Our CEO and Artistic Director, Andy Watson, has been with Geese for 20 years and this year he was awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours for services to arts in the criminal justice system. Here, he reflects on his time at Geese, the changes in the sector and finding out about that special award:
On the 10th May 1997 my career at Geese Theatre Company began. Tony Blair’s New Labour Party had just won a landslide general election victory; Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was one of the most popular films, and R Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly was at number one in the UK charts.
I had auditioned in April, was formally offered the job on 1st May and started nine days later with a week-long trip to a holiday camp in Dorset (an actual one, not what some people might call a prison!) which had been taken over by the Prince’s Trust for a residential for 400 14 – 18 year olds.
Reflecting back on the beginning of my career at Geese I realise how important the first few months were in terms of my learning about the work and about the possibilities of using theatre in criminal justice settings. It was an incredibly steep learning curve but I was also very lucky to join a small team of people who had considerable experience in this specialist area and who were keen to share their learning to aid my own development. Many of those people still work in criminal justice and related areas, including Louise Heywood, our Director of Programmes, and I am extremely grateful to them for enabling me to develop and grow in what I consider to be the most exciting, challenging and stimulating career.
As I look at my diary from 1997 it is fascinating to note how different some of the work we were doing then was in comparison to now. I seemed to spend the vast majority of my early career at Geese co-delivering Probation-led groupwork programmes all over the country. This was in the days before accredited programmes and long before Transforming Rehabilitation, when Probation Services had the freedom to develop their own interventions according to the needs of their local populations. Geese were contracted to deliver a number of sessions in approximately 15 different counties, as far afield as Cornwall and North Yorkshire. I spent much of my time travelling up and down the M6 to the three programmes centres in Staffordshire: Hanley, Tamworth and Stafford, co-delivering on CAV (Controlling Anger and Violence), OBG (Offending Behaviour Groups), and SOG (Sex Offender Groups.) Even now, when I drive past Junction 15 of the M6 I have an automatic reflex urging me to turn off and head to Hanley! I learnt so much from Probation colleagues who I co-worked alongside: how to work with resistance; how to be responsive to the needs of the group and the individuals; how to quickly and effectively build rapport; how to question and appropriately challenge. I vividly recall a two-week Violent Offender Programme which we delivered in Essex Probation. My colleague Alun Mountford (currently a psychotherapist in HMP Grendon) had devised the programme and I can still remember a number of the participants and the impact that this intense 10-day project had on some of them.
Of course, much of this Probation work has disappeared from our portfolio now. The process of accreditation brought in a ‘national curriculum’ of programmes which were to be delivered across the UK which meant that there was no room for some of the innovative, local practice that Geese devised with probation colleagues. When Transforming Rehabilitation occurred, effectively privatising probation provision, our work in that area pretty much came to an end.
Back in 1997 we were still delivering a wealth of work in the prison sector. The first prison I visited was HMP Perth, as part of a week-long tour of our resettlement performance Lifting the Weight in Scotland. This tour took in a number of prisons, most memorably HMYOI Polmont (where I recall having real difficulty understanding the accents of some of the young Glaswegian lads we worked with!) and my first introduction to the Special Unit in HMP Peterhead, a prison within a prison which as I remember housed around 12 men who were all considered to be very high-risk. I can’t remember too much about the work we did in the Special Unit but I do remember the lunch that we had, prepared by the lads, served by the lads, and eaten with the lads.
Geese’s work is deliberately hidden. Our work in prisons, in hospitals, and with communities is not easy to share with a broader public audience and it is sometimes difficult for us to notice when our work is being recognised beyond the immediate groups we are engaging with. My shock at being notified about the MBE was absolutely genuine but I see it as a wonderful acknowledgement of the amazing work that the team at Geese have delivered over the last 30 years and a recognition of the value that theatre and the arts can play in enabling people to move forward with their lives.
Geese is turning 30 and I feel so lucky to be part of such a special organisation. Even after 20 years I still feel challenged by the work and constantly like I am learning the craft of creating effective projects in criminal justice settings. I work alongside amazing colleagues, am often humbled by participants as they contemplate the process of change, and still surprised when asked the question – but does it work? Yes it works – because our work is about people – giving people time, space, and a safe environment to contemplate their identity, their place in the world, the impact of their behaviour on themselves and others, and to rehearse potential new ways of being. And I absolutely love being a part of that.