Have you ever “blagged” anyone? According to applied theatre practitioner James Thompson, in incarcerated populations in the UK to “blag somebody means to deceive them, to pull the wool over their eyes.”* More seriously, “blag” can also refer to a crime. This week Kat and I led a workshop adapted from a program called “Blagg!” Blagg! is a drama-based offending behavior workshop developed by the Theatre in Prisons and Probation (TIPP) Centre in the UK.
The aim of Blagg! is to employ drama tools and techniques to engage participants in exploring criminal behavior. It can address a variety of topics, such as crime, violence, drug use, and peer pressure. Though we were curious about using the work, both Kat and I had concerns about it. Would it seem like a “bait and switch”—that suddenly we’d gone from doing fun theatre activities to forcing them to talk about why they were in jail? After Kat read some research about how Blagg did not always work as well for incarcerated women (because the reasons for the crime are sometimes more out of their control), she suggested we use the workshop less as a “therapeutic tool” and more as a tool for generating characters and stories for a performance piece.
The first step of the Blagg workshop is to ask questions to create a character named Jo Blagg who is just like the women in the workshop. Our Jo Blagg:
- Is 5 months pregnant
- Lives with her abusive boyfriend and her brother near Rundberg
- Has a 15-year-old sister who lives on the streets
- Has another boyfriend who is a “rescuer”
- Has a cat named Cassandra
- Is a dealer but doesn’t use
- Has a drinking problem
- Is embarrassed by her family back in Mexico
- Likes to fix cars
- Is in jail for getting caught selling dope
- Is scared to leave her boyfriend
- Wants a better life for her family
- Wants to “get out of the game” and become a pharmacist
When I asked “Why is Jo in jail?” most of the women agreed that she’d been caught dealing. But one woman called out “She murdered someone!” “She murdered someone?” “Yeah, she murdered her boyfriend!” “Remember that for this activity we’re creating a character who could be a member of this class. Could someone who was in jail for murder be in this class?”
“No, she’d be in Max! And Max isn’t allowed to take classes. But Max deserves programs, too!”
And she is correct that women in maximum custody at the jail have much less programming that minimum and medium custody. Kat explained that she was hoping to expand the Conspire programs to offer programs to the women in Max, and the woman seemed pleased by that, though still frustrated.
Next we had two women create a frozen image of Jo at the moment she’s committing the crime. The other women mirrored Jo’s frozen image, and then simultaneously said what Jo was thinking in that moment. Everyone seemed engaged up until that point. I decided to go around and have each women tell us what her Jo was thinking. BAM! Energy suck…ugh. I wrote each comment down and then turned around to see women slumped in their chairs, spacing out, heads on desks. Oh, crud… we lost them! After checking in (they were fine, just tired), in seconds we were back up on our feet. We put a woman playing Jo in the center and asked the other women to take on roles as people in her life. They placed themselves closer or farther away from her based on how her actions affected them. Then we interviewed or “hot-seated” a few of the characters. We left the women with an assignment to write a letter to Jo as their character. What would her brother, boyfriend, mother, or even her cat say to her if they knew she was committing this crime? I’m looking forward to working with these letters this week.
Lessons learned for me this time: Don’t be afraid to try something new, but know that you may hit some bumps along the way. Get over the idea that laughter = success/engagement. Make sure to frame the intent of work in a way that makes sense to the women. And above all, keep the energy moving!
(*From Drama Workshops for Anger Management and Offending Behaviour, 1999, p. 43.)