The Epic Journey of Inmate Actors: The Hobbit by WHOS

William Head on Stage (WHOS) is a living testimonial to the transformative power of theatre. Its production of The Hobbit is able to elicit this tangible reality by addressing the universal theme of a heroic journey that compels all involved to face their demons, within and without.

The positive force of creativity is the foundation of WHOS, a theatrical company that has worked with inmates for the past 31 years to stage 51 productions.  WHOS is able to introduce the prisoners of this minimum-security institution to theatre in the hopes they will gain meaningful understanding and learn productive skills from the theatrical experience.

Kate Rubin, director of The Hobbit, recognizes that “there is a real development of sense of confidence incrementally.” She is able to see the progress made by the actors as they challenge their abilities, take risks, step outside their comfort zones, and overcome fears. Ultimately, she acknowledges this is “a fascinating process.”

On its website, WHOS  is listed as the “only theatre company of its kind in a Canadian Federal Prison that opens its doors to the pubic.” The importance of rehabilitation for these men is addressed by encouraging them to learn skills like cooperation, communication and problem solving. Rubin views the rehabilitative goal of the program as vital for providing positive feedback from people both inside and outside the institutional environment during rehearsals and performances. She is enthusiastic about the potential of this positivity and reveals that, “I have seen transformations.”

In the past, WHOS has tackled heavier works such as Macbeth and Waiting For Godot. However, with The Hobbit,,the theatre troupe is moving into lighter territory by adapting the classic children’s fantasy story. Although this tale contains childlike perspectives that clearly delineate the safe spaces in homes from the dangerous spaces outside of them, the episodic journey of Bilbo Baggins is universally applicable to all those undergoing a journey of transformation. In the playbill, Rubin says she recognizes this application by adapting the story though a modern perspective that locates the setting as “somewhere between present day and the future.”

Bilbo sets out in this uncertain future with his friends to defeat the dragon Smaug and claim the treasure of Lonely Mountain, a quest that will mark a movement in the hobbit from sheltered homebody to sophisticated traveller. The actor chosen for this role is impressively adept at demonstrating this shift and perfectly suited to the character. He moves through the journey with humorous physicality and animated emotions that are worthy of such an epic undertaking.

The actors each bring their own strengths to stage: Gandalf with his formidable presence, Gollum with his eerie movements, and Bombur with his comedic timing. These performances are complimented and enhanced by the three professional actresses that work alongside the inmates. Anne Cirillo, Monica Prendergast and Bronwyn Steinberg are able to unify the cast with the confidence and passion they bring to the stage. And although there was some display of nervousness during the opening night performance, the cast soon found a comfortable rhythm that succeeded in enthralling the audience.

The sheer scope of a story like The Hobbit by necessity entails an overwhelming amount of detail in order to do justice to J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision. The performance involves use of the entire performance space with imaginative giant puppets, imposing set design, choreographed stage fighting and a cappella singing. The brief question and answer segment with the actors after the play gave inmates the chance to reflect on the commitment to hard work that was required to give such attention to details.

And it is through this commitment to work together, to trust others, to adopt perspectives that actors and audiences are engaged in the performance.

Ultimately, this performance ends where it begins, with the prisoners in their invisible imaginary cells, passing the book across boundaries, so that each has an opportunity to share in the transformative journey of The Hobbit.

The show runs until November 10 at William Head Institution. Tickets are $20 and available through ticketrocket.org, 250-590-6291 or the My Chosen Café.

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