Clean Break at 40
- Credit: Archant
From a book of monologues, to a play set in a prison van, one of the UK’s most remarkable theatre companies is celebrating 40 decades of giving a voice, and a fresh chance, to women in the criminal justice system.
From a book of monologues, to a play set in a prison van, one of Britain's most remarkable theatre companies is celebrating 40 years of giving a voice - and a fresh chance - to women in the criminal justice system.
Kentish Town-based Clean Break was founded by two inmates at Askham Grange to tell the hidden stories of women in prison.
For four decades it has run prison workshops and education courses for ex prisoners, as well as commissioning politicallly engaged work by women writers.
The latest is Sweatbox by Chloë Moss, which tours the UK in a real prison van from next week with performances at Clean Break's Patshull Road HQ on June 28.
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Audiences of 12 are invited into the back of the van where three women share their stories of arrival and anticipation as they are transported from court to prison, prison to prison, and from prison to court.
The tour will be accompanied by a 40th anniversary exhibition in the prison van by artist Miriam Nabarro.
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Back in March the Royal Court staged Inside Bitch, a devised collaborative piece performed by Clean Break members looking at media portrayals of women in prison. Other projects include Rebel Voices, a book of monologues for Women by Women (Methuen Drama), and a new commission by Alice Birch at Donmar Warehouse in October.
Co-artistic director Anna Herrmann directs Sweatbox and has been with the company for 17 years, previously as head of education. She says they have also taken stock of the company's "structure, direction and ambition" including a collaborative leadership model which sees three women sharing the running of the company.
Another significant change is to put past and present members at the centre of their work. Previously there was something of a division between Clean Break as an outward facing theatre company that also ran an education programme for often vulnerable students.
"There was a duality to these different strands that started to feel less effective and useful to what the women were saying. We realised that was no longer the best way to achieve our mission."
Instead of a playwright interviewing women about their experiences then writing a play performed by professional actors, Clean Break's members are now telling their own stories - whether writing, devising, or performing, like Funke Adeleke, Jade Small and Posy Sterling in Sweatbox,
"We wanted to make sure that our members are at the forefront of our existence as a theatre company and at the heart of the work, that the women were really contributing to and taking part actively in the conversation our audiences were seeing," says Hermann. It has created additional opportunities for members who might have left years before but want to take their careers in theatre more seriously.
The key to Clean Break's success is creating a "trauma-informed safe women-only space" where members take refuge from often brusing life experiences.
"It's important to have a safe space where women feel listened to and not judged, where they can feel in control and share their stories," says Hermann.
"It's incredible how simple and effective it is to give them time and peace to start to heal through a combination of creative activities - taking part in theatre and feeling a lot of joy - and looking after their health and wellbeing.
"We go gently and carefully with our members so they can reflect around past trauma with the support for travel, childcare, someone to help with court appearances or housing."
Austerity and benefits changes have made their work harder.
"The women's circumstances, experience of violence and trauma, drug and alcohol use have been consistently there, but the impact of poverty and the closing of services has escalated. Poverty exacerbates mental health problems, when members are struggling financially to find housing, or come here without having eaten that's the most urgent distressing way we have seen it have an impact. Food has to be part of our offer."
Hermann feels they are reconnecting with the "roots of the company" which was founded by Jacqueline Holborough and Jenny Hicks in that the audiences are hearing member's voices more directly. That is not to dismiss the award winning plays by the likes of Bryony Lavery, Winsome Pinnock and Lucy Kirkwood which feature in Rebel Voices - a timely reminder of how the company has always provided platforms for women writers and performers.
"We are really proud of those 40 years of plays," says Hermann.
"We have produced an amazing body of work and with this anniversary we are feeling more confident. This is absolutely the right time for our members to be centre stage and making decisions about the stories we tell."
In the bad old days there was tabloid condemnation for funding of arts projects for prisoners, but in 2019 has Clean Break successfully made its case?
"We are still winning the argument, there have been really bleak moments in our journey but we have made progress. The test of acceptability in what the public feel is alright has shifted, but we are definitely not there yet."
Tickets to Sweatbox available from cleanbreak.org.uk