Photo courtesy Vancouver Island University Vancouver Island University theatre professor Eliza Gardiner is currently directing a production of “Antigone” with William Head on Stage, Canada’s only prisoner-run theatre company.

VIU professor directing play at William Head Institute

Eliza Gardiner is working with Canada’s only prisoner-run theatre company, William Head on Stage

Theatre director Eliza Gardiner is in the midst of a “very rewarding … extremely educational and empowering” production with an unconventional cast and crew.

Since last spring the Vancouver Island University professor has been venturing into Victoria’s William Head Institution, a minimum-security federal prison, to work with Canada’s only prisoner-run theatre company to organize the staging of an ancient Greek tragedy.

Gardiner said it was “kismet” that brought her to the prison. She had just finished teaching an interdisciplinary course that combines performing arts methodology with criminology content to “explore the criminological mind using theatre techniques.” She was back from a research trip to Arizona where she studied the impact of the arts in rehabilitative programs when she found a message from William Head waiting for her.

The institution’s theatre group, William Head on Stage, wanted to know if Gardiner was interested in submitting a proposal for a play.

“It was an honour,” she said of the offer.

Gardiner proposed to direct a production of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” a story about a woman sentenced to death for performing funeral rites for her brother, a deceased enemy of the government. Gardiner said she knew the play would resonate with the cast and crew.

“The play is about making tough decisions under pressure. It’s about crime and punishment, it’s about loyalty and love and I knew those themes would connect with people but I could never had predicted how transformative certain moments were,” she said.

“People were able to connect those themes in a very deep way and were able to share stories and relate those plot points with real struggles to do good and to be good and to forgive and to apologize and all the same things that the characters go through these men have also gone through. So it’s cool that an ancient Greek story, a mythological story, can resonate with contemporary politics and people.”

As Gardiner and her company of about 50 actors and crew members discussed the play, the topic of restorative justice came up. Eventually they decided to rewrite parts of “Antigone” to reflect that philosophy and send a different message.

“The men changed the ending of the tragedy to suit their goal, which was to end the violence proposed in the play as being perpetual and to suggest instead that we can stop the pain and the suffering and the grief and restore justice in order to bring more love and peace and hope,” she said.

“It’s quite lovely, really, and the conversations around that were really motivational.”

The production is now halfway through its run, with the final performances taking place at the end of the next two weeks. Gardiner said the prison gymnasium’s interior now resembles a Greek amphitheatre and audiences have been “rapt,” laughing and gasping at key moments and applauding the choreography.

She said she’s been impressed by the members’ work ethic and she sees in them the potential for a “positive, healthy lifestyle.”

“I am going to remember the dedication to the vision and how resilient and courageous everyone has been to tackle tough themes, to relate them, to alter them according to a group envisioning and to entertain the audience towards inspiring their thinking,” Gardiner said.

“Theatre is a temporary art, really, so the moments that we’ve had together are fleeting and yet we have impacted each other and impacted the audience and hopefully that propels further reflection.”

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