Stephanie Ridings’ one-woman show explores the subject of finding love on Death Row

How far would you go to find the man of your dreams? Coming to Warwick Arts Centre this month, Stephanie Ridings' The Road to Huntsville explores the fascinating phenomenon of women falling in love with the men they write to on death row. You might think a whirlwind romance based purely on letters to a prisoner sounds a little far-fetched, but according to Ridings, at least, it's more common than you might think...

“There are a lot of websites where you can find someone to write to,” she says, “and you can be very specific - about sexuality, gender, what they're in prison for, how long they're gonna be in prison - it's all catered for. Some of them actually get married, though there's no actual physical contact - it's all done by proxy or through the bulletproof glass.”

West Midlands-based writer and performer Ridings first took interest in the subject after coming across a television documentary. Instantly hooked, she was drawn to look deeper into the lives and experiences of these women, and what it was that might lead them to pursue such unconventional relationships - particularly the British women writing to men in American prisons.
“The thing that really interested me was the fact that they're three or four thousand miles away, and that question of whether you can actually be in love with someone just through letters. Also, it isn't so much about writing to a man who's been incarcerated as it is writing to someone who's going to be executed, which doesn't happen in this country.”

Ridings set about researching - digging around in blogs and internet forums, watching films and reading books to find out more. What she discovered surprised her; once these women found their prison pen pals, it wasn't all that hard to understand how quickly they might fall, even if they hadn't initially set out looking for love. For all the modern wonders of instant communication, these are lonely times for many people. In a world of constant distraction, the appeal of “an old-fashioned courtship with pen and paper” is easy to see, particularly when you're corresponding with someone offering you their absolute and undivided attention. 
The wealth of information available both online and elsewhere meant that Ridings was able to start work on her show without ever making contact with any of these long-distance lovers. Of course, there were ethical considerations to factor in as well. 

“It didn't feel right to just crash into somebody's life and then disappear once I'd made the show. There are real concerns about exploiting people for things like this. And there was nothing that I couldn't find out from what was already in the public domain, so I didn't see what the purpose of that would be. Also, I didn't want to end up actually going to Texas to be with someone!”

But despite not joining the ranks of the women who find love through letter-writing, Ridings did eventually find the funding to travel out to Texas and visit the Huntsville prison after which the show is named. Opened in 1849, Huntsville is both the oldest state prison in Texas and home to America's busiest execution chamber. She and her videographer weren't able to get too close to the facility (you can see them skirting around the perimeter in a series of video blogs on her YouTube channel), but they did get the chance to speak to former prison warden Jim Willett, who oversaw 89 executions over the course of his career. 

“He was a really great guy - really funny and lovely, and you couldn't have asked for a nicer person. But, I don't know, something about him just made you feel like he was damaged by his experience. It wasn't just doing all those executions and having to take that home with him, but as the warden, he also lived right outside the walls of the prison, and his house was on the other side of the death house, so he'd brought his kids up that close to it.”

The pair also made some time to take a look around the town more generally, and get a feel for the attitudes of local people towards what happens in their neighbourhood. Huntsville is a small city in the east of Texas with a population of just under 40,000. A quarter of that population is made up of people behind bars, and the majority of the other residents are employed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, leading to Huntsville being labelled as a ‘company town’. 

“People in that part of Texas are very conservative in their beliefs. We were quite cautious about telling people why we were there, so we only referred to the prison quite generically, but even the receptionist at our hotel was like, 'If you behave like a dog, you get put down like a dog'. And that was very much the sort of attitude among the people we spoke to. We were having dinner on the last night and there was a man there who thought that the UK was overrun by the Taliban and that we were all living in constant fear. Of course, we were very typically British and polite about telling him that it was nothing like that, but there’s a real sort of narrow-mindedness there. It was pretty strange, but it was a really great experience.”

Presented as a confessional-style solo performance, the show blends detail of Ridings' real experiences with a fictionalised narrative. Since the dividing line between the two is never made explicit, the show has elicited a variety of responses from critics and audiences based on what they assume to be true and invented.
“I speak directly to the audience, and it's almost like I'm sort of reliving it in that moment, so it goes through how I get interested and what happens after each incident, and how my other half responds. In Edinburgh, people really wanted to know how much of it was true, but we like to leave audiences to make their own minds up.”

It's not the first time Ridings has created and performed a solo show - her previous piece, Me, Mum & Dusty Springfield, toured to rave reviews - but in recent years she's focused more on writing plays for other people to perform. This medium seemed to suit the story better, but wasn't without its perils. Such an intense and soul-searching show is bound to make huge demands on any performer, particularly when they're up on stage alone. 

“It just felt like this was a more interesting way to present the story - it wasn't enough just to write a play about a woman who falls in love with a man on death row. In the early days it was difficult, and I took measures to make sure it wasn't affecting me in my life - I suppose that's just about how you warm up and warm down at the beginning and end of the show. I think the rest of the team were quite worried that it would affect me a lot, because there's a lot of my real life in there, and there are some quite tricky things that I talk about which did actually happen. But at the same time, I think there's something quite liberating about it. You just have to be mindful to take care of yourself.”

Experience probably helps. It's also not the only time she's taken on hard-hitting subject matter. Her last play at The REP, Unknown Male, explored the effects of a train-track suicide on the driver. More recently, she's been working on a project called Dylan's Parents, which deals with the aftermath of a horrific crime from the perspective of the perpetrator's family. 

Originally from Liverpool, Ridings has now lived in the West Midlands for six years, having first moved in when her partner started work at Warwick Arts Centre. Since then, she's quickly made a name for herself in the local arts and theatre scene, being accepted onto The REP's inaugural Foundry programme, as well as Writing West Midlands' Room 204 scheme.

“Moving here was one of the best things I've ever done for my career. After we came to the area I felt like things progressed much better, and I've been meeting really great friends and colleagues in the arts. Everyone's very welcoming and there's a really nice feel. Also there's always something going on somewhere, and there's something for everyone, whether it's big commercial theatre or something more tailored, so I can't champion the West Midlands enough.”

The Road To Huntsville shows at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, on Monday 6 and Tuesday 7 March.