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The Making of The Cell
By Michael Crowley

Out of Control (2002)is a film by Dominic Savage that ends with a young prisoner taking his own life. Like everything I’ve seen by him it is a well-researched, compelling piece of drama. I used to be a youth offending team officer in Greater Manchester and one or two colleagues showed the film to youngsters on the cusp of custody, I think as a deterrent. It never worked. The film is about far more than that and all the research indicates the scare them straight approach generally fails. Out of Control was filmed at HM YOI Lancaster Farms; in 2007 I started work there as a writer in residence. Five years later I’m still there, and like many of the lads I see come and go, I’m convinced this year will definitely be my last stretch. I get prisoners to write and to read, to quarry who they are and what they have done with a view to altering the narrative. My play at this years’ 24:7 Theatre Festival is about the aftermath of a young prisoner taking his own life in custody. It begins where Out of Control ends. It dramatises the impact, and lack of impact, upon individuals, and most particularly, upon a prison officer; drama’s most typecast occupation.

It was always my intention to tell the story I wanted, in the way I wanted, but also to develop the script with staff and prisoners. This was not just about accuracy and authenticity; I wanted to use the script to discuss the issues it raises with lads at Lancaster Farms. The job of a writer in residence is to use literature to subvert the subversive. So after I wrote the first full draft I took it into classrooms in education and it was read and reread aloud, at desks and on its feet. Two of the four characters are prisoners are from Liverpool and it was essential to get the vernacular right. There is also, at the risk of typecasting myself, a Liverpool way of thinking about the world. Lads at the Farms tend to move relatively easily into reading and writing drama, more so than any other form. Arguably there is something instinctive about drama and offenders. Maybe it’s all the acerbic dialogue in their lives. Maybe it’s because they are less likely to have read a novel than seen a film; they believe it is a shorter way to tell a story. There is more to it than that. Drama is by and large about action and event. Actors need something to do – not just something to say. A major part of the narrative takes place in the external life of the character, which is where offenders often believe their problems to be. I read the play through more than a dozen times with small groups of lads but also worked closely with one or two individuals for week after week, and I should  acknowledge that one of those individuals helped resolve a significant plot problem in the script.
Once the play was cast I arranged to bring the actors and director into the prison to spend two afternoons running the play, learning from prisoners who had developed the script with me. We made more amendments where it was needed, largely in the realm of expression but also one or two crucial improvements in stage directions. Of particular help was a prison officer, highly experienced in hostage negotiations. The play is fiction but everything that happens in the fifty minutes of drama, has unfortunately happened or could happen.

In September The Cell goes to The Unity Theatre in Liverpool and possibly elsewhere. The prison has also requested a film of the play so it can be used in the establishment to discuss issues it raises, which for me will be the best of outcomes.

There will be an after show discussion on the issues raised in The Cell with the writer, prison staff and ex-prisoners on Sunday 22nd July.

Michael Crowley is also the author of Behind the Lines: creative writing with offenders and those at risk.