The Citizens Theatre Case Study

The Citizens Theatre is firmly rooted in its local community and beyond. Its Learning Department places a special emphasis on work with children, young people and socially excluded adults. The Citizens is also known for working in the wider community, enabling accessibility to some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in Europe.


The Theatre believes in placing arts, culture and creativity at the heart of learning. Its association with offenders is longstanding, particularly with those incarcerated in HMP Barlinnie. This specific relationship originated in the 1970s when the Artistic Director at the time, Giles Havergal, and company actors worked with inmates of the Special Unit every week over a period of several years. The Citizens commitment to prison art has been reinforced since 2010, with a creative repertoire taking place in a number of Scottish prisons (HMYOI Polmont, HMP Greenock, HMP Shotts, and HMP Low Moss). In partnership with Creative Scotland and New College Lanarkshire (formerly Motherwell College), HMP Barlinnie has remained central to the theatre’s focus on arts and criminal justice. Recently this has taken the form of a three year creative residency contributing to the Learning Centre’s portfolio of work.


The partnership between the Citizens Theatre and the college has been highly successful, delivering 11 creative projects with over 160 inmates. Participants have taken part in spoken word performances, creative writing, set design and construction, music composition and song writing, drama, digital sound technology workshops and theatre performances, and these have been enjoyed by fellow prisoners, outside guests, SPS staff and family members.


The long term nature and year round programming of the creative residency at Barlinnie has enabled the Citizens to embed its style of theatre-making within the prison. As a consequence, we have been able to demonstrate how the arts can have a positive impact within a prison environment. For example, our work has played an important role in the development of positive connections and increased empathy between inmates, through the sharing of experiences, creative writing and performance; these allow peers to discuss themes that would be difficult to air under other circumstances. Our methods help to improve communication skills, self-esteem and, most importantly, introduce the possibility of change to some of the most vulnerable and damaged individuals in the prison community. By developing and reconnecting with creative skills our projects have the capacity to build confidence and self-awareness, trust, co-operation and respect, all vital when it comes to developing resilience, and reforming attitudes and behaviour.


Furthermore, it should be noted that a high proportion of the prison community would, by their own admission, not normally be associated with the theatre at all, even as patrons. By opening their eyes to the world of theatre, our work helps to widen their cultural and literary vocabulary, an outcome that is reinforced when they have an opportunity to become participants, performing their own material in front of fellow inmates. When their work is publicly and positively acknowledged and received this cannot help but lead to a strong sense of achievement and feelings of well-being.


Reoffending rates suggest that it is extremely challenging for former prisoners to reintegrate back into society. In this regard, we believe that the arts can be transformative, creating in people a desire to make positive changes to their lives. Consequently, this encourages personal development, contributing to better societies, safer communities and positive citizenship. Ultimately, therefore, our work helps to address the revolving door culture for those incarcerated.


The Citizens provides a through-care provision for former prisoners: they can engage with the Theatre upon liberation by attending plays and interacting with the free ticket scheme, or can take part in weekly workshops and performances with the Citizens Community Collective and Nightschool acting classes. For example, as a result of the creative residency, former prisoners have partnered with the Citizens Theatre to develop ‘Street Cones’, an organisation made up solely of former prisoners. This group worked with the Citz while in HMP Barlinnie and now wish to address offending behaviour and the lived experience of incarceration and substance misuse. Their focus is on the power of change, with the goal of helping others. The Citizens devise, rehearse and mentor the group on a weekly basis, helping them create issue-based theatre that will be performed at young offender institutions, to those at risk of offending in the community, and at criminal justice conferences, etc.


To reinforce our strong belief that theatre really does help people on their road to change, we include below a testimony from George, just one individual of many with whom our theatre has developed a strong, positive, relationship:


“I first got involved with the Citizens Theatre when I was in Barlinnie Prison. The sessions were very relaxed, fun and encouraging. As the weeks went on mine and the rest of the groups’ confidence began to grow. After we had written and performed our own play, we were all so proud of ourselves. I believe that confidence building and pride in good works are beneficial to rehabilitation. Since leaving prison I have been attending the Citizens Theatre Community Collective and Nightschool adult acting classes [he is also part of the ‘Street Cones’ group]. I also took my family to see the Christmas show and I have started to attend regular performances. For someone who has just left prison and with poor prospects, the Citz is a lifeline without which, I know I would be back in Prison. I know of others who share the same view. If these projects can help just one person change their life for the better, then I believe it’s a success. More people deserve a chance to change their cycle of despair.”