How transformative is theatre? VIU Prof talks about prison production

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In 2017, VIU Theatre professor Eliza Gardiner spent a lot of time in prison. For nine months she directed a cast of inmates in a play at William Head Institution, a minimum-security federal facility located in Metchosin, just outside Victoria. Professor Gardiner will share her experiences working with inmates in a presentation on November 23 from 10 to 11:30 a.m. in the Malaspina Theatre. The talk, which is part of the Arts & Humanities Colloquium lecture series, is entitled “Prison Theatre: Rebelling Against the Man, Playing Women, and Restoring Justice in Antigone”.

Written by Sophocles in 441 BCE the play follows Antigone,who iss prohibited from burying her brother, killed in Thebes’ civil war. When she disobeys and buries him anyway, she is sentenced to death. At William Head, Gardiner paid tribute to fifth-century conventions while rebelling against classical rules. She worked with inmates to reimagine the Greek play, transforming it into a post-apocalyptic, dubstep version. The participants even developed an alternative ending, in which the vengeance and violence demanded by the noble male leaders is not used to punish crimes. Instead of continuing with corrective measures that perpetuate more pain, the participants in the play proposed an end to oppression by way of democracy.

The project involved teambuilding, with the men of William Head on Stage (WHoS) putting aside differences to adapt, design, rehearse, and build the show. Gardiner notes that “in this play, that features the perspectives of women and their fight against a patriarchy, the WHoS men not only identified with the challenges facing the female characters, but they portrayed all the heroines too. In the penitentiary environment where gender expression is limited, this was a brave artistic choice that empowered conversations about vulnerability, sexuality and feminism.”

In her presentation she will share how Antigone has inspired her vision of the role of art in social and personal transformation. As she says, “The skills development and self-discovery made possible through this arts-based, experiential learning opportunity diminished stigma associated with criminological behaviour, and gave incarcerated men a chance to consider deep themes that connected to their lived experience. This performance project broke down barriers that separate people, and allowed for self-investigation, towards positive transformation.” More broadly, her presentation “aims to open discussion on how our justice system defines and confines gender and expression, inviting people to think about intellectual resistance and artistic empowerment.”

Gardiner holds a BFA in Film from York University and an MA in Drama from the University of Toronto. Her scholarly focus on fifth century Attic tragedy has evolved into researching participatory theatre methodologies that create chances for marginalized populations to access transformative education. This coming March, Gardiner is directing Oedipus Rex for the VIU Theatre Department. A talented group of technical and theatre diploma students will be involved in re-writing, performing, building, and running this rendition of the ancient, award-winning script. Her talk on November 23 will include consideration of how her prison experience will shape working with students in the spring production.

All members of the VIU community—students, faculty, and staff—as well as the general public, are welcome to attend this free event. Before the presentation, coffee, tea, and cookies will be available in the theatre lobby.