More than the usual suspects

Caitlin Newton-Broad: Alicia Talbot & erth, Wild Knights

Audience detainees, Wild Knights

Audience detainees, Wild Knights

Audience detainees, Wild Knights

We’re driving out to the edges of Sydney. It’s cold and still. I’m going to see a performance in a remand prison for young men at Cobham Juvenile Justice Centre. The piece is called Wild Knights. The steady drive toward St Marys has me feeling like the event has started already, there’s that twist in the guts, a transaction is looming between me and…a Wild Knight, a young prisoner.

I know I will be a fleeting visitor to this veiled place, a nervous stranger who will leave, free. These young men have been consigned to the remand centre because they may have done something serious. They got caught and are awaiting sentencing. I am imagining these Wild Knights, compelled by the promise of a face to place alongside the cliches and stories of criminal youth, trouble, the violence in our lives and imaginations. I don’t yet know that my curiosity will not be indulged. It sure is cold. I dig deeper into my coat pockets.

Wild Knights is a performance event about ‘encounter’—with institutions, with myths, between human beings behind bars, those who are their jailers, family and strangers. It’s not a representation of prison life but plays with the palpable space between other and self, with real implications.

Wild Knights is a collaboration between Cobham Juvenile Justice Centre, High Street Youth Health Service and erth Visual Theatre, directed by Alicia Talbot. In a 2-hour show, devised by 10 young men (whose names are not revealed) with a host of professional artists and collaborators, the audience is sent on a privileged journey—to look at and momentarily experience a calculated initiation into this environment.

We are offered roles as “Detainees’, “Official Visitors” and “VIP Guests”, and taken on different paths through the complex and silent world of the juvenile justice system. While we encounter the mechanisms of discipline, evidenced clearly in the rituals of entry, we are privy to the defiance, incursions and exuberant gestures of the inmates and workers who populate the physical space of this prison.

Each audience member is asked to hand in their personal items at check in. Our phones, jackets and other items are sealed in a holding bag and we’re given an identity for the duration of the performance. I am a ‘detainee’ and loaded on a docking bus with tinted windows and plenty of locked chambers. All detainees are asked to don white suits for the initiation of a model prisoner.

A lot of the pleasure and dis-ease in this 2 and a half hour performance came from observing the reactions of audience to the protocols and impact of the place. At one point we were herded into individual cells, while a performance was conducted outside for “official guests and VIPs.” We gathered at one point to listen to a range of beautiful original songs, from rap to acoustic, in one of the many courtyards. A group of Wild Knights conducted a mysterious meeting; a mock court was held with corrupt officials and manic lawyers dancing around the defendant. Performers loomed overhead on harnesses, flying from the corridors through the space. A rhinoceros was admitted to a seedy nightclub while young men were savagely excluded. Others were presented with cups for bravery and imagination in a Hollywood-styled red carpet procession. Finally, in the glare and spectacle of fireworks, the Wild Knights ran across a dark field at a great distance from the audience.

Alicia Talbot, director and performer, talked to me about the making of Wild Knights, taking me through the minefield of making performance within a highly coded and patrolled institution. This short extract from her description of the project offers insight into a powerful collaboration between people in an extraordinary environment.

“When did art and the penal system come face to face? All the time. Constantly.

“Say, for instance, if anyone had said in January that in 6 months time I would have a group of young men, some of whom have been held 10 months without trial, wearing satin capes, in leotards and tuxedos and wearing latex masks of their own creation, walking on stilts, flying in harnesses and standing in front of fireworks, people would have said no…

“I believe that people are partially what you make them. From the very beginning I worked with the participants as a band of astounding young men, like the X-Men or Neo in Matrix. Society’s mutants are on the loose but if they go to this special school, and use their talents in a special way, they actually become the saviours of the world. Neo’s code and moral honour is something that he understands and fights for.

“I look for the opposite of what we expect. In a place like prison you may find a band of holy men. Does anyone who drives along the highway realise that a 14-year-old boy is in his underwear in a holding cell for 6 hours?

“That these men survive the system and are still alive makes them heroes and that does not make me blind to their faults. In fact, residing in all heroic figures there is hubris, leading to nemesis.

“When we were having a party after the show and a young man said to me “So, what is it like to be working with criminals?” I looked around at the workers, artists and young men and said, “Oh my lord, are there criminals here?” I don’t know how I would have worked from that starting point. I like to think of them as outlaws.

“My challenge to those young men is—how can you be an outlaw and still go home at night? How can you fight for what you believe in and still go home at night?”

Wild Knights, presented by High Street Youth Health Service and Cobham Juvenile Justice Centre; directed & co-devised by Alicia Talbot with 10 young men from the Cobham Juvenile Justice Centre and erth Visual Theatre (Scott Wright, Margie Breen, Cathrine Couper, Sebastian Dickins, Phil Downing, Sharon Kerr, Adam Kealy, Adam Kronenberg, Morgan Lewis, Johnathon Krane). Co-ordinator of Programs and Staff Development Carolyn Delaney; art teacher Keira Minter; music produced by Phil Downing; lighting Neil Simpson & Clytie Smith; video Finton Mahony & Clare Britton.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 33

© Caitlin Newton-Broad; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001