It was a standard grey day in Manchester when I jumped out of the taxi at Strangeways prison. Although I knew it existed, I had never actually seen the building up close. Safe to say it wasn’t quite what I anticipated. Strangeways sits in the centre of town, surrounded by society going about their everyday business. That morning we were meant to be performing on one of the wings. We were looking at The 7 Strands of Discrimination, performing scenes and following up with workshops to address these issues within the prison. We turned up and were told that no performance would happen that morning. There had been ‘a hanging’ in the prison, where one of the inmates had taken his own life. This was the first moment I processed exactly the kind of environment we were heading into.
The following week our performance was rearranged. Walking into Strangeways I wore baggy trackies, a hoodie and trainers and I was allowed only my ID. No phone. No wallet. Nothing. We went through what reminds me of airport security. Searched. Prodded. Poked. Every door is locked behind you before the one in front of you is opened. And then you walk out into the courtyard and the prison becomes a towering building of imprisonment. We are taken up to the education wing and into a small classroom which would act as our workshop space for the day.
I won’t go into the details of the workshop but I will share the story of what inspired the script, Matchsticks. Half way through the workshop we had a ten-minute break in the room. During this break, I sparked a conversation with one of the inmates. He began to tell me about how he had struggled with anger when he first entered the prison. He said he used to lash out, punch walls and destroy furniture. He said that one day a guard threw a bag of matchsticks and some glue into his cell and said, “do something with these”. He laughed as he told me the first thing he tried to make was a knife and then a gun. But he soon figured out it was pointless. He said that on the outside he had been into motorbikes so he started making a little model motorbike. He said his first one was shit, but he spent hours practicing and got better and better. After lunch, he brought back some models from his cell to show me. He brought me one of his motorbike models and a folder full of photos of his other models.
He spoke so proudly of his creations and, artistically, they were beautiful. He told me how he wasn’t allowed paint so to make them look painted, he burnt them slightly. He went on to explain how he was now setting up a shop on eBay to sell his creations and giving all the money to his daughter on the outside.
When leaving Strangeways that afternoon, I couldn’t help focus on this one inmates story. The thing that stayed with me the most was what art had done for him psychologically; and thus, his life within the prison was more fulfilling. I knew I wanted to share his story somehow. I decided to write a script inspired by his story without having to represent him directly. This is where Matchsticks was formed.
I must admit that out of all my scripts, I am most proud of Matchsticks. Not due to the writing, but due to what I think the piece has the potential to highlight. Art is such a valuable tool that is so often over-looked. The government continue to cut funding for the arts as it is deemed less important than other industries. I want those who potentially haven’t processed the value of art to know that it is important. Whether visual art, performance, music, or matchstick models; it can do a hell of a lot for a lot people if they are given access to it.