ONCE a week Alex Sutherland heads into the maximum security unit (MSU) at the Fort England Psychiatric Hospital in Grahamstown.
It is the only facility in South Africa that houses male forensic psychiatric patients requiring maximum security as a result of their risk profiles.
She enters a room where six to eight men between the ages of 20 and 45 with severe mental disorders and who have committed extremely violent crimes await her.
As she closes the door, leaving the guards outside, something magical happens: the men transform from cut-off beings on the fringes of society into amateur actors, enthusiastically participating in a workshop.
Gently guided by Sutherland, they participate in various skits, playing different roles – sometimes they are the doctor or nurse who attends to them; sometimes they are a world wrestling champion, or a pastor in their community giving advice to a man who has stolen from his family and who is seeking their forgiveness.
“I don’t start with their crimes or their illness; when I meet with these men I meet them as human beings.
“Together we step into the world of imagination where we make up stories together and where we have fun and laugh and can be foolish together,” says Sutherland, who started the drama workshops in April last year.
“What has struck me is how gentle, constructive and incredibly creative they can be during the workshops.
“What I have learnt is that everyone comes from somewhere and that while people must take responsibility for what they do, they still need to be given the opportunity to express themselves or to grow or to see themselves differently and feel what it is like to be another person.”
The use of theatre in forensic settings is well established in the UK, the US and Brazil. It is based on the belief that the process of making theatre is a powerful means of personal and social change; that through understanding different characters and telling stories (either their own or other people’s stories), individuals can begin to understand themselves, other people and the world they inhabit through new eyes.
“It is highly rewarding to hear from psychologist Lauren Fike, who works with the men in the MSU, that they light up when she asks them to tell her about the drama sessions. They ask if they can be held more frequently,” Sutherland says.
There have also been some fascinating revelations. Sutherland explains how a schizophrenic patient, who struggles to differentiate between his various selves outside of the drama space, is quite able to understand when he is in role or out of role during the workshops.
Sutherland also facilitates weekly theatre workshops at the medium category Grahamstown Correctional Facility.
There she and her third-year, honours and masters students have collaborated with groups of about 25 offenders for the past three years. Her co-facilitator on this and the MSU project is Grahamstown resident Luvuyo Yanta, who also serves as a Xhosa translator.
In addition to her work with offenders, Sutherland has made exceptional inroads into communities, schools, women’s groups, special needs groups and street children in the 12 years she has been with the Rhodes drama department.
Two of the many projects she has led are:
ýThe Art of the Street Project, a developmental theatre initiative, with a specific focus on street children. It has resulted in six theatre pieces being performed at the National Arts Festival; and
ýImoto Emhlope, a theatre education project that investigates the use of theatre to address issues of death and dying, disclosure, stigma, and the role of community-based care as a result of the HIV/Aids crisis.
Sutherland says she is humbled by getting the Vice-Chancellor’s Award, explaining this type of theatre does not always get the recognition it deserves.
“I strongly believe in the role of theatre in making a difference to marginalised people’s lives and I am fortunate that my head of department, Andrew Buckland, shares this approach.
“He has been a wonderful support,” says Sutherland.