imaginary torch that we all could see. And he is a hero.

I am surprised when the guys crowded around my table at the end, to check out my drawings, hoping to see themselves maybe… and I wish that I’d been able to capture more between my eyes, fugitive moments, and my pen, to portray each of the men before me: Wayne, Vlad, Edwin, Jacob, “all smiles”, the one I don’t know quite yet, and Daniel.

Each of them proud, confident, strong… powerful and vulnerable and brave…warm, open, funny, creative… and beautiful.

Daniel, shyly bold, asked me to draw him… not of vanity I felt, but of a desire to be viewed under a different light… I am humbled by his confidence in me, and I don’t know what to say, except that I’ll try. I’ll do my best.

On the tube journey home, I was afraid that my memory would fail me, even as I hurriedly corrected lines, filled in spaces, and scribbled notes…

My thoughts race to a pause…

These men…it’s not pity I feel for them….I don’t know what they’ve done to be locked up…it’s not my business, and I find I’m not even curious…

My job here today was not to know such things anyway, but to look and to really see.

Thanks to these seven inmates, actors, people for showing me the place you happen to be in now does not have to define you, your present, nor even your future.

Who do you want to be, you can be; now that is the question.

Convicts exercising in Pentonville prison, 1840s. Illustrator noted lower left, Behrett.

*Dr. Bruce Wall is LSW’s Founder and Executive Director

About Dr. Bruce Wall and London Shakespeare Workout [LSW]

LSW was devised in a direct emulation of the long-running New York Shakespeare Workout [NYSW], a club of sorts where the famous and the undiscovered alike would flex their acting muscles by practicing, recreating, and even pushing the boundaries of the Bard’s prodigious output of plays and sonnets. One of the NYSW alumni, Dr. Bruce Wall (alongside Dame Dorothy Tutin) founded the programme in 1997 in London to

employ the works of Shakespeare alongside those of other major Dramatic/Cinematic/Musical writers and thinkers as a tool towards effective interaction in order to

(a) create new work and
(b) promote confidence through the will to dream for all

That first year, over 1,000 inmates, 147 prison officers, and over 600 professional actors took part in LSW at HMP Woodhill, (a category A prison near Milton Keynes), soon followed by other UK prisons, then overseen educationally by Milton Keynes College.

And now, two decades on, LSW has engaged participation of more than 12,000 professional performers and 9,000 offenders/ex-offenders throughout the globe, achieving its aim

to utilise the language of Shakespeare as a tool; a stepping stone to change through effective interaction …[where] within (and formerly without) the prison, the glory and the power of Shakespeare’s language… is something that the prison residents can suddenly find for themselves; something they can share, and, most importantly, something which they can own. 

In celebration of LSW’s 20th Anniversary Year in 2017, LSW started the “Linked Up Initiative” to embark on further creative collaborations aspiring to provide the opportunity for every UK drama student to engage in LSW Prison Project, as “a vital part of their training as our future key communicators“.

LSW’s prison programme has been a key component of RADA’s curriculum almost from the very beginning and in 2016, became a part of every RADA student’s core BA curriculum.  This year [2017] LSW joins with HMP Pentonville – one of the LSW’s original core prison homes along with other core UK prisons – to establish a new “Linked Up Initiative”, a.k.a. LUP’ping for short (a verb aptly expressing how these “determinedly interactive relationships” are formed) with UK drama schools/performing arts academies. (It is through LSW/LUP, often opened up to other creative professionals besides actors and musicians, that I found myself in Pentonville recently, sketching as the inmates practiced their lines.)

LSW isn’t only for the prisoners; “…by employing the glorious balm of the Bard’s language as its glue, the LSW Prison Project strives in the most engaging manner possible to expand the interpersonal skills of all involved.

In Wall’s view, “Shakespeare is universal and speaks to and for all of us“, and I might add, it’s timeless. By bringing the words of Willy Shakes to life behind bars, his words are as fitting last Friday as they were 500 years ago:

To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

View of Pentonville prison, 1840s. Illustrator unknown.

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