Performance poet and spoken word artist Steve Larkin is currently touring the UK with a theatre piece – Not on Normal Courtyard Exercise (N.O.N.C.E.) – based on real life events that took place while he was on a year-long residency at HMP Grendon Underwoood. After the last night of a three night run in Camden, Steve spoke to Andy Moseley about how the show came about and how he ended up working in the prison.
Your show is based on events while you were resident poet at HMP Grendon – how did that placement come about?
I was working as a lecturer on performance poetry at Oxford Brookes University. We wanted to get students into social settings to bring poetry into the community. One of my fellow lecturers was also on the board of the Friends of Grendon, which is Britain’s only therapeutic prison. It’s a high security prison, but all the inmates have to have a genuine desire to change, and the whole programme is geared around helping them to do this. We set up a pilot scheme in 2007 to bring inmates and students together to encourage inmates to write poetry as a way of expressing their feelings and helping with their rehabilitation. That was a great success, and so we applied for Arts Council funding to turn it into a one year project.
You say in the show that you took the residency because you needed the money. Was that your only reason?
No. The financial side was only a small part of it. I wanted to do something that could help people with their rehabilitation. I’m a firm believer that people are capable of change and you shouldn’t give up on people because they’ve committed serious crimes and been sent to prison. I wanted to do something that demonstrated that and gave people the chance to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise, and hope that they got something positive and long term from it.
So you wanted to help the inmates. Apart from doing that, what did you get from the project?
For me it was a co-dependency. The people who did the course were looking for validation that they hadn’t had before. They were validated in prison when they could say they were a poet and tell this to their family. I was also looking for validation as a poet and as someone who could help them become poets. It was also about reaching out into the darkness before it reaches out to you, and understanding that side of nature.
When did you decide to take your experiences and turn them into the basis of a show?
It was a few years later. I got the idea when I was thinking about what to do for a show, and what I’d done that people were interested in. Whenever I talked to people about what I’d done at Grendon their ears pricked up, and in the years since I’d finished I’d find myself repeating stories. That made me think you’ve got material there for a show.
The show is not just about what the inmates and what they went through, it also seems to be a very personal story on some levels. Is that right?
Yes. It’s an artist’s journey as well. It’s not just about what it meant for the inmates that did the course, and what they got from it, it’s about what I learned from it and what I got from doing it. It sounds a bit pretentious, I know, but it is an ontological journey, which is a study of your own existence, your self, your ego and the need for validation.
You were there for a year. How did you decide what material to use in the show?
It came down to what tied in with the theme of the show. I looked at all the notes I’d taken when I was working in the prison, and the interviews I did with the students who were involved in the project and looked at what fitted in. It took a long time to get the final script. I finished it the night before the first show in 2011 and had crib notes at the side of the stage for the first performances.
If you could achieve one thing from the show what would it be?
For people to examine their own attitudes towards sex and sexuality and crime. The show covers subjects that are taboo irrespective of people’s attitudes towards prisons and the rehabilitation of offenders, and a part of the reason for doing the show is to expose these subjects and for conversations to ensue that might not have done otherwise.
Any plans for a follow up show with more material from the period?
I did think about it when I toured it round Canada in 2011. I did the show in Winnipeg, which is the crime capital of Canada, and when I was there, I found that people would start telling me their own experiences, normally as victims of crime. They were fascinating but harrowing as well. I considered using them as the basis of another show, but it takes something from you, doing shows about this sort of thing, so I probably won’t do the follow on.
Have you heard from any of the people who took the course in Grendon?
I bumped into one guy at Oxford and he’d signed up to an access course at the University. Another guy has been in touch a couple of times. He’s now settled away from the area he grew up in and is involved in arts activity where he lives now. He’s been able to break away from his old network which is important to do, and I have every reason to trust the Grendon experience has worked for him.
You’re touring the show till the end of this month. What are your plans after that? Any other performances or new shows in the pipeline?
I am currently organising the release of a charity single which I wrote to encourage older people to take up exercise called “Oi Codger – Be a Better Coffin Dodger!” for the Surviving Winter Campaign. Then I’m looking to tour my new show ‘TES’ which is a 21st Century urban Tess of the D’Urbervilles – a rewrite of the Hardy classic. Details of all my output can be found on my website: www.stevelarkin.com