Past Time

We are delighted to have had the opportunity to develop what evolved into a series of projects with Rideout (Creative Arts for Rehabilitation, Saul Hewish) and HMP Hewell, that introduced the men at the prison to themes in history and food culture through theatre techniques in a series of workshops in the spring and summer of 2018.

Past Time drew on Rideout’s 20+ years of experience of working in prisons and other secure environments to explore the changing nature of prison food and its effects on physical and mental health. Research staff from our project (Professor Hilary Marland and Dr Margaret Charleroy, working with our Public Engagement Officer Flo Swann) provided original historical material, which participants at HMP Hewell explored and discussed. In doing so, the men became active historical researchers, investigating parliamentary debates on diet, prison dietaries, prison memoirs and medical literature on diet, as well as architectural plans of prisons and photographs of prison kitchens in the past.

As part of the two HMP Hewell workshops the men worked towards qualifications in food hygiene and nutrition, took part in drama sessions, and, drawing on their historical research, worked with Saul Hewish of Rideout and his team to create two original pieces of theatre. Each piece was performed at the prison twice, to an invited audience, prison staff and families and then to fellow inmates. In further workshops, the men also practised cooking the historical recipes unearthed in the archives, and  audience members had the opportunity to sample historical prison food, including stews, bread and of course gruel!

Using a range of theatrical techniques and music, the men presented historical themes in creative, evocative and humorous ways. The audiences were very enthusiastic about each performance and the feedback full of praise for the men and their commitment to the project. One audience member related how the ‘Commitment, effort, teamwork and hard work all came together in an informative and thought provoking show’. A review of the show explained that ‘what shone through most clearly was the gusto with which the men approached it as an ensemble’ and ‘one of the funniest and most enthusiastic shows I’ve seen in a while’.

Photographs taken at the shows were presented in a publication that is available online, alongside a summary of the project and some of the prison recipes. A small display of the photographs formed part of the project team’s intervention at Tate Modern/Tate Exchange in June 2018 on the theme of ‘The Production of Truth, Justice and History‘.

We were also delighted to be invited to repeat Past Time in HMP Stafford, which prefaced our development of a trio of new residencies, Staging Time.

Past Time also formed the basis of a toolkit or learning resource, launched in April 2020, incorporating historical pieces and a range of exercises – from thoughtful writing to drama games and basic science. The resource is intended for schools, community and youth groups and facilitators working with people in prison or young offenders, and is available as a free download.

For a personal reflection of the project and more audience and participant feedback, read Public Engagement Officer Flo Swann’s blog on Past Time here.

The project has been generously supported not only by the Wellcome Trust and Arts Council England but also the University of Warwick’s Food and Connecting Cultures Global Research Priorities, its Departments of History and Theatre Studies, and their Centre for the History of Medicine.

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