Inmates find purpose in the world of Tolkien

Prison production of The Hobbit celebrates 75th anniversary

Actor Bronwyn Steinberg plays an elven queen in Kate Rubin's post-industrial take on The Hobbit being performed at William Head Institution from Oct. 12 to Nov. 10.

The vast expanses of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth may be hard to imagine from life inside a prison, but for the inmates of William Head Institution, putting on The Hobbit has been a journey all their own.

Under the direction of Kate Rubin, the William Head Stage Theatre Society is performing Rubin’s adaptation of Tolkien’s beloved novel from Oct. 12 to Nov. 1 at the prison, 6000 William Head Rd.

Rubin has been involved as an actor with two plays at the minimum-security prison before, including last season’s Gormenghast. This year she was asked to direct, and she gladly accepted.

On this, the 75th anniversary of the publication of  the novel, Rubin’s post-industrial adaptation takes a unique look at the tale. The story and dialogue remain true to the source material, but costumes and sets are meant to reflect a more contemporary working-class sensibility. The tone of the play touches on subjects more common to recent newspaper headlines than Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

“It relates to the devastation that can happen from greed,” Rubin said. “The environmental devastation, the social devastation, things breaking down so that there becomes these creatures like Gollum, who has lost his humanity.”

The cast is made up of inmates, plus three professional actresses who are brought in to play the female roles. Monica Prendergast, Anne Cirillo and Bronwyn Steinberg have come in as professional actors and two professionals are also involved in the crew: Carole Klemm, the designer, and puppeteer Tim Gosley.

Admitting she was at first a bit nervous to work with the prisoners, Steinberg, who plays the elven queen, among other parts, said the experience has been overwhelmingly positive and has reinvigorated her love of theatre and its more human aspects. She has been amazed to see the enthusiasm and commitment of the inmates.

“Even in just the few weeks that I’ve been involved you can see they’ve been building confidence and also just a sense of ownership and agency,” Steinberg said. “You can see them just growing through the show and through the process.”

Rubin too, said it’s amazing to see the transformative power of theatre and just how beneficial the process of putting on a play is for the inmates. Many come into the process shy and unsure, Rubin said, but by the end are proud to have been a part of something positive and productive.

“They want to give and they don’t get that opportunity very much,” Rubin said. “Especially someone who feels shame for what they’ve done, and if they’ve come through that shame, there’s a huge need to give.”

Tickets are $20 and are available at Ticket Rocket, 2-1609 Blanshard St., My Chosen Cafe, 4480 Happy Valley Rd., online at or by phone at 250-391-6291. For more information on the play call 250-391-7078.

The program is for adults over the age of 19.

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