I’ve recently become intrigued by how various arts companies have worked at immersing an audience in an experience. One such company is Secret Cinema and Chris was part of one of their projects. However, to begin with, he was blissfully unaware…
We were given detailed information as to how we should present ourselves; suits, ties, perhaps a hat, even down to our underwear, which had to be long johns and vests. Women had different instructions, obviously, but along the same theme. My girlfriend had arranged to go and I really didn’t know anything about it and so there I was, all dressed up on a Sunday morning as we drove down to Bethnal Green.
How early in the morning was it?
It was early, around 7:00 and we had arranged to meet our friend by the Toy Museum. We felt really overdressed and I’m sure people thought we were on the way to church and at this point I had no idea what was going to happen but I was just happy to go along with it. When our friend arrived my girlfriend said that we had to go to a nearby park and that the event was in a building there. When we got through the gates of this park I started to notice that there were more and more people dressed like us, everyone in their 1930s finery.
We mingled amongst this large group of people for I don’t know how long but eventually I became aware that certain people were talking louder than the rest. I tuned in and they were having conversations about events that had been happening, using peoples’ names. Now I know they were actors but at the time I assumed they were no different from the rest. Then we saw a couple of Police Officers dressed in old-style American police uniform. They told us to go to certain doorways which had been divided by letter; A,B,C and so on. We queued and went into this building (which I now know to be a library). Above the door it said ‘Courthouse’. The building had been converted into a 1930s Deep South Courthouse and there was a judge sitting there who looked really mean and as we walked in there was a trial already in progress. We were then processed, somebody took our names, gave out a sheet of paper which was duly stamped.
Were people co-operating with this?
There were a few who protested their innocence, saying they hadn’t done anything.
So people were going along with it as if it were a game?
I think a lot of people were confused. They had been told to come in certain clothes and at the beginning they were just going along with it. But after a while they started to take on roles, they started to act like the majority were acting. My friends seemed to know what they were doing so I just said to myself ‘ok, why not?’ It was such a beautiful day and no one seemed like they were ‘acting’, and you really felt like you were in one of the institutions of law. As we filed through we saw portraits of famous judges, lawmakers and so on. We were lead through this building and it took about ten minutes to work our way around the courthouse, during which we could see little offices at the back with secretaries on old fashioned typewriters. Except, these were new old-fashioned typewriters – they looked like they had only just been manufactured.
Did it feel authentic? Could you see any remnants of the fact that you were in London in the 21st century? I’m thinking about fire extinguishers or health and safety notices and things like that.
No. Everything was perfect. We were transported to another time and another location. There were health and safety notices but they were 1930s health and safety notices. Everything was of the period.
So we leave the courthouse, a group of about 60 or 70, and were led by four police officers, two at the front and then a couple at the back. We round the corner and standing in front of us were these gleaming coaches straight out of the 1930s. They were new! We all dutifully get on and the windows were blackened out, all except for the driver’s windshield. We couldn’t see a thing. Once we were sitting down one of the head cop tells us that we were to be transported to the next location. The coach starts up and because we couldn’t see anything we had absolutely no idea where we were going. We were all given sheets of paper on which was our ‘identity’; these were completely individual. It had everything on it, my name, date of birth, occupation and the crime I had committed. I had been convicted of 34 burglaries with the date of my conviction stamped.
We drove for what seemed to be about 25 minutes and we couldn’t see out of the windows but finally I caught a glimpse through the driver’s window that we were going through a large arch. We were ordered to disembark the bus and outside we were faced with a large barbed wire fence, with a small gate in the middle. Hundreds of people, all dressed in prison uniform were standing on the other side of the fence shouting at us, banging their fists and screaming the most extreme things; ‘I’m gonna fuck you up, man’, things of that nature. Some of them were sticking their tongues through the fence. We had already guessed we were being led through a prison courtyard, but this felt real. We filed through the gate and there were a couple of hundred people doing drills in the yard but as we passed them they went berserk, shouting and swearing at us. They were animals.
We entered the prison complex and we were stamped again, told to go upstairs into this enormous hall. There were huge spotlights hanging from the ceiling and so you felt a bit like ‘the Star’. At the front of the hall was a group of men in suits and about ten cops with batons. We find out that one of the suits is the Warden. We’re introduced to various others officials and we are lectured as to why we were there and we were allocated a letter A-G. We were told that when we heard our name called out we should run to the front of the Hall and pick up a sack. It was very specific, we were to run, pick up a sack and then make our way to the back of the line and stand to attention. I was terrified. When I had done this we were instructed that we had two minutes to take off our clothes, putting on the uniform found in the sack and then place our own clothes in the sack. This was evidently why we had been told to wear vests and long johns. A few people resisted this, but each time the guard would walk up to them shouting ‘What’s going on?’ – really yelling in their ear. On the bus we had been told that those who disobeyed would be brought to heed and so we all felt we had no choice. I remember the talk on the bus, in these beautiful, authentic Deep South accents; ‘If I say jump, you ask, how high?’ We were led to believe we were nobodies.
It felt a bit like a psychological game, putting your own clothes in the sack and bringing it to the front. My identity was in that bag and suddenly we were all the same. We were in prison fatigues now with the peaked hat and everything. We were led off and for the first time I was separated from my friends. I was led to the cells. My cell was very real, real bunks, real bars and when I arrived there were seven men already there, some lolling on their beds others sitting on the floor. I took one of the bunks and very quickly one of the the other prisoners marched up to me; “What the fuck are you doing?” It was his bed. I really thought it was going to kick off because he came at me with such ferocity.
Normally in a theatre production you have a good idea who is an actor and who isn’t but it seems like this was so immersive that you couldn’t.
You watched it develop. If certain people were leaders you could see it going that way and you would also see characters change to suit the group. Sitting in the cell I realised that my worst nightmare had come true. One thing, amongst many, I learned from this is that I never want to go to prison. I think I have always known it, but this confirmed it. I was in there for about an hour (I didn’t have a watch) and it was a very strange feeling because it wasn’t smelly or damp, it felt new. This is the single reason it felt so immersive. Prisoners would come around selling contraband, and the banter felt so real.
Then it was announced it was chow time in the Hall. I came down the stairs to see my friends queuing up and I went to join them. It was real American prison food on wooden trays and we had to sit on these incredibly long tables. So, my girlfriend is finally sitting next to me. She has always hated beans. Can’t stand them. She shouts out; “This is shit!” One of the guards strolls over. “What did you say?”
“You heard me,” she says, “I said “This is shit!””
The Guard glares at her. “I think you should be quiet.”
“No. This is shit!”
“I think you’d better shut your mouth.”
And with that my girlfriend starts banging her tray on the table. Gradually a lot of the other prisoners join her and the hall is filled with the sound of many people banging their trays on the table.
“I told you to shut your mouth.”
She threw her tray and her plate down on the floor and immediately the guards are on her, they seem to rush in from all sides. It was so quick I didn’t have time to react. They grab her, three of them and she’s kicking and screaming and they are being really forceful. I started to think that perhaps I should intervene but it was too late. She was taken through an iron door which shut. The chow hall returned to normal. I was genuinely shocked, she had literally been taken away.
Had she been prompted to do this by someone?
Oh no, it was entirely her idea. She didn’t expect that reaction, she was really shocked. She told me later that she had been thrown in a cell in solitary confinement for 15 to 20 minutes. She had been properly punished. Anyway, by this time I was enjoying prison entertainment, sitting on benches. There was a great band playing early blues numbers and I was banging away with my tin cup.
After lunch it was time to be evaluated. It was a proper psychological evaluation in which I had to visit the warden, who was really disgusting. He seemed to be tossing himself off under the desk and saying things like ‘now I wan’ you to be ma boy’ and all this dirty southern slang. Prisoners were coming out of his office afraid because they really created that period and you felt totally powerless against all of this authoritarian control. After evaluation we had to go down to the exercise yard, which was more people yelling at us. We were made to do push-ups and run laps of the whole yard. Some prisoners were playing basketball. Then we heard the sound of bus engines and the next group of prisoners were led in. You know what the amazing thing was? We all, en masse, ran to the fence. I was putting my tongue through the mesh and shouting obscenities. We were all behaving exactly as the inmates had behaved to us when we had arrived several hours earlier. Everyone was doing it; jumping on the fence and screaming “I’m gonna get you!” You felt you had to be part of the group.
So in effect it felt like a production that was external and internal? Flawless in terms of its conception. The action was everywhere but what was more important was that you were starting to feel it inside.
Yes, once they take the clothes off you, you feel an identity shift. You become the lowest of the low. You are like all the others in this same uniform, there’s no one higher or lower, unless you make a big effort to be so.
I’ve since calculated that there must have been 200 actors in the prison. We were there until about 5 in the evening and there must have been 800 people in there during the course of the day. As the sun started to go down we were taken to a room and told to sit down. We were to receive a lecture. A screen was unveiled, a proper, authentic screen from the 1930s. We were shown a public information film from the period about the standards expected of citizens. It showed the courtroom exactly as we had seen it, and then the chow hall. Only then did we get the movie.
I had been so engrossed that I hadn’t realised that all the guards and all of the officials had disappeared, almost as if they had melted away. When I looked up it was only us, the prisoners in the room.
I think I’ve guessed what the film was.
We were told not to tell people on the outside what the film was. It was supposed to be secret, after all. Watching the film I realised that, subtly, so many of the scenes in it had been played out that day. The fight scene, someone being dragged off, these had all taken place in front of our eyes. You recalled seeing this character and that and it was only when you watched the film that you realised that the things that some of the guards and officials say are from the film. In addition to this, many of the characters from the film were in the prison with us, delivering their lines, but so expertly that you didn’t even realise they were characters.
So it never felt dramatized?
No. It just felt real.
There’s an important distinction there.
Yes, you really felt as if you were in that world. At the moment in the film when a character is on the roof having a beer, (he was being rewarded for helping the warden with some legal papers for his wife) beers were passed around us and we sat and drank them whilst watching the movie. We felt like we were being rewarded. The timing was so well done and so the important scenes in the film I now remember because somehow they were highlighted
You feel you lived the film?
Yes. It is the next stage and they did it so well. I was on a high for days. When we left no one knew where they were. The coaches don’t take you back. In fact I believe what they had done that morning is just drive around for 20 minutes. We really weren’t that far away from where we had started in that park in Bethnal Green. We were let out a particular spot and given a map with bus information printed and there was the funny sight of 800 people going to get the buses. It really felt like liberation. You go and collect your freedom; you get your clothes and you’re stamped for the last time and everyone is talking on a high despite the fact that we had been there for 12 hours. Everyone on the buses were talking to one another, there were none of the usual barriers. Afterwards I started to think that this experience could be so powerful as a tool. Imagine ’12 years a slave’? That would be crazy to be part of.
Listening to you I start to conceive how much organization must have been involved and how big it must have been; catering, bus drivers, secretaries…
It really taught me something. You know I have all sorts of silly ideas about people and a lot of things that normally upset me were standard behaviour in the prison. But the most resistant people in there were the women, who really put up a struggle when they were separated from their possessions and forced to wear prison clothes. For me it changed the way I look at the world.