The Chat

A peculiar form of intimacy lies at the heart of interactions between parole officer and prisoner.

Characterised by a shifting set of secrets and lies, the relationship bears raw, transformative potential but is typically pockmarked by power struggles and constraints imposed by respective sets of rules.

It’s into this strange, intimate space that The Chat unfolds at Brisbane La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre. Created by former parole officer James Brennan, The Chat casts former criminal offenders into new roles as performers.

Staged in a simulated interview room complete with CCTV footage, The Chat gathers steam after a physical fight for dominance ­between performer David Woods and ex-prisoner Mark Flewell-Smith.

It employs role reversals as part of a process of “transpersonalis­ation”, a term Brennan says was­ ­invented for this production. In order to confront himself and his crimes, Flewell-Smith assumes the role of parole officer, and Woods that of the pot-smoking offender who faces a return to prison after failing a drug test.

“This is your third dirty urine,” scolds a bearded, tattooed, Flewell-Smith, peering fiercely over the top of his reading glasses. “What do I have to do to save your arse?”

Woods’s audacious response — he’d engaged only in passive smoking during a party and had “tried very hard not to breathe it in” — had the audience choking with laughter. As a former parole officer, I was laughing harder than most, because Woods’s attempts to explain himself were so reminiscent of the blame externalis­ation (“bullshit”, as Flewell-Smith calls it) I heard most days.

The same shock of recognition had me laughing, aching and close to tears at other points during the one-hour performance. The Chat skilfully captures the impossibly fine line parole officers must tread.

You must empathise with a person’s difficult circumstances, and believe that he or she has the capacity to change. You also need to cultivate cynicism. One of my offenders tearfully ascribed his ­latest crime spree to the death of his wife. Imagine, then, when I rang to reschedule an appointment and she answered the phone.

The Chat is thought-provoking and sometimes uncomfortable to watch. Its great strengths are the weaving of levity and light into dark subject matter and the dissolution of barriers between offenders and others in the community.

“All of us have committed a crime,” the opening narrative goes. “Some of us have served time … and others have gotten away with it.”

The Chat, La Boite, Brisbane, until November 14. Denise Cullen is a Brisbane writer who worked as a case manager with Queensland Corrective Services (Probation and Parole) in 2013-14.

The above story was published in the Arts section of The Australian newspaper on 9 November 2015 as A Peculiar Form of Intimacy. Read online (subscription required).