THREE years ago, before Covid-19 was a malignant thing, I visited HMYOI (Her Majesty’s Young Offenders Institution) Polmont for this newspaper. My purpose was to observe the work of the pioneering performance in prisons company Polmont Youth Theatre (PYT).

PYT was the brainchild of Jess Thorpe and Tashi Gore, the devised theatre experts behind such companies as Glasgow community group Glass Performance and the, sadly now defunct, Glasgow youth theatre Junction 25. The Polmont company was bringing together young men within the institution to make their own theatre works.

Back then, I was impressed by PYT’s engagement with young men who, hitherto, would have thought the likelihood of their being on-stage was akin to that of their becoming an astronaut. Supported by partners – such as children’s and young people’s charity Barnardo’s, who are based permanently on-site at Polmont – the positive impact of the youth theatre on young offenders was crystal clear.

Now, as the pandemic recedes, I wanted to go back into the institution to see how PYT and the young offenders in its ranks had fared through the public health crisis. I met with J, an established member of PYT, M, a recent recruit, and Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir, a PYT staffer and a lead artist with the company.

For J, the sudden stop to PYT sessions in March 2020 was a particularly unpleasant aspect of the pandemic. “I come up here [to PYT sessions in the performing arts space] every single week,” he says.

“When this stopped, and everything else [such as family visits and activities led by people external to HMYOI Polmont staff] stopped, it was a shock to the system.”

He wouldn’t have to deal with that shock for too long, however. As Sigurdardottir remembers, it took PYT staff only two weeks to devise a way of continuing the company’s work despite the inability to hold in-person sessions at Polmont. Initially, PYT leaders got permission to use the email system whereby the young men are contacted by family and friends. Through this, the members of the company were engaged in a structured letter writing exchange project titled A Way of Passing Time.

The National: Polmont Youth Theatre.

The letters created through this project became audio performances by the young men, recorded by Barnardo’s and Scottish Prison Service staff in the studio within the institution. Those recordings were then broadcast as a 15-minute programme over the prison radio station, Inside Radio.

“We suddenly saw the potential,” Sigurdardottir recalls. PYT staff realised that, even if they couldn’t physically access the prison campus, they could enable the young men within the theatre group (and, potentially, others) to be engaged in the creative process of making their own radio programmes.

Needless to say, as lockdown restrictions were lifted, PYT returned immediately to devising theatre shows in the Polmont performing arts space.

However, the radio shows continue and are popular with inmates across the campus.

Having taken up his post during the pandemic, governor Gerrie Michie is clearly impressed by the work PYT has done, both in terms of reinvigorating the long-mothballed prison radio station and returning to active theatre-making with the young offenders.

Michie is keen to support and extend the numerous initiatives across the campus – be they in life skills such as cooking, sport or the arts – that make inmates’ lives in prison more bearable and enhance their life opportunities upon release.

However, his dream of PYT making a production of his favourite musical, The Phantom of the Opera, seems like a long shot.

Down in the performing arts space, M admits that joining PYT was not an easy call for him at first. “Before I joined it, I did think, ‘that’s not for me, it’s quite flamboyant’,” he says.

That said, when he finally was persuaded to give PYT a try, he found, as so many of his predecessors in the youth company have, that there was a huge chasm between the myths and the realities of the theatre group.

“When you get in and you get involved in it, you do get right into it. It’s enjoyable,” he says.

A typical response among young men in Polmont when they’re made aware of PYT is, says J, “it’s a drama class, that’s not for me”. However, as a relative veteran with the group, he can testify to the personal and collective benefits that it brings for participants.

“I personally try and encourage people to come,” he says. “When they actually get in and get to know more about it, they enjoy it.”

M agrees. “It’s a different experience. I never saw myself as someone who would come here [to PYT], but it’s a good laugh.”

Both young men agree that making the leap to trying out PYT is the most important step. The psychological barriers to joining a youth theatre group in a young offenders’ institution are considerable.

M’s comment that theatre can be considered too “flamboyant” is a revealing one. The young men in Polmont, like so many of their peers on the outside, have often been conditioned by fairly narrow notions of what constitutes masculinity. The performing arts don’t fit easily within those parameters.

J remembers giving PYT a try because a friend of his inside the institution was already a member.

“He was quite encouraging,” he recalls. “He was one of the boys. So, I thought, ‘if he’s doing it, it must be alright.’”

Which isn’t to say that J bounced into his first PYT session full of optimism and excitement. What many people on the proverbial “outside” don’t realise about the young offenders who are incarcerated in places like Polmont is that they often lack self-confidence and self-esteem.

“When I first started, I was a bit apprehensive,” J admits. However, he soon became an enthusiastic member of the group. Since then he has, he says, “never looked back”.

For M, the crucial thing is that PYT is built on Thorpe and Gore’s methods of collectively devising theatre, whereby the members of the company have a crucial input into the content and performance of the work. “I thought it was going to be like you’d a get a script and you’d get told what to do,” he says.

However, much to his surprise, he found that PYT is all about the show being built from the bottom up by the young men themselves. “It’s you that makes the show,” he says, with an obvious sense of satisfaction.

“We did a pantomime,” he remembers. “It wasn’t a normal sort of pantomime. We made about 15 of them, and we managed to create it all in a day. It was a bit hectic, but it was organised chaos.”

A similar process of refining organised chaos into a well-structured show is currently underway for PYT’s next production, which focuses on the young men’s sources of inspiration and their life challenges.

J is full of praise for the work of PYT staff, such as Sigurdardottir. After weeks of brainstorming and trying things out, he says, “it all comes together” when the Icelander brings out her “wee black book” full of observations of the ideas that the young men have tried out in the studio in the course of their sessions.

There will, of course, be those who will emphasise the offences the young people in PYT have committed. For such people, concern for the self-confidence of young offenders will be low on their list of priorities.

However, to care about how the inmates of HMYOI Polmont feel about themselves when they get to the point of being released is much more than bleeding heart liberalism. It’s about the needs, not only of the young men themselves, but of society as a whole.

Young offenders who have been involved in PYT learn new skills and ways of expressing themselves. Perhaps most importantly, they have experienced in practice the importance of co-operation and responsibility to others – if young men come out of Polmont with the new sense of purpose, it seems obvious that they are less likely to reoffend.

The truth is that these young men live with the very considerable punishment of the loss of their liberty. If they are given opportunities to broaden their horizons and minimise the chances of finding themselves back behind bars, that, surely, is something we can all get behind.