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The benefits of his Passion in prisons

31 March 2017

Suzanne Lofthus’s prison production of The Passion, acted by prisoners themselves, has led to remarkable encounters. She talks to Pat Ashworth

Clara Vannucci

Transformation: theatrical make-up is applied to Omar’s back as he prepares to play the character of Jesus in the Milan maximum-security prison production

Transformation: theatrical make-up is applied to Omar’s back as he prepares to play the character of Jesus in the Milan maximum-security prison ...

SUZANNE LOFTHUS is no stranger to putting on The Passion in unconventional spaces. For the past ten years, she has staged a production in the historic Princes Street Gardens, in Edinburgh, where her company, Cutting Edge Theatre Productions, is based. She can also boast of having taken over George Square, the principal civic square in Glasgow, on more than one occasion — which she describes as “scary and terrifying, but just amazing”.

A warder from the Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as “Angola”) happened to be in the audience for a Passion she put on in the beautiful grounds of Dundas Castle, in Scotland. “He came up afterwards, and said that this would be an amazing thing for his prisoners to do. So they called me up and said: ‘Can you come and meet us?’, and that was that. I never, ever, in a million years, thought that I would do anything like that.” Invitations then followed from prisons in Brazil and Milan.

Her company is not called Cutting Edge for nothing. Ms Lofthus — who is also co-ordinator of acting courses at the MGA Academy of Performing Arts, in Edinburgh — experienced what she describes as “a distinct call to go and bring God’s perspective into society through the use of theatre” while based with the organisation Youth With a Mission (YWAM). “That defaulted more into working with people who were underprivileged in some way,” she says. “We look at who’s on God’s heart just now, and ask ourselves: What crazy idea do we come up with?” One of their projects is “Inspire”, which works with people with disabilities.

Angola houses 6500 prisoners, most of whom are serving life sentences and will never be released. The prison regime is enlightened: clubs have replaced gangs, and there is a thriving drama club. Facilities here are good, too; so all the props and costumes could be made in-house as part of the mentoring process available to prisoners.

“It kind of blew their minds a little — not least because there was this tiny, white-haired Scottish thing running around a prison full of six-foot-four Black Americans,” she says.

She finds the gospel story never more relevant than when performed in a prison. “They connect with it incredibly,” she says. “In Louisiana and in Milan, when Jesus did a miracle, the prisoners watching stood up and cheered. [And] when Jesus says: ‘You have heard it said. . . But I tell you. . . ’ they absolutely understood; they get the message of forgiveness and second chances. It’s very humbling to see.”

“The men are lovely,” she says, of the prisoners she has worked with on two productions in Angola. ”It’s sad that they’ll never get out. A lot of them committed crimes in the heat of the moment, through drugs or alcohol or guns, poor education, the lack of a good father’s influence. The majority are rehabilitated and should be back out in society, but they won’t be.”

Prisoners have different agendas for wanting to be involved in the Passion play, she suggests: some want the opportunity to be out of their cells, and some want to earn brownie points; others will be hoping to get time knocked off their sentence. “It’s my job to enthuse them about the project early, and [to] talk with them about what they’ll be achieving, what they’ll be showing the world, what they’ll be proving to people.

“You get one or two who just want to hang around, but, hopefully, I pick up on that early so they won’t have major roles. I’ve never really had anyone who didn’t bother learning their lines.”

Usually, everything is set up in the initial week: permissions are put in place, and there is a meeting with the prisoners and some early workshops. This is usually followed by a couple of weeks of rehearsals and casting. The cast are then left to learn their lines. A few months later, the production team returns for a month, and the whole play is put together.

The timetable sometimes changes, however: in Milan, time was limited to three hours a day on just two days a week. And there have been mixed attitudes among prison staff: some have not wanted the play to be performed at all, and have done anything they can to make the process more difficult.

“One [person] took particular delight in telling me which cast members couldn’t attend rehearsals each day, because they were detained for a breach of prison rules. But you get others who are really touched by seeing them. In Milan, a guy called Omar was playing Jesus. [A] prison officer said he forgot it was Omar; he just saw Jesus.”

It was a particular triumph for that production, as Omar had only hesitantly put himself forward, after the prisoner who was their first choice proved to lack confidence for the role.


THE project seeks to bring men and women prisoners together, which is not without controversy in prison circles. In Louisiana and Milan, the institutions each worked with a female prison. This was not permitted in Brazil, though, where a women’s drama group was brought in to play the female roles.

It is a risky strategy, Ms Lofthus acknowledges; but she’s done versions of the play in HM Prison Greenock, Glasgow — a mixed prison — and describes it as “beautiful to watch when they come together, begin to trust each other, and have men treat them with respect; most of them have never had that.

“At first, they were nervous and shy, and scared of each other, and suspicious of each other, and flirty, all the things you’d expect. [At] the Q and A session at the end, they were all laughing and answering together, and they’d really achieved something. For all of us, including the prison governor, that was the thing that really moved everything on; so much so that they now have mixed education classes, which they hadn’t been able to do in the past.”

Staging the play in prison — the script, by Peter Hutley, is used for the Wintershall Passion — is a challenge: no weapons are allowed in, obviously, but sometimes no raw materials to make anything are allowed in, either. In Brazil, the company managed to raise some money and acquire some costumes, but the cast were still required to wear their prison uniform underneath. Nor could the figure of Jesus be crucified bare-chested, as he, too, was in his prison clothes.

In Milan, resourceful prisoners found bits of cloth and wrapped them around polystyrene to make props. “And, of course, everything has to be properly accounted for,” Ms Lofthus says. She remembers the panic that ensued when, in Milan, the piece of rope for Judas’s hanging disappeared on day one of rehearsals . “We eventually got it back,” she says, “but I don’t know where it had been in the mean time.”

When it comes to making the cross, the lack of materials can sometimes result in something extraordinary and powerful. In Brazil, Jesus was crucified on the prison bars. Ms Lofthus found it deeply touching. “It was stunning,” she says.

Prisoners’ families are invited to the play, and that is a key aspect of what the company is trying to do. “We go round to them afterwards and [ask if they are] proud of him or her? And they say: ‘Oh, yes.’ That, to me, is an incredibly special moment, because, of course, they haven’t generally done anything that their parents have ever been proud of.” In Milan, the prison even put on a lunch for the prisoners and their families after the performance.

The company has adapted Mr Hutley’s original script, with his permission, softening some of the language and translating it into Portuguese and Italian. The next stop is a production in the beautiful Aventine Gardens, in Rome, in May next year, where the core cast will be people who have been trafficked.

Telling the story of Holy Week and Easter is getting harder in this age. “But, as Christians, I believe we have a responsibility to keep telling that story,” Ms Lofthus says. “I guess we just tend to get on with it.”



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