Re-adjusting to a life of freedom after a life behind bars can be difficult, but a group of ex-convicts say they have found the answer - a life on the stage.
Russia does not have a state rehabilitation program for those who have spent time behind bars. And for many, reintegrating back into society is a challenge. According to Russia’s Interior Ministry every third crime in the country is committed by a former convict.
Set up six months ago, “The Return” is Russia’s only theatre company where actors are former inmates. It is a pioneering charity initiative aimed at helping them get on with their lives.
And as well as helping former convicts re-enter society after lengthy sentences, the project’s idea is also to change people’s attitudes towards ex-inmates.
“Our society doesn’t give them a chance, labeling them as criminals for the rest of their lives. Our theatre not only helps former inmates discover their talents and build up their confidence but also shows that there are many very gifted people among them who don’t deserve the rejection they get,” says Arkady Baranovsky , the project manager of “The Return”.
Irakly Bezhashvili spent eleven years behind bars for murder and once he got out of prison, he went directly onto the stage. Now he has started a new life treading the boards.
“I’d never sung before – now I do. It’s a completely new experience for me – very rewarding and very inspiring. And the people here are great,” says Irakly.
Irakly is one of half a dozen ex-convicts taking part in rehearsals. The play is made up of several different scenes united by a common theme – the loss and regaining of freedom.
“There’s one main theme running through the entire performance – letters from prisoners to their loved ones to make us always remember that no matter what, the convicts are human beings. Working with them is quite an unusual experience but it’s not hard. They all want to be here and they take it very seriously,” says director Elena Sibirkina.
Not all of the company’s actors are former convicts though. Singer and songwriter Maria Leytina joined because she thought it would be a life-changing experience. And she has not regretted it.
“We’ve all become really good friends over the past six months. I believe that having gone through tough times, these people need all the support they can get. And I hope this project will go on and grow into something much bigger,” says Maria.
After the Moscow shows the company plans to tour Russia and abroad and include performances in prisons to send out a message that there is a chance of building a life after prison.