London preview and fundraiser - Saturday 17 Aug
Why we've chosen Fine Cell Work as our charity of choice
"When Katy Emck mentioned in her earlier blog here that she toured prisons with an American theatre company called The Geese in her 20s, what she didn’t mention was how influenced the prison-touring theatre company was by the work of Nobel-prize winner Dario Fo and his wife Franca Rame. These two Italian playwrights and performers knew how to bring social activism to life, and were sympathetic to the left-wing movement of the 1960s, taking food parcels to political prisoners, and raising money for those in jail in Italy for defence lawyers.
While there is no doubt that Katy’s year working in American prisons impressed greatly the charity’s founder Lady Anne Tree when searching for the right person to help shape the charity in those early days, there is also something profound about the link between performance and prison, something that came to fruition last year with the highly successful staging of Esther Freud’s play “Stitchers” in the West End.
Somehow the claustrophobia of prison was brought to life by that play, as well as the work of Lady Anne as a prison visitor, movingly recounted in Esther Freud’s Fine Cell Work Blog here . From the clanging of the iron doors, to the desperation of the prisoners cooped up day and night, and the joy of the arrival of the colourful threads from Fine Cell Work volunteers – the play brought the work of the charity to life. And the many Fine Cell Work champions and supporters who came to see the sold-out play could not have failed to have been moved by the rendition of Lady Anne by Sinead Cusak, who was dubbed “Outstanding” in the role by the critics .
And so, when producing a play for the Edinburgh Fringe which also includes the reality of prison – my first thought was that all and any profits should go to Fine Cell Work. I may have written about Fine Cell Work in my capacity as a journalist in The Guardian and The Times , the paper which in 2009 chose Fine Cell Work as one of its three Christmas charities, but this was something different.
Only theatre can communicate the complexities of prison, the smell, the disturbing noises, the extremes of feeling that Lady Anne expressed in an interview where she told me: “you got to know the women fairly quickly, some of them were hilarious and others were chronically depressed. Sometimes you saw people cracking under the strain with no family support”. The play ‘A Mother’ in Edinburgh depicts a mother of a prisoner, cracking under the strain of what has happened to her son as she faces a judge in court.
The play tackles a difficult subject, and Fine Cell Work’s founder Lady Anne never shied away from any difficult subject, human or conceptual. Because of her legacy, and founding directors like Katy Emck OBE continuing the spirit of her work, the charity’s interest has never been in prisoners’ crimes, but in their humanity, and the redemptive power of creativity and high-quality work.
“It became evident that idleness breaks people and destroys them,” said Lady Anne, “and although people didn’t approve of prisoners being rewarded, my belief was that people would want to work if they were rewarded– to buy food, books, luxuries, all of which are very important inside”.