Freedom Behind Bars: A look inside William Head on Stage

Time Waits for No One, photo by Jam Hamidi
Time Waits for No One, photo by Jam Hamidi

I worked in cafés for 10 years. When I quit, I gave myself one year to prove that I could work as a professional artist. I thought I might miss the café life—not the labour, but the unlikely family that forms when employees and regulars negotiate space together. I started my year as an artist with a three-month, cross-Canada Fringe tour and when I made it back alive, I went to prison.

William Head on Stage is the only inmate-run prison theatre company in Canada. Every year the inmate population collaborates with an “outside” creative team to put on a play. In early October, audiences pass through the prison security to see what WHoS has to offer. This unique relationship between inmate, artist and audience has put WHoS on the map.

Three months into my break from coffee, I began rehearsals for Time Waits for No One: A Prison Play. Watching a whole bunch of grown men step outside of their comfort zone, I learned to navigate relationships with a new unlikely family. We would all work together to learn lines, choreography, and staging. These men take a giant leap of courage to stand up in front of strangers and tell their real-life stories.

I sat down with one of WHoS’ long-time board members. He has been around for five productions at William Head. After testing the waters as a performer, he settled on stage management. He prefers to step back and make sure a show runs smoothly.  With my list of questions I was hoping to understand why WHoS feels so important. It didn’t take long for him to pinpoint it:
“You become a little bit of a family. This one guy, I couldn’t stand. He can be really ignorant and abusive but he wanted to connect, he wanted to change. I had to go to his house half an hour before every rehearsal and drag him so he would be on time. He made it to closing night. At the end of that production, I just stopped talking to him because we didn’t connect.

One day, he came to my house so angry that there were tears in his eyes and he wanted to fight. He was deadly serious. I said some things that I shouldn’t have said and he left. I took two minutes to calm down and another 10 to figure out what the hell just happened. I found him. He was walking around in a fury and he said, ‘You and I were friends and then as soon as WHoS is over, you stop talking to me? You blow me off all the time. You just say hi and then you walk on by?’ And I just didn’t know that I was doing that to him. So I had to tell him, ‘You remind me of so many people in my life that have hurt me.’ I apologized and a couple of days later, he gave me an eagle feather and a rattle. And I thought, this guy is a great dude and I don’t even see it. So I started actively seeking him out and we did build a friendship afterwards.”

This Autumn, the same creative team is back at William Head working with the guys to form another unlikely family. After working together through countless creative sessions, we are almost finished another play. We are telling the stories of the people who have passed through William Head. This wind-swept space, which is now a prison, was once a quarantine station, a work camp, a sheep farm and a fishing ground. Now, it’s been a year and a half since I quit the coffee shop. I don’t think I miss it.
WHoS’ next production, Here – A Captive Odyssey, runs Oct. 9 to Nov. 7. Tickets are available here


Words by Kathleen Greenfield

Published in analogue magazine’s Oct/Nov 2015 issue