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Esther Baker On ... Jesus & Working with Ex-Prisoners

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Esther Baker is the director of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, which opens this week at Trafalgar Studios 2 (7 April 2010, previews from 6 April).

Presented by Synergy Theatre Project and performed by a company of professional and ex-prisoner actors, Stephen Adly Guirgis' play is set on death row in the Rikers Island prison in New York.

Esther Baker: Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train has been dubbed ‘the theatrical equivalent of the pin-down technique’, which seems about right.

It's a harrowing and visceral prison drama set on death row in the notorious Rikers Island prison in New York. The story centres on the relationship between Lucius Jenkins, a born again serial killer, who is counting the days until his death sentence is exacted, and Angel Cruz, on trial for shooting the leader of a cult that brainwashed his best friend. Locked up together, they argue with ferocious passion about faith, morality, their demons and the brutality of the criminal justice system.

The production I'm directing at Trafalgar Studios has a very real and exciting edge to it and is very relevant to the cast, who have all had experience with the criminal justice system in one way or another.

My company Synergy Theatre Project has worked with prisoners and ex-prisoners for the past ten years through theatre productions in prisons and theatre venues. We also work on playwriting projects in prisons and an ex-offender led education programme for young people at risk.

With this show, a gritty prison drama, it has a special resonance as we have a cast and crew made up of ex-prisoners (who have all previously taken part in Synergy’s productions whilst in prison), a former prison officer, a serving lifer on licence and one professional actor Denise Gough, who has worked many times in the West End. The show has allowed the cast to revisit the prison experience and to explore that environment from the outside and think about that in a powerful and hopefully, moving way.

Rehearsals have compelled each and every person involved in the show to reflect on their own positions and preconceptions as they explored the many provocative and morally ambiguous questions raised in the play, this has led to some pretty emotive and rewarding exchanges and audiences cannot fail to be intrigued and indeed I hope impressed by how the actors have risen to this challenge.

Over the years we have produced work ranging from classic plays like Tartuffe to new writing like Frank McGuinnessSomeone to Watch Over Me and more recently a co-commision with the Forgiveness Project of Shelagh Stephenson’s The Long Road which we performed at Soho Theatre to a sell out run.

A good play should always cause us to consider the possibility of alternative world views and in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, Stephen Adly Guirgis, using the vibrant and profane language of the street, demands that the audience does just that.

We're also offering the audience an opportunity to debate their response to the play and the wider issues regarding imprisonment and the criminal justice system.

We'll be hosting two post-show discussions with the cast and crew to discuss their performance and the impact the show has made on them and what their own individual experiences have added to the work. It has been an emotional roller coaster but one that has been truly exciting and satisfying on so many levels.

The post-show discussions will be take place on Monday 12 April and Monday 19 April. We also have a fantastic panel for our pre-show discussions consisting of Guardian columnist and former prisoner Erwin James, psychiatrist and co-founder of the James Nayler Foundation Dr Bob Johnson, Juliet Lyon from the Prison Reform Trust, Tim Robertson from the Koestler Trust and Clive Stafford Smith from Reprieve. These take place at the theatre on Tuesday 13 and Tuesday 20 April at 6.15pm.

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train continues at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 24 April 2010.

For more on the work of Synergy Theatre Project, visit www.synergytheatreproject.co.uk


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