Odyssey on the Airwaves is a community radio engagement project which facilitated a performed reading of Homer’s The Odyssey in a local prison during the continuous 23-hour COVID-19 lockdown (2020-21). Anderson and Malone, facilitators and researchers at Liverpool Hope University, theorise their work using ‘affective encounters’ (after Gilles Deleuze, Rosi Braidotti and Brian Massumi) and James Thompson’s work on ‘the end of effect’. The main concern here was co-inventing a workable curriculum with prisoners while playing with the classed paradox of delivering ‘high’ culture to the incarcerated. The project was committed to retaining a sharp focus on the ethics of encounters within the power structures of the prison system. The chapter concludes by making a case for vernacular ‘affective encounters’ in applied theatre in prison settings instead of the usual reliance on the ‘praxis of judgement’ (after conservative cultural theorists such as Harold Bloom): all of which make for problematic readings of power binaries of ‘incarcerated-free’, ‘uneducated-educated’ and ‘facilitator-participant’. In Anderson and Malone’s experience, working with ‘affective encounters’ in applied prison settings presents the almost ideal conditions with which to leave our cultural judgements, literally, at the prison gate, in the hope of more affirmative, even joyous cooperation with incarcerated men. Dr Gary Anderson and Dr Niamh Malone (Liverpool Hope University) Odyssey on the Airwaves: A Journey From HMP to Hope ‘The story of a man whose grand adventure is simply to go back to his home... For this hero, mere survival is the most amazing feat of all’ (Wilson, 2018: 2) Odyssey on the Airwaves is a radio project facilitated for adult learners in a local prison in 2020-21 during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. This audio project quickly revealed that incarcerated men find Odysseus’s return journey home to Ithaca, in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey (circa 800 BCE), something that resonates powerfully with their lived and living experiences. The project was planned to be completed within six weeks, however, ironically, like the constant stream of setbacks experienced by Odysseus on his journey home, COVID-19 blew us off course and forced us to rethink and re-do. The implementation of strict lockdown restrictions (23 hours a day in cells every day) in the local HMP however, did not seem to lessen the determination from prisoners and university student volunteers, and finally we managed to make it home. Malone had already established a strong working relationship with the local prison and had run two previous applied theatre projects as part of the Forgotten Futures and the City (2018-19) programme. These projects had taken place pre-COVID-19 and we had been able to use the recording studio within the prison to work with the men on audio production. In 2018-19, the men recorded their own creative writing, including poetry, prose, spoken word and music. Due to COVID-19 Odyssey on the Airwaves required us to rethink our entire delivery strategy. Such constraints were responsible for initiating a whole new way of delivery - albeit primitive - to enable the men to record their contributions. The only approach available was for us to visit the prison, sit in an isolated office space, and phone directly into the cells of the participating men via the in-house telephone facility. The men would then read their self-selected passages of the Odyssey into the phone, while we held a Dictaphone up to the phone receiver to catch their voices. Later, the files were then downloaded from the Dictaphone and transferred onto editing software within the prison. Files from the university students were then emailed into the prison to the local educational facilitator who undertook the complex editing task of bringing all the recordings together. All these creative projects between the university and the prison, have been enabled by Novus (a social enterprise) responsible for educational provision in 52 of the 117 prisons in the UK. Odyssey on the Airwaves is now complete and ‘live’ on the radio inside the local prison. However, the project was fraught with setbacks practically and theoretically, and this essay is an account of that journey. It concludes with some theoretical suggestions from Deleuze and others for applied theatre in prisons, specifically, how affective encounters represents a useful theoretical tool for approaching cultural work with incarcerated men. Telemachy, Apologoi, Mnesterophonia.

The decision-making process of arriving at the Odyssey was surprisingly quick, but not without its problems. One of the participating men, apparently in cahoots with some of the other participants on his wing, when asked what he wanted to focus on via the in-cell telephone call, said he wanted to learn about “something proper!” We were then asked to list a series of “proper” pieces of work. Caught unawares, not quite knowing what was at stake, we started with some Shakespeare plays, a few Ancient Greek plays and some relatively well-known poetry from the Romantic period. Unimpressed he continued:

“What’s the first ever great piece of work?”
our response “What do you mean?”
“You know, what’s the first best thing ever written?”
Off guard, we replied “In the West, I suppose it would have to be Homer?”
“Homer. H-O-M-E-R. Homer.”
“Alright, fuck it. Let’s do that. Homer? Like Homer Simpson?”
“Yes. Same spelling.”

After some resistance from the other men, which we will discuss below, and together with prisoners and student volunteers, we got to talking about the structure of The Odyssey. Collectively we realised that it was structured like a good argument with three key sections: the problem, the actual struggle and the conclusion. Classical philology scholars Erwin Cook and Ruth Scodel call it the ‘Telemachy’, the ‘Apologoi’ and the ‘Mnesterophonia’ (Cook 2014, Cains and Scodel 2014). The Telemachy, named after Odysseus’ son Telemachus, offers the problem of The Odyssey from a particular point of view. Telemachus, in conversation with the goddess Athena, gives us a handle on the central issue: Odysseus has been gone for 20 years and all his rivals are about to take over his kingdom (including his wife Penelope – something which chimed strongly with the prisoners). In other words, we get a critical perspective on events from which to begin our journey as readers/listeners. Our Telemachy here is the first section of the essay, which sketches out our theoretical approach to the project. This belongs to the growing field of affect theory in applied theatre and will draw on theories of ‘affective encounters’ and ‘becomings’ after 20th century French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.

The second section focuses on the events themselves: ‘the Apologoi’. This is the first-person narrative which talks about what has happened so far. In The Odyssey, Odysseus retells his story to the Phoenicians, mapping it as he goes from the sack of Troy to his escape from Calypso. For us this translates as the literature review and the mapping of the field of applied theatre in prisons. Closely related to this is a description of the ways Odysseus tells the Phoenicians how he chose to handle the problems he faced (for example, his fight against the Cyclops, how he travelled to Hades and back, how he escaped Calypso); without pushing the metaphor too far, this is Odysseus’ methodologies section. In this part we will focus on the methods deployed with the prisoners at the local HMP, the role our student volunteers played and our part as two university teachers facilitating the project.

The final section is the Mnesterophonia. In The Odyssey this is the ‘slaughter of the suitors’ or the ‘revenge’. This is where Odysseus, using the wisdom from his journeying defeats his rivals to his kingdom, thereby concluding his story. We use this section to make claims about applied theatre in prison and the necessity for the movement away from a regime of judgement towards an openness to the ‘affective encounter’ in prison work.
Telemachy: re-unlocking the theoretical gates

Theoretically the essay draws on ‘affect theory’ of ‘encounters and becomings’ which belongs to the field of academic inquiry associated with Deleuze studies, after French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995). We draw on two seminal papers from the 1990s from two of the leading scholars in Deleuze studies: Feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti’s (1993) Discontinuous Becomings. Deleuze on the Becoming-Woman of Philosophy and philosopher and social theorist Brian Massumi’s (1996) essay Becoming Deleuzian. These texts, academically speaking, are not recent, but serve for us several purposes: first, as an accessible antidote to the more or less ubiquitous privileging of conservative politics in literary criticism (most especially in USA’s formerly leading literary critic Harold Bloom and his influential 1994 magnum opus ‘The Western Canon’). Bloom identified a group of scholars who were interested in placing the work of art or literature in its immediate socio-historical contexts, thereby politicising it, as the ‘school of resentment’. Deleuze and his followers would be thought of as ‘resenters’ in Bloom’s estimation. See, for example, the much-quoted mantra of the Bloomists from the 1990s - the following straight from the horse’s mouth:

‘We are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards […] in the name of social justice. What has been devaluated is learning as such, as though erudition were irrelevant in the realms of judgment and misjudgment.’ (Bloom 1994: 79 [our emphasis])

More importantly, because of our experiences in prison with men, who for understandable reasons might have allergic reactions to ‘high’ art/culture, we are sometimes forced to reproduce a position of exclusion from ‘high’ art for people suffering multiple deprivation. The paradox is fascinating to us and something we felt needed to be tackled. Certainly not from a position that ‘high’ art is good for you, or the suspect academic debates of the 1990s which argued for a democratisation of culture (meaning everyone should know Shakespeare, not just the privileged). Yves Evrard (1997) outlines the two positions well in his seminal essay. Maybe, for many of us, including Evrard, the Bloom arguments have already been fought and lost, but in prison it feels like the battles need to be waged and won again. There is much work to be done. Indeed, many of the men, including the mixed gender student volunteers, defaulted to a sort of Bloomist position when asked about The Odyssey. Debates from the 1990s are not necessarily up to date for contemporary academics, but they are still very much alive in applied settings. Reminding ourselves of these debates can help situate the applied practice appropriately. Debates in prisons, in the UK at least, tend to develop at a different pace to academia and ‘old’ debates are arguably more relevant than current ones. Or, perhaps more accurately, elements of old debates can prove useful when brought to light together with more recent insights – which is what we are attempting here. In other words, has Kantian Bloomism been debunked enough in applied settings? This essay contributes to a growing field of affect theory applied to lived-in settings by claiming it has not, and that there is vital work required.

Prisoners’ responses, after the decision was taken by them to focus on The Odyssey –no doubt influenced by the original suggesters on their wing - tended to reproduce positions Bloom might recognise with some sympathy: either the work was too precious to be messed about with, or the adult learners themselves were not educated enough (that is, correctly schooled in the ‘realms of judgement and misjudgement’) to appreciate properly. Here is a sample of their immediate responses to exploring the text:

“How long ago? Nearly 3000 years? That’s for snobs mate” (Prisoner#1)
“3000 years ago. You taking the piss?! That’s for knobs in uni and that. Let them do it.” (Prisoner#2)
“What? Homer. Yeah, I’ve heard of him. It was an episode on The Simpsons. That one about the wooden horse and then he ends up throwing the spear though Smithers and Mr Burns coz they fancy Marge? Is that the same story? I’ll watch the cartoon, mate. Don’t reckon I’ll be up for the proper book though […] Sounds a bit…dunno… too much” (Prisoner#3).

Typical responses were Bloomist: high art is of such aesthetic value that to apply it to the everyday, either in terms of its production or reception, would be to misrecognise it and do it a disservice. When asked about whether we could read the poem in the vernacular accent (most men involved self-identified as ‘scouse’ ), and to make it about prison life, typical responses were,
“You can’t do that with poems, can yer? You’d have to write a new play wouldn’t yer?” (Prisoner #5)
“Scouse! That would just make it sound funny mate.” (Prisoner #2)
“Will we have to put on accents?” (Prisoner #1)
After running sessions on politicising Homer’s poetry, and how it was being used to establish Athens as the dominant city in the region during the Peloponnesian wars 2500 years ago, the men were immediately more interested and responded accordingly:
“So, it’s like propaganda? Yeah, I’ll have some of that!” (Prisoner #3)
“Cheeky bastards coming across like they’re all posh, when they’re as dirty as them in charge of the country today!” (Prisoner #4)
“Yeah, I’ll have a look at the original if you want. Is it hard though? Is there loads of funny words?” (Prisoner #1)

The student volunteers, from the university, seemed more difficult to convince, flagging up reasons of “respecting the cultures of the ancient world,” “great names” such as Homer, the Greeks et cetera, and “We have been taught to respect them, not really question them.” Pure Bloomism! Odyssey on the Airwaves is an applied theatre project which seeks to challenge the conservative cultures of the ‘Western canon’. In this way it keeps company with many similar initiatives which may be more reliant on more conservative understandings of cultural work (or the ‘praxis of judegment’ - see below) most notably the laudable but problematic Shakespeare Behind Bars. In other words, an effective counter to Bloom and the politically conservative approach to the arts is affect theory. Furthermore, to reference theoretical debates from the 1990s is to refresh our memories of the radical intentions of affect theory, before ‘the affective turn’ in social theory in the noughties. It is also to strengthen James Thompson’s insights in applied theatre around the ‘end of effect’ and the foregrounding of affect (Thompson, 2011, 2014, 2017). From the 1990s affect theory in anglophone contexts has developed, and with it an exponential increase in discourse. Patricia Clough’s The Affective Turn (2007) and Linda Zerilli The Turn to Affect and the Problem of Judgment (2015) are two excellent examples. But as the field develops and proliferates and produces new insights, arguably some of the radical intentions have been left behind. Neuroscience has developed apace with affect theory, but the Deleuzian thinkers Braidotti and Massumi, have maintained affect theory’s intellectual resistance to hierarchy and judgement – as set out in their work from the 1990s. The sites of applied theatre (for example, hospitals, care homes and prisons), not unsurprisingly, have had less chance to engage in debates around affect theory, and in our recent experience prisoners have unwittingly tended to default into Bloomism when asked explicit questions about high art/culture. Bloom’s shadow on cultural work, including on our undergraduate student cohort, is long, dark and difficult to escape from. We did not go into the prison thinking this, we learnt it from the men on the wings.

We found Deleuze, Braidotti and Massumi’s relevance refreshed and directly applicable to the prison work we undertook. In many ways it saved the project from folding. It became essential for us to keep ‘the realms of judgement and misjudgement’ at bay in our own work and to approach the difficult world of incarcerated spaces ‘ethologically’ , rather than phallogocentrically; non-judgementally rather than judgementally. Theory really mattered to us, more than we had anticipated.

Crucial to the ‘affective turn’ is the concept of ‘the encounter,’ originally a Spinozist term referenced by Deleuze in his lecture series of 1980-1, and picked up by Braidotti and Massumi later on. Deleuze states,

‘Spinoza, in the Ethics, uses the Latin term: occursus; occursus is exactly […] the encounter. I encounter bodies; my body never stops encountering bodies. Well then, the bodies that it encounters, sometimes have relations which compose, sometimes have relations which don't compose with it’. (Deleuze, n.d.)
For us this is a good definition of the radical basis of the ‘affective turn’, and one which we, as practitioners took up in this project. Encounters do not prioritise judgement, in fact a strict Deleuzean-Spinozism would conclude that encounters model experience differently from the Kantian ethos of ‘disinterested judgements’ (of which Bloom is an obvious disciple) and instead make judgement suspect. The ‘praxis of judgement’ is based on Platonic and Kantian systems of understanding – where there is a perfect example of something – the recognition of which constitutes a perfect ‘judgement’. This judgement structures experience hierarchically thereby necessitating the structural privileging of one thing over another in order to make sense of the world and reaffirm its moral order. Ontologically, Spinoza, then Deleuze, turn that structure on its head and proffer a single, infinite substance responsible for all modes and manners of being. Spinoza calls this God or Nature, Deleuze calls it radical immanence. The impact of this theory is shocking: nothing is by nature better or worse than anything else. Things in the world are not there to be judged, but to be encountered. Your subjectivity (your unfinishable identity) either agrees or disagrees with the encounter. In other words, if it suits you, continue. If it does not suit you, move onto something else. There’s a radical liberation in that. Massumi’s seminal preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus called ‘The Pleasures of Philosophy’ ends:

‘The question is not: is it true? But: does it work? What new thoughts does it make possible to think? What new emotions does it make possible to feel? What new sensations and perceptions does it open in the body?’. (Massumi, 2003: xv)

Deleuzian thought is useful in prison settings particularly in arts’ processes. James Thompson writes, ‘Deleuze, and in particular his disciple Massumi, allow us to consider the encounter in the arts process as the key terrain from which to consider its power – and its radical potential’ (Thompson, 2011: 125). The radical potential of becomings and in Thompson’s argument ‘affect’ is the possibility of not just undertaking, but actively living a non-judgemental approach.

If we take Massumi and Thompson seriously then the moral orders are in a state of disintegration, but what about the people incarcerated? How can we approach prisoners non-judgementally? Braidotti puts the definition of becomings succinctly:

‘The body is not an essence, let alone a biological substance: it is a play of forces, a surface of intensities - pure simulacra without originals’. (Braidotti 1993: 44)

Here, Braidotti disavows that identity can be understood in terms of production, or of the dynamics of opposition, which is, as she goes on to note, a non-Hegelian way to theorise the self. Instead, identities or more precisely subjectivities, can be more affirmatively understood as unfinished and in-transit. In other words, identities are the various becomings of our subjectivities. This is relevant to the project Odyssey on the Airwaves because without it we as prison educators, risk falling into the trap of ‘the praxis of judgement’. This helped us overcome our negative assumptions about incarcerated spaces and those who inhabit them, as well as providing a base upon which we could build a post-Bloomist educational space.

Yet another reason for relying on Deleuzian theory is that it is so effective in undermining unhelpful binaries, some of which feel very active in prison settings. For example, ‘criminal/law-abiding citizen’, ‘malevolent/benevolent intentions’, ‘bad person/good person’. These binaries felt heavy for us upon entering prison and meeting people. Add to that the affective power of the site, in this case a purpose-built, Victorian prison housing more than one thousand prisoners and prison employees. These heavy binaries have an effect on what it is possible to think and feel whilst engaged in prison work. In our experience, unhelpful binaries in education such as ‘educated/uneducated’, ‘expert/novice’, ‘canonical/vernacular knowledge’ tend to be intensified in prison settings, but ‘freedom/non-freedom’ is perhaps the most misleading binary we have encountered. Massumi writes,

‘Deleuzian freedom is immanence to a collective creative process necessarily connecting individuals’ belongings and unbearabilities to the singularity of their becomings (ethics, ontology, politics, and aesthetics rolled up into one). Deleuzianism is a monist philosophy of the collective expression of singularity.’ (Massumi, 1995: 405)

In other words, what we ended up responding to, were the incredibly intense encounters with site and prisoners, removed from the moral order which tends to reproduce oppression and stymie freedoms. Massumi’s ‘collective expression of singularity’ will be different for all participants, but for us, perhaps most surprisingly, we encountered (and hopefully overcame) our own prejudices and our uncritical reproduction of false binaries. We ended up not entering the prison to teach undereducated prisoners about antiquity, but rather to encounter the dynamic loss of our own unbearabilities – or the struggle we had with abandoning our own apparatus of judgement-making. There’s no room in this process for Bloom’s authority. Nor is there room in Braidotti’s notion of subjectivity, ‘The embodied subject is a term in a process of intersecting forces (affects), that is, spatio temporal variables that are characterised by their mobility, changeability and transitory nature’ (Braidotti 1993: 45). For us Massumi and Braidotti’s work from the 1990s with its radical edge, became increasingly central to the way we saw the project evolving.

Aylwyn Walsh (2014), using Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1977), identifies the false binary of ‘containment/freedom’ in her essay which maps the prison as a site and a field of performance, ‘I suggest that it is also possible, through examining everyday performances and the habitus of incarcerated populations, to witness the subjective agency of prisoners as manifesting prisons as sites of openness and possibility, and not merely as sites of containment’ (2014: 42). Arguably not much has changed in the prison system since the publication of Discipline and Punish in English in 1977 except the exponential increase in number of inmates, ‘The prison population of England & Wales quadrupled in size between 1900 and 2018, with around half of this increase taking place since 1990’ (Sturge, 2020: 3). Most sources cite an increase of around 400% across UK prisons from the end of the 19th century. With this, according to Walsh and Foucault, is an intensification of population control both inside and outside prison settings, across public institutions and into the private sphere. Governmentality is a form of control via the uneven power relations present in any, and every, given situation. This is keenly felt in prison settings according to Walsh, thereby necessitating the site of prison as a performance category in and of itself.

In conclusion to the Telemachy, we wish to make a case for a vernacular, localised empowerment which foregrounds the prison as a site of encounters between bodies according to the subjectivities who use the space on a daily basis. In other words, deploying Deleuze (via Braidotti and Massumi) is preferable to deploying a Kantian Bloomism which prioritises ‘the realms of judgement and misjudgement.’ This builds on the work of Thompson (2011), McAvinchey (2020) and Walsh (2019) in particular, so that this project foregrounds the vernacular, in order to potentially enable incarcerated men to make decisions about their own learning processes and what is of value to them, not us. Although, in the end, we would have to admit that the empowerment of prisoners is more of a hope than an actuality with projects such as our own, but we can speak for ourselves as facilitators and the usefulness of the theoretical approaches we took to making this project possible in the first place.

Apologoi – The Odyssey as High Art, Rehabilitation, Prison Radio

The prisoners chose to study and perform The Odyssey after a short series of conversations, most of which rejected any ‘high’ art out of hand, as mentioned earlier. The fact that many of them had seen it as an episode of The Simpsons was a key factor in its selection, but it all happened fairly quickly and without the sort of build-in time we would have hoped for (discussions, for and against arguments, “why this and not that?”) and before we knew it, about two project days in, the men had come to a decision – they wanted something proper and they decided that Homer’s Odyssey was “proper enough!” We had raised money to buy books and equipment by walking Hadrian’s Wall in the summer of 2019, so used what was left to buy the most up to date – and arguably easiest to read – version of The Odyssey. This was by classics scholar Emily Wilson (2018) who is the first female translator of Homer’s The Odyssey.

The Odyssey is recognised as belonging to the canon of literature in the cultures of the global north (see Bloom, 1994). Its sister work, The Iliad, by the same author, recounts the trials and tribulations of the ten-year Trojan war – believed to have taken place in the late Bronze Age 1500BCE in what is now Canakkale on the Gelibolu (Gallipoli) peninsula, western Turkey. The Odyssey narrates the return journey of Odysseus after the sack of the town and belongs to the oral tradition – sung or recited out loud for others to hear. These canonised texts, while their origins lie in the every-day vernacular, ‘and from Greek dialects associated with different regions’ (Wilson, 2018:11), have been institutionalised by educational establishments over the centuries. This has resulted in their repositioning as ‘high’ art and the property of those more formally educated who are, perhaps predictably, privileged enough to see it as apolitical. As Bloom memorably claimed: ‘Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless’ (Bloom, 1994: 36).

For the contemporary reader, the archaic language and elevated register, reaffirms the effect of estrangement for readers unexposed to Bloom-like privilege, complicated by the additional element of translation. According to Wilson (2018: 2), ‘The style is, from a modern perspective, strange: it is full of repetitions, redundancies, and formulaic expressions.’ However, Wilson has an eye for the contemporary vernacular, which was preferable to other more archaic-sounding translations such as Shewring’s 1980 Oxford University Press or Riue’s 1946 Penguin Classics editions, both still in print and popular: ‘My Homer does not speak in your grandparents’ English, since that language is no closer to the wine-dark sea than your own. I have tried to keep to a register that is recognizably speakable and readable, while skirting between the Charybdis of artifice and the Scylla of slang’ (Wilson: 2018: 191).

A significant proportion of the prison population in the UK have a lower-than-average level of educational attainment. According to Coates ‘42% of adult prisoners report having been permanently excluded from school’ (2016: 3). Therefore, acknowledging the immediate discrepancy in education levels between adult learners in the prison and students registered on a BA (hons) at university, the decision to collaborate on such a text poses particular questions about our intentions and our approach. This section will now consider how a project of this nature, not only contributes to the growing number of artistic practices that are being implemented in prisons across the UK, as part of the field of arts intervention in rehabilitation programmes, but also how the mechanisms of pedagogical practices can be used to provide an opportunity for a modest sense of liberation for both the facilitator (pedagogue) and the participant.

The first state-built penitentiary was in Millbank, London in 1816. A brutal journey through two centuries of severe physical and psychological punishment, the recognition of prisoners benefitting from rehabilitation efforts was slow to be trusted, with some eventual acknowledgment in the mid to late 20th century (Foucault 1977). The 1980 and 1990s saw the official establishment of theatre companies such as Clean Break Theatre Company (est. 1979) by Jackie Holborough and Jenny Hill; Geese Theatre Company (est. 1987) by Clark Baim and John Bergman; and Theatre in Prisons and Probation (TiPP est. 1991) by James Thompson and Paul Heritage. Developments have also flourished with the establishment of more theatre companies who dedicate themselves to the use of arts within prisons and other rehabilitation centres, such as Synergy Theatre Company and Fallen Angels Dance Company, who continue to develop the work pioneered at the end of the 20th century. The Odyssey on the Airwaves project is an attempt to build on the work of those who have gone before us, and to expand the portfolio of work that is currently being implemented in the UK. Withdrawing from the ‘praxis of judgement’ to a more affirmative methodology of ‘the affective encounter’ has proved crucial for us as facilitators.
Applied theatre history in general (Prentki and Preston, 2009) and arts programmes in prisons in particular (Walsh 2019, McAvinchey 2020) testify to the long and trying journey arts intervention projects have had to travel, often against a raging sea of challenges and limitations. The neoliberal frame from which prisons are currently operating, characterised by contracting out essential services, requires the arts to produce work which is ‘value for money’. Leaving this to one side, there continues to be an appetite for participating in the arts when incarcerated. In other words, what justifies a continuation of the arts in prison settings is a clear understanding of their soft benefits, no matter how difficult they may be to quantify. According to Shailor,

‘Artistic expression introduces introspection and self-awareness that impacts the performer, writer, creative artists directly, and audience indirectly. Without realizing it, the inmate begins to examine their life, learn about themselves, recognize themes, and begin to heal deep personal wounds.’ (2011: 14)

We would argue that this applies, perhaps even more readily, to the facilitators. This observation from Shailor recognises a sense of freedom that is granted to prisoners that participate in artistic programmes, which in turn often releases, or indeed uncovers creativity, leading to self-discovery and self-expression. Such an unearthing can then help nurture a sense of personal agency and an ability to look to the future more positively. Shailor (2011: 8) expands this notion by seeing such work as ‘revolutionary’ which has ‘the potential not only to change inmate lives, but also to humanize the culture of corrections.’ The applied theatre approach in prisons, according to Walsh (2019: 10) ‘positions the work as ‘doing’ something, claiming transformation by examining behaviours ‘before’ and ‘after’, as well as describing the processes of creative participation ‘during’ workshops and rehearsals.’ Thompson however is quick to remind us that applied theatre limits itself ‘if it concentrates solely on effects – identifiable social outcomes, messages or impacts – and forgets the radical potential of the freedom to enjoy beautiful radiant things’ (2011: 6, author’s own emphasis). Perhaps it is for this very reason that the adult learners in the prison decided to work on the epic poem The Odyssey, resonating all the more with Thompson’s observation, that the value for them was not about transforming their behaviour or attitude, but it was about the joy of working on a collective project. The issues we encountered initially were the Bloomist views most prisoners had internalised about what beauty or joy was and who had access to it. The noun ‘beauty’ extends in a practical sense here too, where the project could continue, albeit in an altered state, despite the restrictions of COVID-19, not forgetting that the men have to spend 23 hours a day in their prison cells. The prisoners desired to explore this classic text, with all nine participants having heard of it, but none having engaged with the actual text at any level prior to this project. Their enthusiasm about exploring this story was due, in part, to their familiarity with the numerous reference points circulating in popular culture, and they now valued the opportunity to read and perform a passage from the poem, as part of a collective, for the in-house prison radio.

Likewise, for the student volunteers, all studying drama and theatre studies at BA level, when approached to participate in this project, had heard of The Odyssey, but had never read the text, or performed it. As mentioned earlier, prisoners were only contactable via a phone call into their cells with no visual communication. Student volunteers were communicating from their own homes via Zoom. Both sets of learners decided to read the whole book through, then select one of 24 chapters to read extracts either in one sitting, or, as in the case of the prison, on a weekly basis. Luckily all the student volunteers had access to voice recording technology, and delighted in recording it themselves, and emailing it to us. The setting in the prison was more complex, with both facilitators on site, inside the prison every Friday to call the cell telephone number, discuss the material selected and then record the voice through a dictaphone held up to the earpiece. There was no communication between prisoner and student, except that both parties knew of the others’ engagement in the project. The task then was to get the full 24 books of The Odyssey recorded, with varying degrees of quality, and bring the recordings together to create a radio version of The Odyssey to be played as part of the prison’s in-house radio programming.

It has been important for us to remember Thompson’s (1998) questions in his seminal work Prison Theatre: Perspectives and Practices around the intentions of arts programmes in prison settings. One relevant question for us was ‘Does [theatre] provide the means to transform a person’s life or does it transform the whole community?’ (10). The Odyssey on the Airwaves project is a modest attempt to answer this question practically: an arts project which seems to function well at the level of the individual in the prison and the student in the university, while deliberately blurring the boundaries between students who are incarcerated, and those who are not, thus interrogating what constitutes an academic community. Presenting such a binary between the adult learners in the prison and those students in the university, prompts caution on behalf of us as researchers, not to, albeit unintentionally, reaffirm already problematic established power binaries between those who are incarcerated, and those who are ‘free’. Such a false binary is also in danger of endorsing an unjust distinction between those who wield cultural capital (in this instance, university students for the most part) and those who do not (adult learners in the prison). If we apply Bourdieu’s (1979/2010) lasting theory about the social advantages to those of us who have a certain level of cultural capital – that, inevitably often reflects social class – and those who have a much lower level, then the employment of a classical text, such as The Odyssey, would suggest favouring the university students over the prisoners. Such a position is strengthened further by Rachel Dobbs’ (2019) statement where she reports that out of the ‘82,000 inmates, just 100 were studying at A5-Level or above in 2018.’ Despite such a glaring discrepancy, we found the opposite: that the adult learners in the prison, with none of the participants having third level education, embraced the opportunity, doing extra work by engaging in background research to support their reading/performance. Most of the prisoners had spent a considerable amount of time rehearsing their sections and were ready and relatively confident for their recording. The university students, while producing some good work, saw it more as part of their course of study (even though their participation was voluntary), and the discussion generated exploring the text and its historical relevance and contemporary status, was second to the enthusiasm that the prisoners demonstrated. Such a welcome response from the majority of the adult learners in the prison, does not testify however to some unflawed model of applied practice. It does keep us as researchers focused on what the actual intention of this project is and whether or not we have met it?

Thompson again is right to caution that working with a particular minority group ‘has a politics that needs to be questioned, but it is, not by some default process, one that is inevitably critical, or one that can claim an automatic contribution to social change’ (2011: 5). As observed earlier, the majority of applied theatre projects are understandably fixated on demonstrating an element of ‘social change’ however modest that may be, for this project our intention became clear towards the end: encounter bodies affirmatively and co-produce moments of mutually realised joy (in the Spinozist sense) despite the haunting of the praxis of judgement from all sides, including (perhaps even especially) the site. And further, is it possible, because of the site, to produce moments of joy? For the facilitators, yes. For the prisoners, we think so and we have evidence for that in terms of what they told us. Methodologically speaking though, we will never really know what the participants underwent or continue to as they listen to themselves on the in-house radio. Testimony is probably always unstable, produced under conditions which shape it, and then reproduced in contexts which determine it. We can only speak for ourselves as authors of this essay: for us it was revolutionary. We managed, on occasion, to Have Done With the Judgement of God, to cite Antonin Artaud’s final piece of work, which happens to have been a radio play.

While offenders’ access to radio depends on a number of factors, and varies from prison to prison in the UK, on the whole, it is one of the more accessible means of communication and is available to much of the prison population. 1994 proved to be a pivotal year in elevating the role of radio in the prison setting, with the establishment of Prison Radio Association (PRA). It was the brainchild of two local residents of HMP YOI Feltham, who recognised the need for a form of intervention for offenders when they are at their most vulnerable, especially at night, where suicidal thoughts and self-harming often occur. In 2006, Prison Radio Association gained charitable status, and was now in a position to offer their expertise and guidance to prisons across the UK on setting up their own radio projects. Their radio channel is now available in 100 prisons across England and Wales, with 76% of the prison population having listened to/or listen to National Prison Radio.
Radio as a medium, offers an invitation to explore an assortment of content, with the form accommodating a variety of styles from interviews to scripted plays. It can also protect identities, which can be an issue for some of the prisoners, while educating the learners on both production and presentation skills. As the radio is only aired within the prison walls, this means it is advert-free, unlike mainstream radio in the UK, but crucially has control and understanding of the demographic of the listening audience. The role of radio seems to be two-fold. If we reflect on the origins of PRA, with its initial therapeutic and interventionist impetus, we can also recognise radio as an effective learning resource. Charlotte Bedford (2016) is an avid believer in the power of radio as an educational tool, especially with a prison population where levels of educational attainment are well below average. She states, ‘Radio has been shown to be an effective and innovative method for both disseminating information and engaging people back into education, particularly those with previously negative experiences of schooling’ (2016: 129). Bedford’s observation is relevant for us, where part of our overall aim for the prisoners was to demystify third level education and present it as a real opportunity for the adult learners on their release from prison.

In our local HMP, an internal radio system is available to the vast majority of prisoners, exceptions notwithstanding. Novus, (the education providers that enabled access for us to the adult learners on site), at the time of writing, had just installed all-new software to make the radio system more efficient. The Novus employee in charge of the recording studio produces 24 hours of content per week. He works with, and trains up, many of the prisoners, where they work collaboratively to decide on form and content. Odyssey on the Airwaves has been a welcomed contribution to their programming and has extended their remit to include ‘the classics’ – something we see as double-edged sword, but could, in a post-Bloomist way be very useful. As researchers, we have found Radio, as a creative medium, to be particularly well placed when working within the constraints of the prison system. This was particularly true during the COVID-19 lockdown, and the retaining of men in their cells for 23 hours a day. They could work in a solo capacity on their research, practice and perform The Odyssey, with their labour contributing to a collective group project. We think, and hope, that our project Odyssey on the Airwaves, combined both the educational (as noted by Bedford) and the therapeutic (as emphasised by PRA) for all our participants – but again, we cannot claim this with authority. The best we can say is that we think it was better than nothing. For us as facilitators, it was much more. Thompson suggests that all applied theatre projects ‘reveal certain aesthetic and political choices that need to be considered’ (2011: 5). Our approach, no doubt dripping with educated privilege, is Deleuzian in that the aesthetics and the politics are part and parcel of the encounter. No claim is made for the project except on behalf of the facilitators who have benefitted enormously. It is our view that the praxis of judgement haunts prison work, perhaps more immanently than other areas of applied theatre work, and like Thompson warns, great care must be taken in assumptions, conscious or otherwise, brought into the prison.

Mnesterophonia: “Slaughter of the Suitors”

At the end of The Odyssey, Athena tells Odysseus just before his final victory over his enemies, as he doubts himself, ‘Odysseus, you are adaptable; you always find solutions.’ (Wilson 2018: 946). We found adaptability the single most important requirement for working in prison - adapting Bloomism to Deleuzeanism, classrooms full of adult learners to one-on-one telephone conversations, and a relatively well-functioning society to COVID-19 lockdowns. Although negativised by many, it is Odysseus’ cunning (or theoretical methodology) that wins him his kingdom back in the end, and he does it by being adaptable. Wilson observes that ‘The Odyssey puts us into a world that is a peculiar mixture of the strange and the familiar. The tension between strangeness and familiarity is in fact the poem’s central subject’ (2018: 5). For us, the project, and the unexpected adaptations to the changing environments, was both strange and familiar. Strange as we were forever reminding ourselves to think of it as ‘affective encounters’ and ‘becomings’; familiar as we involuntarily deployed the praxis of judgement on both ‘high’ art and the prisoners/student volunteers. Despite being conscious of the pitfalls, we inevitably fell into them again and again. That too, was familiar. The familiarity of driving up to the local prison every Friday morning, parking outside the long high brick wall rounded at the top with concrete and black grease, walking in through the reception doors, providing proof of identity, restating the purpose of the visit, going through the double-check on who we were meeting, sitting on the waiting couch, then being escorted through 13 doors (each of them locked after us) and reaching the no-windowed room with the internal phone system and the polystyrene low ceiling, being handed a box with the excel spreadsheets of the long phone numbers and codes to the different wings in tiny print, and the old prison-owned dictaphone that looked like it had seen spy action in the Cold War. It became almost impossible to feel affirmative, in the Deleuzean sense. Our instincts were forever convincing us to leave and stay away. A real mixture for us of the strange and the familiar.

In this context, our powers of action were diminished to such a point, we thought we would end up being a negative influence on the prisoners. Then the phone conversations started, and with them joy. Pure joy at what the men said, how they read, what they’d been thinking about that week, how they had ordered a philosophy book from the prison library that we had put there at the beginning of the project “because of that conversation we had the other week,” (prisoner#3) how they were thinking about applying to university when they got out (some imminently, others in years to come). The way the men sang or stumbled through the text, polluted with phone crackle, their raised voices, the different ways in which they held their in-cell telephones, the distances they kept between mouth and phone receiver – no standard form, no basic level, no uniformity. The delivery of the Odyssey down the phone line to an immediate audience of two (Malone holding the Dictaphone to the receiver, Anderson listening in as best he could) was a revelatory sonic experience. The interruptions from prison staff warning the reader to get back to the laundry or the regular jangling of keys or sliding of barred doors, the coughing of the prison officers who arrived in the ‘phone room’ to get the days’ newspapers from the staff on the computers, to squeaks on the floor of the wing, laughter from somewhere else on the corridor all form the background soundtrack to the work. Is this in keeping with the traditions of the oral forms of delivery – the messiness, the unpredictable, the haptic? On reflection we found the experience richer than if we had the ‘perfect’ sound recording studio conditions from which to record and broadcast. If the prison is a performative site in and of itself which is better suited to the affective encounter than the moral judgement, then it makes sense to have it play a role in the project. The telling of this tale, ancient in origin, might now send a gentle echo to its communal beginnings via the Dictaphone recordings of unplanned for sounds as opposed to our modernised and arguably sanitised insistence on ‘clean sound’. For us, this gave the project a particular kind of added energy, something which helped convince us to be more receptive to the affective encounters available. The soundtracks remain the private property of the men and the prison radio system – to hear it, you would have to be locked up in the local prison.

As Neal (2011) puts it, ‘You must not enter with an attitude of showering enlightenment but must be hyper-vigilant to your desire to share […] your work as an artist with others. Most importantly listen and learn’ (Neal cited in Shailor, 2011: 10). Or, to repeat Thompson, ‘Working in a particular site or community does not inevitably lead to an attention to social justice.’ (2011: 5). In our case, the opposite (the Bloomist approach) runs the risk of being true. The theoretical move away from the praxis of judgement – everywhere a temptation – was what kept the project alive. Or, understanding the prison visits and their consequences as affective encounters, the result of which was the experience of ‘joy’ (an increase in our powers of action) or ‘sadness’ (a decrease in our powers of action), was what we ended up being convinced about. For the men on the inside, we can’t say for certain whether they felt an increase or decrease in their powers of action. That is for them to say in a context of their choosing, and not one to which we apply a box ticking agenda.

The radio (being the site of choice for Artaud in 1947), is also the site (or the excuse) for our momentary, affective liberation from unhelpful binaries and unhelpful theory. It is the site where our own praxis of judgement collapses and we go back ‘outside’ a little bemused, perplexed, but elated if regretful that we have to work at university, in comparison, a site dripping with privilege and without the opportunities for joy prison affords us. Theoretically speaking, prisons, at the moment, suit us better than universities because they help us understand that the praxis of judgement is a very limited form of encountering life. Like Foucault (1977) observed about governmentality being everywhere - just most apparently in the prison system. In a sort of inverse trajectory, the prison for us, becomes a site of opportunity to move beyond judgement and, if only for fleeting moments, be free of it. That leaves us with the awkward and troubling fact that probably the only people who would rather be there than anywhere else on Friday mornings, is us.


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1 For security and clearance reasons, this essay will refer to ‘the local prison’.

2 Our thanks to Novus for endless support in facilitating our project; our student volunteers for getting their teeth stuck into the project, but most of all for the incarcerated men who participated in the process with wisdom and patience.

3 Working with Novus since 2018, our courses have been co-designed by the prisoners based on conversations around what particular people would like to learn. The usual hook for us is ‘Who wants to do a course on Philosophy and Performance?’ that way we tend to get interest from those interested in philosophy and drama. From there it evolves into whatever the prisoners determine in terms of the shape of the course, how long it runs, and who will and will not be covered in terms of thinkers, artists and theorists. This is only possible with support and understanding from the Novus team who facilitate everything.

4 See an enlightening essay on the ‘School of Resentment’ by Schneidau 1995.

5 Homer’s Odyssey (Dir. Wes Archer, season 1, episode 3. 1990). See also, Wolodarsky, Wallace (2001). The Simpsons season 1 DVD commentary for the episode "Homer's Odyssey" (DVD). 20th Century Fox.

6 ‘Scouse’ is the identity label for somebody who is Liverpool-based. Many of the men in the local prison fall into this category and would self-identify as such.

7 See Josho Bouwers’ online lecture ‘Greek Warfare and Homer’, Wolfson College, Cambridge, 2021. Available here: https://vimeo.com/442296261

8 See a very useful video? on this project also entitled Shakespeare Behind Bars (Dir. Hank Rogerson, 2005).

9 See Linda Zerilli’s excellent positioning essay ‘The Turn to Affect and the Problem of Judgment’ Which also contains a very useful literature review ‘the affective turn’: https://web.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/microsites/academic-fellows/images/zerilli_nlh_published.pdf

10 Barrett L. F., Russell J. A (eds) (2015) The Psychological Construction of Emotion, (New York, NY: Guilford Publications)

11 Deleuze in his Spinoza lectures at Vincenne is the early 1980s talks about how Spinoza would prefer a ‘list of abilities’ to describe a human being, rather than a ‘moral compass’. Deleuze was often looking for ways in which an ‘ethics’ approach would be preferable to a ‘moral’ approach. Deleuze calls this an ‘Ethology’ or an ‘Ethics’. See Deleuze (nd) https://deleuze.cla.purdue.edu/seminars/spinoza-velocities-thought/

12 ‘Ethologically’ means we look at what is possible in any given situation, what each person/place/things’ power of action might be. Phallogocentrically would be to impose a master discourse on the events, from a position of authority – judgement being a central tool in this operation

13 A very welcome resource for Deleuze scholars and enthusiasts is now live online at Purdue University, Indiana, USA under the title of The Deleuze Seminars, which includes an archive, translated into English, of many of Deleuze’s lectures/seminars from the 1970s and 1980s. https://deleuze.cla.purdue.edu/. All websites last accessed 30 March 2021 unless otherwise stated. This includes a seminar series devoted to Spinoza called ‘The Velocities of Thought’. See Deleuze (n.d.) https://deleuze.cla.purdue.edu/seminars/spinoza-velocities-thought/

14 Driving to the prison and back every Friday morning we ended up calling all the Bloom, Kant and Plato moral orders, which chimed well with the prison set up, the ‘praxis of judgement’. In this sense the war was fought against the praxis of judgement.

15 See Deleuze’s 1998 essay ‘To Have Done With Judgement’, but also much of his work has focused on ‘the plane of immanence’ – a sort of non-hierarchical conceptual space which equips a thinker with ways to undo moral orders, specifically those of German Philosopher Immanuel Kant.

16 See Anderson and Malone’s walk https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/booksforprisoners

17 The recording is not available to the public. This is due to internal identity protection procedures, but also because every participant agreed that was how they wanted it. “Inside for the insiders” was a phrase commonly repeated during conversations.

18 See Deleuze (1997) on Artaud’s radio play ‘To Have Done with Judgement’ in Deleuze (1998) Essays Critical and Clinical, Essays Critical and Clinical, Verso: London p.126-35.

19 See https://prison.radio/about/

20 See National Prison Radio(nd): https://prison.radio/who-listens-to-national-prison-radio-and-why-the-numbers-are-in/

21 To that effect and in conversation with the men remaining in custody we are planning a scouse reading of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and a performance of Antonin Artaud’s 1947 radio play To Have Done With The Judgement Of God. Equipped with Deleuze’s essay To Have Done With Judgement, it is something we as facilitators are eager to develop further. This will come under the support of the Live Art Development Agency and the Study Room in Exile project. A dedicated study space will be provided by the Study Room in Exile through Novus and the prison library in collaboration with Liverpool Hope University, under the general title ‘HMP to Hope’ – a project run by us to encourage prisoners to take up university study upon release. To this end and under the general title ‘HMP to Hope’, we have run a level 3 (A level equivalent) course in Performance and Philosophy since 2018.