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British photographer Sebastian Lister is having a joint exhibition with Russian photographer Sergey Ponomarev entitled Russian Prison Theatre – A Photographic Journal at Pushkin House, London’s Russian Cultural Centre.

Earlier this year, I put Sebastian’s work into perspective with two contrasting posts; the first about the stereotypes of Russian prison imagery and the second about meaningful theatre programs as documented by Sebastian.

About the exhibition:

In 2009, British theatre director Alex Dower worked with prisoners in Perm Prison Colony 29, as part of Territoria International Contemporary Theatre Festival, staging three short stories – Chekhov’s The Burbot, Isaac Babel’s My First Goose, and prisoner Albert Sadrutdinov’s Butterfly.

Alex was accompanied by two leading photographers. The result is a set of extraordinary photographs that together provide a deep insight into contemporary Russian prison life – the prisoners, their work and their guards – as well as a view of a remarkable theatre project that captured the imaginations of the group of prisoners and took them on a journey beyond the narrow confines of their lives.

This collection of award-winning images presages the continuation of the companies work, in a prison in Kazan in November 2011.

Exhibition runs from Friday 16 Sept – Friday 7 October 2011, 4pm to 7pm Monday to Friday (and Sat 17 Sept – Sun 18 Sept, 11am to 4pm), at Pushkin House, 5A Bloomsbury Square, London, WC1A 2TA. Entrance is free.

Sergei as Babushka © Sebastian Lister

Earlier today, I posted House of the Dead (or How We See and Expect Tropes in Photographs of Russian Prisons) with images of blighted prisoners from art history. Regimented and downtrodden, the subjects of these historical works seem to me like precursors for the B&W grey photographs of Russian prisons, even today.

It was a set-up of sorts.

I used a selection of Sebastian Lister‘s photographs to illustrate my point, but I didn’t show you the majority of Lister’s portfolio, nor did I tell you why he had visited Prison Colony 29, Perm in Russia. (Sebastian, I hope you don’t mind my chicanery!)

Elsewhere in Sebastian’s portfolio are unexpected images of costume, make-up, curtain calls, cross-dressing, pressured script-reading, nervous rehearsals and opening night applause.

Sebastian joined Alex Dower, director, actor, musician and artistic director of Creating Freedom, an international production company working in prisons. For more information, click here and then on the ‘prisons’ tab. Russia Today produced a wonderful half-hour documentary about Dower’s project.

Prison theatre is a common mode of arts rehabilitation in Russia, and Sebastian Lister’s documentary photographs are valuable insight into the “movement”. Perm Colony’s players are diligent creatives and their activities allow for more positive representations of prisoners in the Great Bear nation.

If you’d like to see more, Sebastian has posted more images on his Facebook page.

Scroll down to read my Q&A with Sebastian.

How did you get involved?

I became involved with Theatre in Prison: Territory Festival 2009 having studied acting & directing with Alex Dower. We were trained in the science of acting by the Russian Sam Kogan in London. It seemed fitting to be taking Kogan’s system ‘back home’. It is a rigorous, research based approach which appeals to those with a strong work ethic. For the most part the prisoners relished the opportunity and thrived under Dower’s leadership.

Tell us about Alex Dower’s work in Russian prison theatre.
Dower is a pioneer in that his project was the first high-profile prison theatre project in Russia. It caught the eye of the authorities, some of whom now regard theatre (and perhaps the arts in general) as having a role in rehabilitation. The media interest was aided by the fact that Alex and I are British. Arrangements were complex – we didn’t have the go-ahead until a month or so before. The show was beamed onto a big screen in Perm during the Territory Festival 2009. Crucially, I would say Dower nurtures the prisoners as artists in their own right without any hint of condescension.

How seriously did they take the acting?
As a group the prisoners set about their job with a high degree of diligence. There were some stand-out levels of commitment. In fact, Igor, one of the cast of Chekhov’s “The Burbot” has been offered a job in the professional theatre. And ironically a former neo-nazi murderer played the Jewish lead in “My First Goose” by Babel, a story for which the main theme are fear and courage.

Why does prison theatre prosper? What is the psychology behind it?
I think prison theatre prospers because it is an opportunity for inmates to learn from the characters they play, to exercise their imaginations and to acquire a sense of freedom on stage, thus escaping from the confines and drudgery of their daily lives. There is also the thrill of an audience – including inmates and parents – witnessing this transformation. It is an occasion for them.

One negative aspect of the experience was the come-down the prisoners felt after the show. Future projects should take this into account.

How many of the prisoners would have attended theatres before imprisonment?
I don’t know the exact figures but I would say that barely any of the prisoners had been to the theatre before imprisonment. Most prisons (I’m not sure about the high security ones) have a theatre of some kind.

What are the motivations for the actors?
The motivations for the actors come from the challenges of the characters in the stories – Chekhov’s “The Burbot”, Babel’s “My First Goose” and “Butterfly” written by Albertik Sadrutdinov, one of the prisoners. Characters were discussed and interpreted in the first week of rehearsal. Tanja Arno, an actress from Moscow was the only member of the cast not from the prison.

What other activities are available to them at Colony 29, Perm?
Albertik Sadrutdinov (now free) gained a qualification in building fireplaces whilst in the colony. He also spent time running, meditating, working out in the gym, reading, and playing in a band. On our first day, during quite a media scramble, I saw prisoners in class learning geometry. There is also a “working zone” with a timber yard and metal working shop.

Do either you or Dower plan more prison theatre coverage?

Dower plans to direct in a prison in Kazan, Russia in November 2011, and in Columbia in February 2012. Whether I accompany him or not depends on the funding available.

The title for this post comes from Dostoevsky’s famous 1862 novel House of the Dead. The book is full of imagery of malnourished, edgy prisoners who are corralled through the harsh drudgery of the Siberian prison camp. For me, it is almost impossible not to think of Dostoevsky’s bleak interment when looking at photographs from Russian prisons. Much of the imagery I’ve seen from the former Soviet bloc (AlsAlvarezAtwood, Krauss, Nachtwey, Vasiliev, Payusova) has depicted cold, hardened wretches. This may or may not reflect reality, but here I want to emphasise the prevalence of this type of imagery.

All photographs here in this post are by Sebastian Lister. I’ve taken the liberty to feature a small portion of his images and I’ve peppered them between famous etchings and paintings from art history to illustrate the persistence of marching, ordering, misery and boredom in prison imagery. America, Germany and England all feature in the historical images so we can acknowledge that this type of treatment and mood has existed in prison systems across the world.

Could it be that Russian prisons are persistently depicted as backward, brutal and stuck in the past? Is this the reality?

If you’ve not guessed, I’m setting something up here. I posit that, sometimes, these types of photographs are what we expect. Tune in on the blog later today to see a contrasting view.


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