It’s not often that a theatre company can claim a history as worthy of telling as any of the fiction they create, but Clean Break’s beginnings are as inspiring as their award-winning work which, admittedly, is closer to reality than one would comfortably like to believe.
The ground-breaking company was created in 1979 by two female prisoners at the Yorkshire Askham Grange prison. With the help of a forward thinking, and now much acclaimed, prison governor Susan McCormick, the pair set up a theatre company which enabled them to write and perform plays about the experiences of women within the criminal justice system. Three decades later, their company has become not only a theatrical heavyweight with a reputation for championing new female playwrights, but is also providing a safe haven for women within the criminal justice system, in some cases, quite literally transforming their lives.
“It’s all about using theatre to create opportunities for women to build confidence”
The statistics surrounding women in prisons are staggering and all of Clean Break’s productions endeavour to educate, as well as entertain. According to the campaign group Women In Prison, over half of women in UK prisons have suffered domestic violence, one in three have experienced sexual abuse and 70% of women prisoners have two or more diagnosed mental health issues. Clean Break works with women within the criminal justice system – whether they are currently in prison or a young offender’s institution, are being rehabilitated into society or are at risk of repeat offending – believing theatre can enable them to create a future of their choice.
Lucy Perman, Executive Director of Clean Break for the past 13 years, explains: “It’s all about using theatre to create opportunities for women to build confidence, build self-esteem, build communication skills, give them qualifications, and help them to move away from a background of crime forward to whatever their dreams are. The great thing about theatre and the arts is there are lots of transferable skills you can get from it that will really help develop careers in whole different areas.”
The company produces professional theatre productions – currently they are producing six plays at the Soho theatre in a season entitled Charged, working with commissioned playwrights including Lucy Kirkwood and Chloe Moss – and works with women in prisons and at Clean Break’s home in Kentish Town.
With three studios and a core team of 17 members of staff, plus an assortment of arts practitioners who volunteer their services, Clean Break offers free courses to over 100 women every year from playwriting to puppetry, acting to stand-up comedy, providing students with not only skills they can use in their everyday life, but a new community during rehabilitation into society: “Often women want to break past relationships they’ve got which may be connected to their offending background or particular addictions and so on,” says Perman. “To be able to come here and find a community of women that want to move on with their lives and break those patterns, it’s very affirming.”
The commissioned playwrights, too, have a vital role. Moss, who wrote the Susan Smith Blackburn Playwriting Prize-winning This Wide Night for the company and has written Fatal Light for the Charged season, explained what her first commission for the company entailed: “It involved 10 weeks of going into prisons and running workshops in there, and there’s research and interviewing time at the end… I was really excited of course, but it’s a bit daunting. You can go in there [prisons] and leave at the end of the day, but it’s not the most pleasant place to be in.”
“The women were fantastic and really engaged”
Kirkwood, who now serves on the board of Clean Break after completing a year long residency at the company which resulted in her play It Felt Empty When The Heart Went At First But It Is Alright Now winning this year’s John Whiting Award, explained how she felt about her first Clean Break commission: “It was of course challenging times. It is very difficult to teach a class in prison when one of your students is dealing with the fact that her children have been adopted that morning. There are battles of literacy, with the shadows of drug and alcohol problems, and with the fact that theatre can seem like a middle-class monolith, inaccessible to people who haven’t had a high level of education or had the income to go and see plays.”
Both playwrights, however, stressed the joys of working with Clean Break and how the interaction with the students had affected them, with Moss commenting: “The women were fantastic and really engaged… so working with them was just quite inspiring” and Kirkwood calling it “one of the most satisfying parts of my career so far.”
Although potentially tough, Clean Break is arguably one of the most coveted commissions for a female playwright working today. Not only have the commissions launched many playwrights into the public and artistic eye, but their residencies are one of the most intense available: “What we do with all our writers,” says Perman, “is immerse them in the whole world of women, crime and justice; we take them into prisons, we get them to engage here with the women on our education programme, we connect them to criminal justice organisations who give them a lot to read, we take them to a whole range of different places which will act as a stimulus. It’s that immersion and that contact with women who the plays are about and those real experiences that make it a really exciting commission and one that the playwrights really value.”
“Everyone here is passionate about the women and the change that we can affect in their lives”
There are some that would question whether such contact with playwrights looking for a story to tell – inevitably inspired by the students – leaves the women vulnerable. Sam Holcroft, whose first commission for Clean Break, Dancing Bears, features in the Charged season, initially struggled with the idea: “Who was I to write about a life of crime and punishment? I have never been to prison, I have no family who have experience of prison and I come from a privileged background. In honesty I felt embarrassed that I was accepting money to articulate someone else’s suffering.” Her doubts quickly disappeared when she began the work, however.
Clean Break would be horrified at the idea of exploiting the students, instead arguing the students’ involvement with Clean Break offers them a hopeful future: “Everyone here is passionate about the women and the change that we can affect in their lives,” says Perman, “but also absolutely passionate about theatre, which is obviously key.” The company in turn appears to inspire passion in its students, with ex-students often recruiting new attendees and Perman describing them as “the greatest advocate of our work.”
Former students’ devotion to Clean Break is due not only to the education they receive but also to the holistic approach to help they are offered. With many women released from prison into society with no home, no job and their families taken away from them, there is little incentive not to re-offend. Clean Break gives them not only the chance to gain skills and qualifications, but, as Holcroff explains, offers them “structure, stability and routine. They offer a hot meal. They educate the women and open the doors to various professions, including the theatre. They promote self-esteem and allow the women creative outlets to express their feelings.”
With a majority of female offenders reporting abuse at the hands of men, Clean Break has a women-only policy to create a safe haven for the students: “Everybody who works here is a woman,” says Perman, “from volunteers to the board of trustees. We maintain a strong philosophy about women and the organisation and maintaining a safe space here for women.”
Perman also strongly believes that its status as a female-led company is important to the theatre industry as a whole, arguing that there is still a long way to go until women have as strong a voice as men in the industry: “I feel strongly that although there are developments and it’s slowly improving, it’s still massively unequal…unless you’ve got women in key leadership roles, whether it’s companies like us, running venues or directing or writing plays, you’re less likely to get the women’s experience coming through, you’re less likely to get the range of parts for different ages and ethnicity of actors and you’re going to potentially cut out a whole range of your audience members as well.”
Clean Break is tackling this problem with high-profile seasons such as Charged. Running until 27 November, Charged’s plays include stories about teenage street gangs, children forced into prostitution, female prisoners separated from their children, the role of police officers and even a writer struggling to run a workshop in a prison. While this may not sound like the perfect formula for an enjoyable night at the theatre, Moss explains why it should be: “Obviously the subject is bleak, but of course it’s bleak because of the reality of these stories is bleak, but it’s hugely important to tell these stories… I hope it offers a bit of food for thought.” Perman agrees: “Part of it [Charged] is to have a great evening at the theatre, like every other theatre company. It’s new writing, it’s high-quality theatre… it will be a brilliant evening of theatre. But also it’s the issues…it gives an insight into that world.”
“I’m absolutely confident that we’ll have a strong future”
For those wanting more of an insight, the season also offers after show talks with Clean Break artists including Lucy Morrison, Head of Artistic Programme, and playwright Rebecca Pritchard, and before the show you can watch Clean Break students perform a piece devised by themselves and Moss. While not a political organisation per se, Clean Break obviously has a strong message and believes that the criminal justice system – which was of course designed originally for and by men – needs to be reformed to radically reduce the number of women imprisoned for non-violent crimes, and Clean Break has collaborated with Baroness Helena Kennedy to discuss these issues during Charged.
But what of the original founders? While McCormick sadly died aged 66 last month, the mysteriously anonymous pair of former inmates still have “a behind-the-scenes supportive role”, wary of the press’s tendency to sensationalise prisoners if they reveal their identity. Clean Break is in safe hands however, still determined to keep the two women’s original dream alive: “We’ve got a 31-year-old history, we’ve had periods of ups and downs in the past and we’ve always come out of them fighting and I’m absolutely confident that we’ll have a strong future.” said Perman. As Kirkwood highlights, it is the company’s unique position that will keep it prominent and vitally important to both the theatre industry and to the women within the criminal justice system for whom Clean Break can make the difference between a life in prison and creating a fresh start: “The work Clean Break does is important on an educational, artistic and political level, and there are very few organisations who can claim that.”