IN 2008 I had the pleasure and privilege to meet the late, great American actor, theatre in prisons pioneer and penal reform advocate Rick Cluchey. While he was in jail for kidnapping (of which he was innocent) and robbery (of which, by his own admission, he was not), he helped to found the famous San Quentin Drama Workshop in the notorious Californian prison.

As part of the drama workshop, Cluchey performed in the works of the great dramatist Samuel Beckett (who was a committed supporter of theatre in prisons). A few years after his release, the American worked with Beckett in Berlin, where the Irish writer directed the ex-convict in a production of the brilliant monodrama Krapp’s Last Tape.

It was when he was in Glasgow, performing that play for prisoners at HMP Barlinnie and at the Tron Theatre, that I was able to meet Cluchey. A genuinely fine actor and an impressively decent man, he spoke affectingly about the urgent need for penal reform.

“We have to do things differently,” he told me, “especially with younger people who are incarcerated ... What despair I feel about it all.”

His words came back to me following my recent visit to Her Majesty’s Young Offenders Institution (HMYOI) Polmont. I was there to see a rehearsal performance of Footsteps on the Moon, a collectively devised piece by the newly established Polmont Youth Theatre (PYT).

This was my first ever experience of theatre in a penal institution. Brief though it was, it brought back to me Cluchey’s passionate belief in the potential of prisoners, and young prisoners in particular, to be transformed by a serious engagement in performing theatre.

PYT is the brainchild of Tashi Gore and Jess Thorpe, co-directors of Glasgow-based community theatre company Glas(s) Performance and award-winning youth theatre group Junction 25.

Co-authors of the forthcoming book A Beginner’s Guide to Devising Theatre, Gore and Thorpe have, over the last 15 years, developed a successful method for enabling community performers and young people to devise their own theatre productions, with the assistance of professional directors.

Footsteps on the Moon is the latest development of a project, housed within the Performing Arts Space at HMYOI Polmont, that began last year as part of the Year of the Child. The National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) was involved in a symposium with Polmont, looking at what theatre might be able to offer to the young people in the institution.

From there, Glas(s) Performance was called upon to work with the Scottish Prison Service, charity Barnardo’s (which works extensively within the institution at Polmont), the NTS and other partners. A theatre piece, entitled Motion, was created, followed by a Christmas show.

So successful were these pilot projects that Polmont Youth Theatre was created, as an official member of Youth Theatre Arts Scotland, in February of this year. Famous Scottish actor Gary Lewis (well known for his roles in such films as Billy Elliot and Gangs of New York) is a patron of the company, and has been into the institution to see the young men at work and give them the benefit of his experience.

Footsteps on the Moon is the first fruit of the new company. The show was devised and performed by seven young, male offenders and their “performance associate” from Glas(s) Performance, Sean Fullwood (a graduate of Junction 25), and created with their directors Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir and Rosie Reid (both pictured below), also from Glass(s).

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It is a compelling, humorous, sometimes energetic and, often, moving piece of theatre. Change is a major theme of the show, the changes in our lives that we cannot control, and those that we can.

From that flows the aspiration and determination to bring about positive change, often against the odds. An analogy with Buzz Lightyear, of Toy Story fame, (who, despite his diminutive size, faces adversity with a resolute optimism) is both funny and touching.

A section in which the young performers read letters that speak to their personal histories, their current situations and their hopes for the future is particularly memorable. One young man’s note to his father, whose failures he is determined not to repeat, leaves a lasting impression.

After the rehearsal performance, which has the kind of stops, restarts and occasional errors that one would expect of a professional theatre company, I am surprised to find the young people are withering in their self-criticism. However, as Lisa Hogg, service manager at Polmont for Barnardo’s, explains, it isn’t unusual to find these young men being self- reproaching.

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“The young people need a lot of support for their confidence”, she says. “They’ve gone through a lot of traumatic times in their lives, and they’ve always been told that they’re not good at anything. They don’t have a lot of belief in themselves and they’re very hard on themselves.”

Talk to the PYT members and you find that, in the context of incarceration, where a sense of purpose can be hard to come by, the project means a great deal to them. “It’s good because it keeps us out of trouble in here”, says Jay.

“I’ve got something to aim towards. Before I got involved in this I didn’t have an aim.”

There is a “stigma” he admits, among some of the other young prisoners, if you’re involved in theatre projects. “When I first started, the other guys [in HMYOI Polmont] were like, ‘he’s going to drama, man, he’s a poof!’ If they were here, they would know that it’s a lot more [than they think]. It actually works for you, it’s a good experience.”

MacAuley is another young man who feels that PYT has had an important impact on his self-confidence. “Before I used to be asked in here to do things, and I was too shy to do it”, he remembers.

“I was really self-conscious. Now that I’ve come up here, and I’ve come out of my comfort zone, I’ve been thrown in at the deep-end, I’m pretty much ubiquitous round here.”

The programme notes for the show (which was an unalloyed success when it was performed for the young men’s loved ones, fellow inmates, prison staff and partners of the project) were written by M, another member of the company. “When I first joined Polmont Youth Theatre I wasn’t as confident as I am today,” he writes.

“For me, this show is about change and how it can make you better, just like how I decided to join [PYT] and gained confidence ... The group have all supported each other and every time someone feels daft about doing something we all make sure they leave confident at the end of the day.”

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All of which is music to the ears of co-director Sigurdardottir. A graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), where she was taught by Thorpe, she had experience, as a student, of arts in penal institutions in both her native Iceland and in Scotland.

“Most of these guys are new to the group”, she explains of the cast of Footsteps on the Moon. “Only one of them performed in Motion ...

“We’ve seen leaps in confidence with all of them, but also big steps forward in their ability to own the material and have a real opinion on everything that they’re saying.

“They’re not shy to tell us if they don’t like something or they want things to be different, which is proof of their investment in the project.

“They’re not just saying, ‘oh yeah, you write the script for me, give it to me and I’ll do whatever.’ From the very beginning it’s been about them.

“It’s their material. They decided what they wanted to make a show about. They chose the title. It’s very much about enabling them to do it.”

For Gore, as co-artistic director of Glas(s) Performance, it has been extremely rewarding to see the method developed by herself and Thorpe having such a positive impact in such a challenging environment. “We’ve been thinking, for the last three or four years, that we’d like to start a youth theatre in Polmont”, she says.

“We’ve been working with young people for such a long time, and Jess [whose RCS role includes working in prisons] really felt that our method of working would work really well within the institution.”

The key to the success of this artistic model in Polmont is, she explains, the partnership with Barnardo’s.

“Working with Barnardo’s means there is always somebody in the room who is looking out pastorally for the young

people. They are there throughout the whole week, they work with the young people one-on-one ...

“Glas(s) Performance make sure that the drama is planned and structured, and that the sessions are going to be exciting, educational and fulfilling for the young people.

“Of course, we have an eye on their pastoral side as well, but, because the young people come from such specific contexts, it’s really important that we have Barnardo’s there.”

Given the commitment to the PYT project of Glas(s), Barnardo’s and other partners, and the responses being elicited from the young people themselves, it’s hardly surprising that HMYOI Polmont, as an institution, is pleased with the results. “The partnership’s working, it seems to have a good impact on some of the young people who are involved in it”, says Grant Marshall, unit manager for offender outcomes at the institution.

His job at Polmont is, he explains, about getting “hooks”, ways of drawing young offenders into new interests which might, in time, help to turn their lives around.

The confidence the young people gain from projects like PYT can, he says, “lead them into education or vocational work”, including pursuing a Scottish Vocational Qualification that they might not otherwise have taken.

It’s all a question, he says, of self-confidence, self-esteem and responsibility to each other. “They know that the show has to go on,” he comments. “They know that if one of them says, ‘I’m not playing today’, it impacts on the whole show.

“It’s a great bonus”, Marshall says, “for the young people to have their loved ones come in here to see them perform. And it’s great for their loved ones to see them doing something that’s outwith their comfort zone.

“It’s something they’re not used to doing, standing on a stage, with the confidence to do that. It’s great to watch that, actually.”

Having seen the young men of PYT in rehearsal and spent a little time talking with them, I have to concur. Polmont Youth Theatre (which, funding allowing, is set to expand to embrace more young men in Polmont, and also to provide projects for the smaller group of young women in the institution) is the quintessential good deed in a naughty world. I can’t help but feel that Rick Cluchey would have approved.