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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
All the king's men
Animated, Summer 2001. Sometimes in life you know when you are faced with something that will change your practice, that will form a learning curve, so steep, that you are not sure if it is possible to reach the summit. Dylan Quinn certainly did. Here he speaks candidly about All the king's men - a dance/physical theatre work for camera designed for use prisons - an extraordinary journey, which demanded flexibility, ingenuity and tolerance...

It was through my connection with Ludus Dance Company in Lancaster, and dance development officer, Hannah Curr, that the prison project, All the kings men evolved. I left Ludus in April 2000 to set up Pariah Dance Theatre with a specific intention to look at developing initiatives with a social, moral and political imperative. With the support of Lancashire County Council Arts, North West Arts Board, Ludus and Preston Borough Council, we devised a proposal to develop All the kings men which would take the form of one-off taster sessions and the subsequent creation of a dance/ physical theatre work for camera.

In May of last year, I approached five prisons and their education departments. Three expressed an interest together with a young offenders institute. Workshops were scheduled for August with two provisional dates and two confirmed. But in order to gain greater insight and relevant experience I first needed to work with Theatre in Prison and Probation (TIPP) - a company based at Manchester University who have a decade of prison know-how.

I was to rapidly discover that dance was not high on the agendas of many prison governors. Furthermore, that things rarely go to plan. Patience and flexibility became two critical friends of mine as I commenced climbing a steep learning curve.

Not only was a scheduled workshop cancelled with minimal notice due to the refurbishment of an education department but also the number of prisons involved quickly slimmed down to just two, HMP Lancaster Castle (the Castle) and HMP Preston. And so, it became necessary to modify the project. But one element remained consistent - the prison in which we would create the film would be the Castle.

Prisons understandably are uneasy about cameras inside their walls. Therefore, once you get the support of the governor it is a real gift. We were fortunate to be working with Ian Mullholland the then governor of the Castle and enjoyed his full support.

So we brought forward the developmental workshops in the Castle and Preston. This had the advantage of enabling me to develop my knowledge of working within a custodial setting before creating the film - a factor, which became extremely important later on.

So was I, or indeed were the inmates or the prison authorities concerned about undertaking work that would require physical contact?

I spoke with the men but did not focus on dance in any manner. I needed to recruit inmates. It was important therefore to make the workshops as accessible as possible. So a decision was made at the outset to promote them as 'physical theatre'. Although I am by 'trade' a dancer, the work I like to explore has, I believe, more of a physical theatre approach. It was always going to be easier for inmates to sign up to a physical theatre workshop than to a dance one, ignoring that I feel would have been foolish. This was not as some may think a cop out, I introduced myself as a dancer and we explored movement material with the men, but I needed to get them into the room in the first place.

In fact, I tackled it in the same way I would with other groups with no experience - introducing games which would facilitate contact and touch without their realising. I was aware though of the possibility of adverse reactions and therefore introduced it unhurriedly and progressively.

The initial two-day block took place in January in the chapel of Lancaster Castle with ten men, with the intention of returning a couple of months later. As one of the oldest prisons in the country, it has had an excellent security record - in fact in its 200 years or so no one had ever escaped. Until that is, shortly after our residency when two men did!

Understandably, the presence of a film crew 'inside' is complex for any prison to deal with. Their concerns were exacerbated by this incident. This was further compounded by a change of governor and by a largely negative portrayal of the Prison Service by a national television network. The Prison Authorities and the Prison Service Head Office in London were extremely concerned regarding the film material we were intending to create along with the interest shown from a national newspaper. The fate of the project was in the balance.

During this time, however, we were able to deliver a two-day workshop with inmates from HMP Preston - a Category B, local or allocation prison, which takes individuals from the court prior to sentencing.

A formidable place, in the middle of the town, Preston is housed in an ageing building and has a constantly moving population. There is little opportunity for the inmates to interact as they would in Lancaster. Such elements are crucial to consider when planning and working in a prison context. I confess at being nervous when I first met the group - they were, in my eyes, a scary bunch of guys. Not only were there six more than had been agreed to, there were additional inmates not taking part. As anyone who teaches dance will know it is always best to have everyone in the room involved. In prison, this is even more important. Nevertheless, we had to accept the situation and we began the workshop. I had made the decision in this instance to introduce myself as a dancer, however I was nervous about the reaction of the guys. Not so much because of what that said about me but because of what they felt might be expected of them. We introduced ourselves, Kate and Rowan first, followed by me. Eighteen men just stared as I said: 'My name's Dylan, I'm a dancer.' They then looked at one another. Suddenly one guy piped up: 'What sort of dance do you do 'cause I used to dance with Sweet Female Attitude'. So, you just never know what the reaction is going to be.

Over the course of the next two days, these guys jumped, rolled and told stories through movement. At the end, one, who I freely admit, was the scariest looking of the lot, said: 'Where could I bring my daughter to do some dancing? Mind you, sod her, I'll come along, its been great fun, thanks Dylan.'

During March, Tom Roden and I were to have led a three-day workshop with inmates at Lancaster Castle. Again, unforeseen circumstances prevailed as the national programme I referred to was screened, resulting in concern by the Prison Services regarding our filming or photographing inmates. The week before we were due to go in, Lancaster was directed to pull the project.

Remember the flexibility I mentioned. I wanted this project to continue, we had clearly seen the benefit to the men and were determined that something could be salvaged. We agreed to cancel the national newspaper coverage and the film. However, I remained confident that with a bit more time and the support of the education department (with whom we had worked closely) the fears of those in London could be allayed.

They eventually agreed to let the planned workshops run as long as no film or photographs were taken. And so we started our second round of workshops with eight men, two of whom we had met before. (This is not uncommon when working in several prisons.) Our main task was to identify two individuals who would be interested in taking part in the film production in the event of it being given the go ahead. Three guys expressed an interest. We did not want to turn anyone away so we agreed that they could all do it. Anyway, it would be a useful back up in the event of someone pulling out or something unforeseen happening. But the day, we were due to work on some of the ideas, the other five asked if they could do it also. Their reaction was a clear demonstration that they wanted to undertake something that was challenging and interesting. Again, I felt it was not a good idea to turn people away that were showing enthusiasm for team playing. We invited the governor to watch the performance that we had devised. Both she and the education staff were amazed at the amount of movement the men had developed over the short period and how together and controlled they appeared.

It was then a case of convincing the Prison Service press office that we would not be a risk. After weeks of discussion, they agreed as long as a prison officer was with us throughout and that they could view the material before it left the prison. We were also required to change our proposed venue. However, this was a small price to pay.

Tom, Jason, James, and myself, went into the Castle to continue. The three inmates had signed their disclaimer forms allowing their image to be used on the film. However, when we arrived we discovered that one had been released earlier than had been expected, and the other had been involved in an altercation. I quickly learnt that you have no idea what goes on in the wings when you leave. And you cannot know the dynamics that exist within that environment. Coincidently, the remaining inmate was the only guy that I had worked with from the very beginning of this project. This was to make the process easier as he clearly understood what we were trying to achieve which was to prove essential over the following two days.

The original idea for the film was to explore the various life experiences of the individuals involved. I was also interested in looking at the idea of confinement and isolation. It was important therefore to make Lawrence feel a part of the process. Tom led a simple eye contact exercise, which necessitated looking directly into Lawrence's eyes. Lawrence could feel himself getting angry as he began to lose power. What was fascinating for me as a viewer was how obvious Lawrence's sense of panic was. He experienced firsthand how it is possible to observe, just from the movement of his body in relation to Tom's, a relationship changing.

Prior to this, we had a question and answer session whereby it was up to the individual as to whether or not they wished to respond honestly. Thus providing them with control and a 'safety net' should they have felt they needed to protect themselves. This instigated some fascinating conversations regarding our lives and the things we take for granted and/or the events that change and define who we are. I had spoken with Lawrence about sharing an event in his life that he felt had a profound effect on him. He told us the story of a journey from Glasgow to London with his best mate. We knew we had found the backbone of the film on which everything else would hang - it was not just the story - but the way he told it, the setting within which he told it and how we heard it. We had just a day and a half to complete our work within the prison. After which we would be devising material in a local bar and market. The governor of the Castle agreed to let us work on the Norman Keep, where they used to imprison the Lancashire witches. Filming took place around the daily throng of people to-ing and fro-ing.

It was extremely important that Lawrence felt comfortable undertaking this work. If anyone felt anxious, especially Lawrence, we stopped until it felt OK to continue. Because of the nature of the work, we needed to be sure that Lawrence did not take any concerns back to the wing each night.

The prison officer had no anxieties regarding the material we had recorded. We said goodbye to Lawrence but will return to show him the completed film. Tom, Jason and three students from Cardinal Newman College, Preston, continued devising dance material driven by Lawrence's story and our experiences of working within the prison. The editing process is now complete. All the king's men is a film, which, without doubt, has touched a wide range of people who would have never ordinarily come in contact with dance outside of a nightclub or pub.

Finishing the process was a strange feeling - I had met Lawrence four months previously and it had been a challenge to complete the project. I would not profess to know a great deal about prisons or working in them, but I believe I have a better understanding of the system and how it comes about that people re-offend. Above all, I believe that it may be possible, with the support of establishments like HMP Lancaster Castle, to undertake work that offers inmates other opportunities and ways of developing personal and interpersonal social skills - for if you do not develop them when creating movement together - when do you?

Dylan Quinn, artistic director, Pariah Dance Theatre.
Contact +44 (0)1524 32679. Email pariah@

Working in prisons: the rules
The process of getting into a prison is necessarily a complex one. There is a variety of procedures that you are required to undertake regardless of your intentions, made more complex if you are mixing with inmates. Everyone has to be security checked and this can take up to six weeks. Additionally, the security department needs to know every piece of equipment that you are intending to take in (especially CDs), and certain items are banned such as mobile phones, as they are very much in demand. So what are the rules? How much can you tell people? Numerous questions run through your mind. As part of my mentoring TlPP provided me with a useful sheet of information answering some of my queries:

  • Always have appropriate ID. ie. passport, driving licence. This is required for you to get into the prison and to identify you if required at any other time. You may be required to leave this on entry.

  • Do not take in bags unless necessary. Only take in what you need and NEVER leave it unattended.

  • Never give or take anything for an inmate before first consulting with a member of staff, everyday objects can become highly prized items.

  • Do not provide inmates with your address or the address of the organisation you are with, they can reach you through your contact in the prison. Keep it work related and professional.

There are of course many other rudiments to consider. But through lack of thought, you could unintentionally find yourself in an awkward situation.

For further support in working in the criminal justice system contact
The Unit for Arts and Offenders +44 (0) 1227 470 629 email

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001