Reflections on Disorder Contained

Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland reflect on their involvement in the production of Disorder Contained with Talking Birds theatre company and ask what historians can learn and gain from the process.

On 9 and 10 October Disorder Contained moved to its final destination in this run of performances (we hope that there will be more opportunities to showcase this production!), to Shoreditch’s Rich Mix.

In its four locations – from the Shopfront Theatre in Coventry’s citycentre arcade, to Dublin’s evocative Smock Alley Theatre in vibrant Temple Bar and Belfast’s major arts centre, the MAC, in June and July, to the buzz of Shoreditch – the show attracted diverse audiences, regular theatre goers, members of the general public who dropped in attracted by our eye catching poster, medical and health professionals, students and academics, artists and actors, professionals working in criminal justice settings, and people who had spent time in prison.

Panel Discussions

Disorder Contained by Talking Birds performed at Shop Front Theatre
Disorder Contained by Talking Birds

Many of the performances were followed by panel discussions, involving ourselves as the historical researchers and advisors on the project, members of the artistic team, and associates working in prison reform organisations and prison psychiatry.

Taking questions from the audience, the panel discussions were a wonderful opportunity to discuss the production process and the ways in which the script was shaped and informed by historical source material. It also offered our collaborators from Talking Birds to explain how the research was translated into characters and stories, the choice of an all-female cast and the stage setting.

Audience Feedback

We are thrilled at the audiences’ positive responses both to the performance, music and quality of the acting and the content of the show.

Excellent staging. Atmosphere and fear very effectively conveyed.

I found the representation of hallucinations to be very poignant together with the spatial experience of a cell, and its whiteness. This was done exceptionally well by the cast; script and overall production design.

Many audience members described how Disorder Contained led them to reflect on or in some cases re-consider the long-term impact of imprisonment on mental health in the past as well as the present.

It brought home in a harrowing way how absolutely fundamental social connectedness is to our basic mental well-being.

Powerful reminder of how serious the decision to imprison is.

 What We Have Learned

But what have we as historians learned from the process of commissioning Disorder Contained, from collaborating closely with Talking Birds, the director and cast, and from the creative process?  The script was based on carefully researched historical sources from a range of English and Irish Victorian prisons – prison archives and memoirs, surgeon’s and chaplain’s journals, as well as official records – with some lines taken directly from this material (the line that one prisoner’s behaviour was ‘more akin to the tricks of monkeys than the acts of reasonable men’ was not a product of the script writer’s imagination, but a direct citation from the account of a well-respected prison medical officer).

Selection and Speculation

But it also involved a process of selectivity in creating the stories and characters of the three prisoners whose experiences of solitary imprisonment form the core of the play.  The director and scriptwriter, Peter Cann, along with the actors, also made decisions about the characters of the prison officers, the (sympathetic) doctor, (overly-zealous, hellfire) chaplain and (frustrated) schoolmaster. These are not decisions that historians usually make, though of course we also sift material and select examples and occasionally the historical record provides an informed account of individual  prison officials and what shaped their actions.

However, it is no bad thing for historians to move beyond the safety net of the historical document, to be able to speculate more freely about what prisoners and prison officers might have been like, how the Separate System was actually experienced, what the day-to-day interactions were between staff and prisoners. Were some prison officers more sympathetic than others? How might prisoners have expressed their experiences of isolation as they slipped into madness?

Creative Methodology

Disorder Contained by Talking Birds performed at Shop Front Theatre
Disorder Contained by Talking Birds

Over time (this is the third play in our Asylum Trilogy) we have also developed a way of working with Peter Cann, to allow themes that we find important to explore but difficult to pin down with the precision of an academic footnote to emerge in the play, in a creative, evocative and at times playful way.

We have found it remarkable how Peter could digest and analyse sizeable quantities of historical research, and translate it into a short and enjoyable but powerful play without comprising the nuances found in historic sources. The themes that Peter finds important dovetail remarkably with the points that we, as historians, wish to make. And it is above all immensely enjoyable to engage with such a talented team of writers, musicians, designers and actors!

Listening and Reflecting

Post-show panel discussions also offered the opportunity to engage with audiences in a very different way. Bringing together people from a variety of backgrounds and with diverse expertise gained through professional and life experiences, the historian’s voice and perspective became just one of many, and the discussion was informed and enriched by multiple layers of interpretation and expertise.

If the play was collaborative and interdisciplinary in terms of the methodology used during the production process, then the audience discussions advanced this further by providing us with opportunities to hear and learn from experiences of prison conditions and penal policy today. The decentring of the historian’s perspective was a thought-provoking and refreshing experience, sending us back to our research with new questions.

Finally, since the performances, we continue to receive informal feedback on the play, in conversations with colleagues and audience members. It has remained in the minds of some who weeks and months later continue to reflect on the links between solitary confinement and the mental health of people in prison, and on the nature of the modern prison system.

Watch and Listen Online

A recording of a performance of Disorder Contained, and podcasts of the post-show discussions, have been made available.

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