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Standing ovation for teacher and drama group

Some of the men in Ruth Ratcliffe’s weekly drama group at Otago Corrections Facility find it hard to let go of their inhibitions when they first join up but gradually, the experience starts to get under their skin and they open up.

“The first time one guy came he said, ‘I can’t do this’ and I didn’t see him again for two months,” says Ruth, whose own acting career began when she was a teenager with a role in the British television series Grange Hill. “But he eventually came back and since then he’s even written a couple of plays.”

Most participants have no previous acting experience but thanks to the supportive environment in the group, they have produced some outstanding performances. “Some of the best acting I’ve seen is from the guys,” says Ruth who moved to New Zealand in 2011 and has been taking the weekly drama group at the prison – mostly in a voluntary capacity – for the past six years.

In fact, their acting is so good that in March this year the group won the Dunedin Fringe’s Warwick Broadhead Memorial Award for Trouble-D. Performed in the prison itself – the audience had to register and get approval before they could buy tickets – it was an original production that took the audience on the journey of a recently released prisoner as he faces challenges and temptations while trying to remain crime-free.

Dunedin Fringe director Gareth McMillan described the work as personal, funny and moving: “You encouraged us to look at life in a different way … I hope that everyone who was part of this show is incredibly proud.”

Ruth’s work with the drama group has now been recognised at Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards 2019 on 11 September, when it received the Arts Access Corrections Māui Tikitiki a Taranga Award for an individual who demonstrates the qualities of Māui (innovation, creativity and leadership) and provides arts programmes in a New Zealand prison that reflect cultural inclusion and diversity.

In their comments the judging panel said: “Ruth Ratcliffe exemplifies all the qualities of Māui in her long-standing Forum Theatre programme at Otago Corrections Facility. Her work has had an exceptional impact on both the prisoners and on the wider community invited into the prison to engage with the performances. Totally inspiring!”

That view is endorsed by the participants, one of whom wrote: “I personally have witnessed Ruth challenge hardened criminals, gang members and grown men to step outside their comfort zone, let their guard down and just forget about what everyone else thinks.”

Troubled-D is one of three public performances Ruth has helped the group produce in the past year. The others, Cool or Fool and Playing Right Up, reflected the men’s education experience and were attended by local educators. All three received standing ovations.

They were performed in “forum theatre” style, a technique developed by Brazilian theatre practitioner August Boal in the 1970s. It involves performing a first run of the play, after which the audience breaks into groups to discuss how the characters could have done things differently.

The actors then start performing again, and round two of the performance begins, with the audience freezing the action at will and taking over roles to try and change the outcome.

“The actors’ improvisation skills need to be top notch because they don’t know what their audience is going to throw at them,” Ruth says.

Taking part in the weekly drama classes and performing in public has many benefits for the men, Ruth says. It builds their confidence and helps them learn reliability and responsibility, and how to work as a team. It’s also a chance to leave their prison bravado at the door and learn how to become more imaginative – and more vulnerable.

“Oh my goodness, the drama games I’ve got those burly men doing! Some of them have never had a chance to play or use their imagination before. It also gives them a chance to share: they say it’s great therapy.”

Ruth says acting is a particularly powerful tool in a prison because it helps participants develop confidence and team skills, and provides a legitimate outlet for risk-taking behaviour.

“A lot of prisoners are natural risk-takers and performance gives them the same flood of adrenalin and endorphins, and no one gets hurt.”


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