The Leeds theatre company helping former prisoners find their feet and a life without crime

For many ex-offenders, readjusting to life outside prison can be extremely challenging. It is often a time when they are at their most vulnerable and the risk of re-offending is high. It is this transition period, and the challenges it presents, that is the focus of a scheme developed by Leeds-based theatre company Imagine If.

Francesca Joy, the founder of Imagine If Theatre Company and Carl, a young ex-offender who has benefitted from the scheme.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson).
Francesca Joy, the founder of Imagine If Theatre Company and Carl, a young ex-offender who has benefitted from the scheme. Picture: Bruce Rollinson).

The company, set up as a charitable incorporated organisation in 2015 by artistic director Francesca Joy, makes work telling the stories of real people, often those whose voices are seldom heard. Touring to theatres, prisons and community venues across the UK, they present thought-provoking theatre pieces that tackle head-on thorny contemporary issues with the aim of making art that delivers ‘a long-lasting positive impact’. Joy is a firm believer that theatre is a powerful tool for social change and she is passionate about working with those under-represented in the arts.

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“I set up the company because I felt there was a gap within the arts industry in relation to active change,” she says. “I saw a lot of exploitation from theatre companies going in to communities for theatrical gain, using people’s stories to make a show but not really trying to help those people change things in their lives. I couldn’t understand why that was happening or being allowed, so I thought I would do it myself, differently. With every show we work intensively with the demographics the issue affects, before, during and after the production which includes letting them have artistic licence on the production, paying them for their time and offering them direct support for as long as they need.”

Francesca Joy pictured in Leeds with Carl. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).

In addition to their theatre productions the company run a range of drama-based workshops across the country, specific to each demographic they work with – these include addicts and recovering addicts, people with mental health issues, young adults in the care system and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. One of their programmes is their flagship intervention Bird on the Wing, working with prisoners who are due for release, which they have been running in men’s prisons across Yorkshire for the past two years. Using drama techniques, the team of experienced practitioners help the participants, a group of usually around 15, to devise a short production for performance and prepare them for the world of work by running workshops to develop their communication and employability skills.

“The course is three weeks full-time and it’s very intensive, it is not an easy option,” says Joy. “The participants work on their employability skills as well as looking at how they can rewrite their story as a person. The aim is to help remove the labelling around being an ‘offender’, a ‘criminal’.” At the end of the course, the participants perform their production in front of local and national employers, recruitment agencies and support services, showcasing the skills they have learned with a view to securing either training or employment post-release, with support from Imagine If.

The scheme was initially piloted in 2017 in HMP Leeds, HMP Wealstun and HMP Doncaster. One of those involved in these early workshops was 30-year-old Carl Myers who was completing a sentence in HMP Wealstun in the spring of 2017. “The opportunity came up to be part of a scheme to help rehabilitate prisoners through theatrical expression and spoken word. Everything in prison is bottled up and to have the chance to release your feelings creatively in a safe environment was wonderful,” he says. “I did do all sorts of courses when I was in prison and they were fine but as soon as you are released you are left a bit to your own devices. That wasn’t the case with Imagine If, they followed up and got in touch with my probation officer after I was released.”

A key part of the success of Bird on the Wing is the long-term support that it offers to prisoners after their release. “Arts programmes are proven to be effective in helping people to build their confidence and self-esteem, to change how they are perceived and how they perceive themselves,” says Tamsin Cook, Imagine If’s community director for prisons. “We work with people after their release until they feel they are ready to be employed. We understand it may take people a little while to settle back in to their everyday lives and we need them to be in the right frame of mind.”

Since his release Myers has been working with the Imagine If team, going in to prisons helping them to deliver Bird on a Wing courses, acting as an ambassador for the programme and developing his own creativity further. He is working on a stand-up comedy set, writing poetry and has taken part in open mic sessions at spoken word, storytelling and comedy nights with support from Imagine If. He has recently started a full-time job as a warehouse operative, and as it is shift work, four days on and four days off, it allows him time to continue developing his comedy and poetry.

“I have learnt to speak about my emotions; during my teenage years those emotions were bottled up and that got me into trouble,” says Myers. “When you are in prison there is this cloak of hardness around people, but through the work we did you get to see the bit that makes them human. You can see their faces physically change during the course.”

As Cook says, it is about helping people to change their own narrative. “We respect each person. We never know what their convictions are or how many times they have been in prison – some people tell us, but we don’t ask – all we need to know is that people want to leave criminality behind and rewrite their own story.” The scheme is also about enabling people to rebuild their self-esteem. “Many of the prisoners we work with have been let down by the education system, the care system and sometimes even their families,” says Joy.

Myers agrees. “The more you tell someone they are a bad person, the more they believe it and the less they care about trying to be different to that. Even if you are a strong-willed person it just starts to chip away at you. It is about self-worth and having your story listened to.”

Imagine If know that Bird on the Wing works and they are now collaborating with a researcher from the University of Leeds to help them interpret their data and ensure their work is academically validated. The anecdotal evidence so far is very strong. Joy says: “We are saying this is working and we want to roll it out in more prisons, but we need more funding.” While Cook and Joy acknowledge the scheme won’t necessarily work for everyone, for people like Myers, who want to make a change in their lives, it can be invaluable.

“When you leave prison you can feel like you have lost all your chances and that’s why people often end up going back, Bird on the Wing has helped me to stay out of prison and to get a full-time job,” he says. “Now it feels like I have a future.”

Helping tackle some big issues

Imagine If will be touring in the autumn with their latest show Jadek, a new play about a grandfather and grand-daughter that explores identity and culture.

Written by Francesca Joy and based on her own experiences of living with her blind, 94-year-old Polish grandfather, who made his home in Yorkshire in 1945 after fighting in the Second World War.

The tour includes these dates: York Theatre Royal October 16; The Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, November 6; Cast, Doncaster, November 12; Theatre Deli, Sheffield, November 14; Slung Low, Leeds, November 17; Square Chapel, Halifax, November 21 and The Civic Barnsley, December 4. To book: