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Interview: Taking On A Failed Prison System

Lung’s Matt Woodhead on Woodhill

Here at Everything Theatre we’ve been keeping our eye on LUNG for a little while. A campaign-led verbatim theatre company, they are at the forefront of raising the profiles of underrepresented groups. We first met their Co-Artistic Director Matt Woodhead during their incredible Who Cares Campaign, for young carers in the North West. This week he was kind enough to stop for a chat about their latest production Woodhill, currently at the Edinburgh Festival, which takes an upfront and personal look at the state of British prisons today. 

Matt, thanks so much for taking time to talk with us. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about the play and how you came to be involved with this issue?

Woodhill is a call to arms about the failing criminal justice system. This is a verbatim theatre-dance piece that examines the stories of three families whose loved ones died at HMP Woodhill (where 33 prisoners have taken their own lives). Told in their own words, the play investigates what really happens behind the prison wall.  

How have the families of those who’ve taken their own lives at Woodhill Prison been involved in the production?

I’ve been working closely with 3 families whose loved ones died at HMP Woodhill. As well as their words forming the basis of the script, these families have acted as collaborators on the project (just in the same creative way as the composer, choreographer or sound designer). The families have also been instrumental in shaping the call to action around the production, ensuring audiences leave with the power to prevent future deaths in custody.  

What is your process for gathering the verbatim material?

No verbatim process is ever the same because it is always so dependent on the stories and communities we are working with. The most time-consuming thing with Woodhill was the interview process which took over four years. I interviewed everyone from former justice ministers to people who are currently in prison. Once I had the interviews, I transcribed them up and shaped the words into a play. This has been one of the most shocking plays I have ever written. I wasn’t prepared for the scandals and systematic failures that have occurred at HMP Woodhill. 

The production comes with both pre-show and post-show information packs. What is the thinking behind that?

The families’ stories we hear are hard hitting and it’s vital that audiences bear witness to their words. It’s also imperative that audiences are supported and looked after before, during and after the performance. We want to ensure people are channelling the pain and anger in the right places. we should never be hating ourselves; we should be hating the state. 

Woodhill is somewhat different from your previous works, being a dance piece. How did that come about? 

At LUNG we’re always trying to push the form of verbatim theatre and what it can be. In an interview, someone said in a very off hand way ‘This could be your dance, it could be you.’ It knocked me sideways. Since that moment, I’ve been unable to shake off the idea that it should be a dance piece. I met with the choreographer (Alexzandra Sarmiento) and asked her ‘Do you think we can turn spoken testimony into compelling dance?’ She read the stories, heard the testimonies, said ‘Yes’ and the rest is history. 

What have audience responses been like?

It’s been really emotional; I can’t lie. Audiences have been coming out of the show with a tear in their eye but they’ve also been pumped and ready to fight! I’ve been so touched by the amount of people I’ve met who work in prisons who have been to see the play. Everyone agrees, the criminal justice system is not fit for purpose. Together, we can change that. 

So have there been official responses to the production from the prison, or the authorities? Do you see a future where changes are made in the prison system?

The prison has refused to be involved in the play. I invited current staff at HMP Woodhill to be interviewed but the governor refused. Instead, I worked with people who previously worked at the prison and were willing to whistle blow. When we were workshopping the play, we also made a short film with Janet whose son Stephen died in HMP Woodhill. The film was meant to be filmed on the roof of a building in Milton Keynes, but the council pulled filming permission last minute. We carried on anyway. The authorities have been really disruptive to the play happening, but this has only made us more determined to tell the story. 

We can’t leave without mentioning the No More Deaths Campaign. What is that?

When someone dies in prison, there is an inquest. This is supposed to be for people to learn the lessons of a death so it can never happen again. The problem at Woodhill was that inquests brought forward the same recommendations time and time again, but nothing changed. The same errors kept on happening. The No More Deaths campaign is calling for the government to instate a National Oversight Mechanism – an independent body that aims to hold prisons to account and ensure recommendations at inquests are followed up. We pray that inviting audiences to sign the petition, we will do everything we can ensure there are no more preventable deaths in custody.

Thanks once again to Matt for taking the time to talk to us about this important production and the campaign it supports. Woodhill is on at Summerhall, Main Hall at the Edinburgh Fringe until 27 August. Further information and bookings can be found here.

About Rob Warren

Someone once described Rob as "the left leaning arm of Everything Theatre" and it's a description he proudly accepted. It is also a description that explains many of his play choices, as he is most likely to be found at plays that try to say something about society. Willing though to give most things a watch, with the exception of anything immersive - he prefers to sit quietly at the back watching than taking part!