British Columbia

William Head Institution on Vancouver Island has Canada's only prison theatre program

William Head Institution on Vancouver Island produces plays that the public can watch. Audience members may be electronically scanned and searched by a dog before they can get into the federal prison to see these often sold-out shows

Latest play was written by the inmates themselves

Inmates and actors in a performance of Time Waits for No One at the William Head Institution. (Jan Hamidi)

For over 30 years the William Head Institution on Vancouver Island has been home to Canada's only inmate-run theatre company — and the script for their latest production opening Friday, Oct. 9 was written by the prisoners themselves.

The William Head on Stage (WHOS) company will be performing HERE: A Captive Odyssey at the minimum-security facility on several evenings in October and November.


The idea for HERE: A Captive Odyssey came from the inmates, who'd previously been given a presentation by author Peter Johnson, who wrote a book about William Head's history as a quarantine station. 

Kate Rubin, a Victoria artist who has been working on and off with WHOS for over a decade, said the inmates have increasingly been writing their own scripts.

The production last year was based on stories written by 20 inmates.

"The powerful thing about when you write stuff — even though it's a lot more work than just taking a script — is that it is their voice, and that they do own it more," said Rubin, who is directing and coordinating the show.

Prisoners use creative skills

This year's production tells the story of two inmates, serving the final years of their sentences, who find a device that allows them to time travel and explore the history of the prison — from its beginnings as a First Nations village and Scottish sheep farmer homestead, to its history as a provincial and then federal prison.

Kate Rubin poses by an arbutus tree on the prison grounds. The arbutus tree is an important symbol in the play. (Supplied)

Rubin, who runs the Kate Rubin Drama & Theatre Studio in Victoria, is just one of several members of the local arts community who have supported the inmates with tasks like directing, writing and stage managing.

"There's guys that can dance, there's guys that can write, there's guys that are really into lighting design, and so they're involved in that creative process," she said.

"I think for us outside artists, that's one of the parts of the passion — is how can we give our skills so that they're feeling more empowered with all of those skills."

Nineteen inmates are acting in the play, along with four female actors from Victoria, and a support crew.

William Head Institution allows the public to come to the prison to see the performances, which isn't always the case with prison theatre programs in other parts of the world, such as the United States and United Kingdom.

Those who attend the show at the prison on Metchosin Road have to leave their wallets and phones behind, and may be electronically scanned and sniffed by a dog before entering the federal prison compound.

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Prison theatre program at William Head is only inmate-run theatre company in Canada

With files from Amanda Farrell-Low


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