If and when

Ryan and Michael, two performers in a new play by a theatre company that works with people with convictions, didn't originally plan to unleash their creativity on stage

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Based in Leeds, Imagine If is a theatre company that aims to improve people’s lives through theatre. It mainly works with prisoners and people with convictions – which is how we got involved with it – but it also works with people who have a range of disadvantages, including mental health problems, homelessness and history of abuse.

Neither of us had done any type of drama work before we got involved with Imagine If – and it wasn’t something either of us had ever considered. Ryan took part in Bird on the Wing, which is Imagine If’s theatre and employability programme for prisoners due for release, before joining Phoenix. Michael, however, was referred to Imagine If’s Phoenix programme through his probation officer.

Phoenix is Imagine If’s resettlement programme for people with convictions, using creativity and the arts to help people coming out of prison to develop employment and life skills. We have weekly theatre workshops and one-to-one support, and it helps us build up our confidence, getting us involved in doing something positive.

Because of our positive experience with Phoenix, we both really wanted to be involved with Is Anyone There?, which is Imagine If’s new show. It brings together Phoenix participants and theatre professionals, including Slung Low’s Alan Lane, for an outdoor production to be staged outside the Holbeck in Leeds over the August bank holiday weekend.

Is Anyone There? is special because it’s been co-devised by us, our fellow Phoenix participants and theatre professionals – which means all our experiences, ideas and creativity have gone into creating the show you’ll see.

Co-devising a stage show was another new experience for us both. The idea that we would go into rehearsals and just create something seemed overwhelming at first. And we’re not going to lie – on the first day of rehearsals, our minds were totally blank. We had no idea what we were going into or what would happen.

Don’t tell anyone but originally, neither of us were going to perform in Is Anyone There?

But we shouldn’t have worried. As soon as we got in the rehearsal room with community director Tamsin Cook, director Madeleine O’Reilly and Imagine If’s artistic director Francesca Joy, they got us all talking, improvising and creating. Ideas started flying around and we started to imagine stories, characters and scenarios together.

Don’t tell anyone but originally, neither of us were going to perform in Is Anyone There? We had both put our hands up to be on the technical team – Ryan was doing lighting and Michael was interested in stage management – but we were having so much fun in the rehearsal room that we couldn’t not take on the challenge of performing on stage.

We were all keen to create characters who challenged the preconception of what an ex-offender actually is and give a new perspective into some of the feelings, thoughts and challenges we’ve come across.

After throwing around ideas in the rehearsal room, we found ourselves creating characters who are all searching for meaning and feeling lost – which is something we can all identify with after the last 18 months. Each of the characters in Is Anyone There? comes from a different background because we really wanted to challenge the idea of who an ex-offender is, what they look like, how they act and behave. We also ended up discussing themes of masculinity, poverty, class and social justice – and those conversations made their way into the final script we’ll perform on stage.

The process of devising Is Anyone There? has taught us both so much. As well as getting to experience the creative process of putting on a theatre production – there’s lots of technical aspects we’d never thought about, like how to create sound effects – we’ve also learned about the nuts and bolts of acting for stage, such as how gestures can convey emotions and how to show, not tell, through dialogue.

Creating Is Anyone There? has also had some unexpected day-to-day benefits. It’s given our lives a lot more structure – in no small part thanks to Madeleine, who is a real taskmaster – and a shared goal to work towards. It also improves our everyday work skills and adds experience to our CVs to help us get back into full-time work.

We’re both really nervous about performing in front of an audience over the bank holiday weekend, but we’ve been told by much more experienced theatre performers that nerves are good, and they’ll go as soon as we step out on stage. Honestly, we can’t wait – and we really hope the audience enjoys what we’ve all worked so hard on.

Is Anyone There? will be performed at Slung Low’s the Holbeck on 28 and 29 August, at 1pm and 5.30pm. Tickets are pay what you decide and can be purchased from slunglow.org

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