Spotlight on: the Prison Choir Project
Adam Green (1993) has sung baritone at English National Opera, Scottish Opera, Opera North and Welsh National Opera. Now he is Musical Director and Founder of the Prison Choir Project, and we caught up with him below to find out what this involves and what impact the project is having on prison communities.
Hello Adam! When did you set up the Prison Choir Project (PCP) and what was your motivation?
The PCP was founded in 2016 with the aim of rehabilitating prisoners, ex-offenders and people suffering mental illness through music — in particular opera and song. We hope to offer a pathway to reduced reoffending by building self-esteem, encouraging personal development and improving employable soft skills for all those involved. Most importantly, we make a connection with those that have been lost to, and excluded from, society. Inmates are always the focus, singing many of the roles, dancing all the choreography, taking on leading speaking parts and working alongside professional artists.
What struck you or surprised you the most about the prisoners and their environment?
Prison is not an easy environment. It’s tempting to think of it as a badly run private school but it really isn’t. There is a huge restriction on movement through the space, and many spend hours and hours simply locked up with their own thoughts day after day. Nothing changes, there’s nothing to look forward to, and every day is the same.
I’m yet to meet anyone in prison that I didn’t want to work with and have consistently found that if you invest in people, encourage and believe in them, they really step up to the plate. We have formed a close bond with many in prison and I’m delighted by their talent, their enthusiasm and their determination to work as a team and prove themselves. These are not men who have necessarily had access to the Arts, the privilege of a good education or a stable start to life, but they love the sense of community and collective endeavour in putting on a performance. What could be better than offering someone an enormous sense of achievement, pride and redeemability?
How do prisoners get involved?
Our work is a partnership with the prison Governors and staff. Recruiting posters go up on the wings in advance of a show: ‘The Jets NEED YOU!’ Typically we have 20 or so involved on stage but many more paint and help design sets and lighting rigs. There’s a real community feel to the performances — hundreds of fellow inmates coming along to watch and support their friends. Some even write reviews of the work.
‘I am absolutely overawed at how happy I was for signing up! In the 15 years I’ve spent behind bars this is one project that I would do again and again. I found it helped my self belief, self worth, self confidence, it eased my PTSD and it stopped my craving for illicit drugs.’
— an inmate involved in the PCP
What are the initial reactions of prisoners to the project? Do these reactions change throughout the rehearsal process?
One of the inmates we worked with in a recent production of Guys and Dolls put his hand up for a main role on the first day of workshop rehearsals. I had my reservations: he couldn’t look anyone in the eye; I’d been told he didn’t speak to anyone on the Wing; he gave the impression of being a bit of a loner; and he had long hair and a beard that maybe wasn’t quite suited to this particular role. I said ‘let’s see how we go’, and I was thoroughly proven wrong. This man was brilliant on stage, had all the required swagger, delivered his lines in a faultless American accent, and on the day of the dress rehearsal he came up to me and said ‘At lunchtime the hair and beard are going… I think it’s for the best.’
How do you choose the musicals to put on?
There are interesting parallels between the works we put on and prisons. Don José (Carmen) has been in prison, West Side Story deals with gang violence, and Guys and Dolls includes gamblers and illegal craps games vs the police. I’m not suggesting we type-cast, teaching ‘gangsters to be gangsters’, but instead aim to put on something that gives people hope and an opportunity to stage a brilliant work. There’s a line in Billy Budd (an opera we hope to tour in prisons in 2020) that resonates: ‘I’ve sighted a sail in the storm, the far shining sail that’s not fate, and I’m contented.’
How do you raise funds and what are your plans for the future?
We are entirely dependent on the goodwill of trusts and charities to support our work and receive no government funding. Our larger-scale productions typically cost around £40,000 and we are always looking to fundraise, so any pointers in this regard would be most welcome.
There’s lots on the horizon with projects planned in HMP Send, HMP Dartmoor and HMP Bristol — and, we hope, a tour of Billy Budd in East Anglia.
What can Johnians do to help?
We are looking for partnerships with those who might take an interest in the charity and, in particular, with those who have ideas regarding placement and work opportunities for the lads we’ve worked with on release.
Find out more about the Prison Choir Project: prisonchoirproject.co.uk