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Case study

Jessica Robson

When creativity promotes social change

Jessica Robson

"For the past 5 years, I‘ve had the opportunity to work on an innovative YSJU social justice project, the York St John University Prison Partnership Project run by Rachel Conlon in the Drama and Dance department. The Project is a partnership between York St John University, HMP New Hall and HMP Askham Grange; it brings together female prisoners and students, two different communities coming together to inspire creativity and promote social change.

I started my journey as an undergraduate Theatre student on the project in my third year where I formed Through the Gap Theatre Company with four other female theatre students. We co-ran theatre and singing workshops on a weekly basis on the project in prison. This is where I began to shape what my professional theatre practice is today.

As a student, I was intrigued by this world of theatre in prisons - a new and unknown creative territory to me. I was drawn to making work with women as collaborators in prison where they were the experts of their own powerful and hard-hitting stories and we were emerging as experts in theatre-making. Together we united to form two performances, one for a mainstream theatre audience that challenged the misconceptions and stigmas surrounding women in the criminal justice system and a performance where we performed alongside the women we had worked with, where they were granted ‘release on temporary license’ to leave the prison which enabled them to perform on campus to a university audience. This moment was powerful and life-affirming, it solidified the journey I would undertake as a theatre maker and drama facilitator. The ability to enable women to be creative and make discoveries and re-imagine new identities and talents beyond prison release in a creative process together. This felt empowering for both me as a student and for the women.

Upon completing my undergraduate course, I immediately started a master’s in Applied Theatre to enable me to further my work on the York St John University Prison Partnership Project. This created many real-world, professional opportunities for me where I was able to experience on the ground workings of a prison context and work alongside world-leading creative industry professionals. Upon completing my master’s programme I was successful in being appointed to the graduate internship for the project, which led to me being employed as a practitioner.

I am now employed as a drama practitioner by the York St John University Prison Partnership Project where I run weekly drama groups in prison and in the community. Here, I share my theatre skills and learning of the criminal justice system with new YSJU students who come onto the project as part of their work placement on the degree course. It is fantastic to feel that I can now impart my learning and knowledge to other students as they embark on their degrees here at YSJU.

The journey I have undergone with the women, prison and theatre staff has been life changing and opened my mind to wider possibilities which has exceeded the initial expectations I had when I first started as a student at university. I am clear about my career moving forward, excited by the possibilities ahead and social justice will be forevermore at the heart of my theatre-making."

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