The Chat

Arts House The Chat photo by Bryony JacksonHere in 2052, the parole system seeks to surpass flawed earlier approaches that made recidivism so common. In a process known as the ‘The Chat’, parole officer and offender swap roles. The insight shown by an offender in this role-play informs whether a panel of experts, grants parole, and if so, under which conditions.

The general public get to sit in on this process and contribute to discussions that lead to judgement in The Chat, a play conceived by theatre maker and former parole officer J R Brennan. He developed the work with co-creator David Woods (of UK company Ridiculusmus), performer Ashley Dyer, and input from former prisoners, Nick Apostolidis, Arthur Bolkas, Ty Luke, Nick Maltzahn, and John Tjepkema.

The accounts delivered by these men in The Chat added a sense of authenticity to aspects of the proceedings. For example, dressed as catholic priest, Tjepkema recalled his use of this disguise to cash ‘dodgy cheques’ in banks. Other features of the production lacked this credibility. Possibly I couldn’t fully buy into the concept due to having questions over the context. I only obtained clear details on the future setting from a poster in the foyer afterwards.

Aside from the workshop itself, through theatrical trickery, we were also able to observe the vision from surveillance cameras around the workshop space, and watch discussions occurring behind the scenes. Some of these gave insight: as chief facilitator of the workshop we could see that Woods didn’t always have his mind on the job, or have a clear plan for how to guide the would-be parolees.

He enjoyed pulling rank on Dyer, a prisoner on day-release being groomed to take over the running of workshops. Woods’ put-downs made this a somewhat humorous subplot, although possibly it was one of multiple layers of clutter that took time away from exploring of some more weighty ideas.

Regardless, Dyer provided a counterpoint to Woods style of training, assisted by some insightful costume design by Yvette Turnbull and Willoh S. Weiland. With shaved head and nature-print track pants, Dyer had the appearance of a modern Shao-lin monk as he guided the other participants through resistance exercises reminiscent of martial arts training. His humility contrasted sharply with Woods in his all black training attire and superior attitude.

The varied activities in the workshop were intended to disrupt the thinking of the offenders, possibly so that they would be less defensive when the all-important chat began. On this night, former offender Arthur Bolkas assigned a crime and personal circumstances to Woods before becoming his parole officer.

In a masterful performance, Woods captured the evasiveness and obstructive behaviour of someone with limited language skills that we now know (thanks to long-running research such as The Dunedin Study) makes a life of crime more likely. Whilst Bolkas started well as a parole officer, before long the conceit of The Chat started to unravel.

Partly this was because Bolkas quickly turned to talking about his own background, rather than those of the fictional offender before him. In the unscripted chat that followed, Woods drew on his knowledge of Bolkas’ background to extract an emotional response and drive him towards acknowledgements of the motivations for past actions, or at least something that sounded like a credible version of these. Certainly the exchanges had compelling moments.

However, I couldn’t shake a feeling that the process we observed didn’t make much sense. We were not watching an offender being confronted by his own crime. As such, how could the chat reasonably inform parole conditions that should apply to this individual and their particular history?

Following The Chat, the audience gave their comments on Bolkas’ immediate future. These ranged from optimistic to naive, such as he shouldn’t be subject to any conditions, and he should be encouraged to pursue an interest from which he will obtain a sense of worth.

Before this, I think the The Chat tried to gently prompt some audience dissent. The parole board chairman grumbled that offenders might merely say what a parole officer wanted to hear. And, early on, Woods made an offstage statement on the importance of conflict.

However, we had neither scepticism (despite Woods’ hubris) nor conflict. The process was intended to consider what the release of an offender could mean to the public, and to the offender themselves. The lack of questioning of the exercise seemed to devalue this motivation.

Despite my misgivings about The Chat, it confronted me with a troubling insight. As the popularity of policy-free posturer Donald Trump shows, a showman, even one with obvious flaws, can easily manipulate audiences if he tells them what they want to hear.

After the show, Woods commented on the eight performances of The Chat in the Brisbane. In two shows the audience were less prepared to swallow the premise of The Chat, and the atmosphere was ‘electric’. If The Chat can cultivate a more argumentative audience, it may result in a more satisfying scrutiny of biases and the show’s ideas.

The Chat
Arts House – North Melbourne Town Hall, 521 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 27 July 2016 – 7.30pm
Season: 27 – 31 July 2016

Image: The Chat – photo by Bryony Jackson

Review: Jason Whyte