The women who make a drama out of rough justice

A London-based theatre company founded by two women prisoners will take a play about trafficked girls to the UK’s Latitude Festival this weekend. Lucy Perman talked to openDemocracy 50.50 about the play and why prison is no solution for the women who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Lucy Perman
13 July 2012

Who are Clean Break and what are they doing at the Latitude Festival?

Clean Break is both a theatre company and an educational programme. Both strands of our work are rooted in the belief that theatre changes lives.

The piece we will take to Latitude this weekend is Dream Pill, one of six short plays we commissioned from leading women playwrights in 2010 to examine women’s experience of the criminal justice system. This one, written by Rebecca Prichard, tells the story of two young girls, Tunde and Bola, trafficked from Nigeria. The play is from their perspective and the audience is drawn into their children’s world.

They tell their story in a beguiling way and the audience feels privileged to be part of this world. Only afterwards do you appreciate the full horror of what is going on with these girls, who are incarcerated and being abused. Because you have come to feel close to them, it’s devastating when you realise that they are enslaved and trapped. Dream Pill has been immensely popular and played at diverse venues from the Edinburgh Festival to a Metropolitan Police human trafficking conference.

Rebecca Prichard has a long-standing relationship with Clean Break and has developed a particular interest in writing about violence against women. In 1998, she wrote Yard Girl for us – a co-production with the Royal Court theatre. When we commissioned her she was very keen to write something about trafficking girls and young women.

The problem of women being trafficked into the UK (and trafficked within the country) and forced into slavery and prostitution is huge, mostly underground and on the edges of society. Some of the women may well be engaged in criminal activity but they are victims of their circumstances and are being abused. Rebecca researched the background for nine months before writing, working with the Head of the Metropolitan Police’s Human Trafficking Team as well as various anti-trafficking campaign organizations. Her dialogue is brilliant.

What issues do Clean Break productions cover?

Dream Pill was part of Charged, two cycles of three plays each presented and performed by Clean Break at Soho Theatre in 2010. We had the audience journeying around the theatre. We wanted to give them glimpses of how women and girls are criminalised in society. So other plays dealt with, for example, a jailed mother’s inability to cope with separation from her child, the attitudes and expectations of police officers and the way in which young girls become involved in gangs. Rebecca Lenkiewicz was interested in the problems of older women who get locked away and forgotten and wrote That Almost Unnameable Lust about the despair of a 70-year-old lifer.

The company has made a great effort to work with the very best playwrights and artists. We want to offer excellent theatrical experiences rather than be didactic. Charged was a real celebration of women’s theatre involving about 35 theatre practictioners, all women. Generally our aim is to offer theatre that engages audiences and will not leave them overwhelmed and depressed. There is often humour in our work and that surprises people when they first see a Clean Break production. It is important for audiences to find a way into the plays and not feel alienated by such difficult issues.

How did you become involved?

I became involved 15 years ago. I have always been interested in that point where art meets social concern and the idea of using theatre to change society appealed to me since I have a passion for theatre and a strong feminist background.

Clean Break itself was set up inside Askham Grange prison in 1979 by two women who wanted to use theatre to tell the stories of their fellow prisoners’ experience of the criminal justice system.

They had encouragement from a very progressive prison governor who saw the benefit of what they were doing rather than as a threat to the institution. When the women finished their sentences they took the company with them and turned it into a small-stage touring company. Very early on, the two took the group to the Edinburgh Festival and then to some international gigs. They continued to write and perform plays beyond their prison sentence and they stay in touch today. Now they prefer to stay behind the scenes and keep a low profile but they are very encouraging and very proud of how the company has developed.

Because we have been established more than 30 years now, we keep finding women who have connections from the past. Our roots are really in that period of political and women’s theatre.

As well as performing you have an educational mission. What are its key aims?  

The education and training programme is integral to the theatre project. We are nurturing independence. We are trying to look at the whole woman. We provide specialist theatre education but at the same time we train our tutors to build confidence and self-esteem. We help people who come here to acquire qualifications and get work experience.

Now we are at the point where over 70 per cent of our students move on to higher education or employment. Some of the women go on to work in theatre. One woman this year is going on to postgraduate study and some have places on undergraduate courses. Others we help with employment though it’s a difficult market at the moment. However, we help find work experience and placements through our Stage Works scheme.

We also help women who haven’t been in prison but have become at risk of offending. We have an outreach worker who goes out to hostels etc. so that we can help women before they get into the prison system. We have also been working with police locally and visiting police stations to contact women early in their offending journey.

Our courses are free and we provide travel and childcare costs. Many of our students haven’t had any job or proper education before. Some may have been in institutions or have agrophobia. For them, it’s a big deal even getting here. As well as teaching, we have a support team and courses to support women in managing their mental health etc. And we can refer women to more specialist advice.  

What are your wider ambitions for Clean Break in terms of social policy?

Our main aim is to voice the experience of women offenders through the theatre we make and to help them make positive futures and move away from their offending backgrounds. But we also want to look more broadly at how society treats women in the criminal justice system. And it is clearly not designed for women.

Kenneth Clarke (the Justice Secretary) has some interesting ideas and he wants to reduce the number of women in prison. There has been a huge amount of talk about this over decades. But the obstacles to non-custodial sentences are not financial, they are political. The numbers do not stack up. If you look at the cost of keeping someone in prison for a long period of time, particularly if you add to that, that prison really doesn’t work in terms of recidivism rates, it is clear that a similar financial investment in community-based initiatives would get far better results.

When women are in prison the damage to the family is huge. They often lose housing and custody of children. Women are often in prisons far away from home (because there are fewer women’s prisons). Yet a key factor in women not re-offending is having continued contact with families and children.

The Corston Review, which came out in 2007, made clear that most women were in prison for poverty-driven offences such as theft rather than for violent crimes. The review came out of concern for the enormous amount of self-harm and number of suicides among women prisoners. Many of these women were extremely vulnerable with mental health problems or drug problems that would be better dealt with in community settings. In January this year, the all-party parliamentary group Baroness Corston chaired produced a second report on women with particular vulnerabilities and it revealed cross-party support for further work on this and for the closure of some women’s prisons.

In recent years there has been positive work. Labour put £15.6 million into setting up women’s centres. Clean Break benefited from some of that. The challenge for politicians is to not be frightened of public perception and to try to get cooperation from the courts on sentencing.

They have to look at the long game rather than short-term results. It’s about being brave and also being fair. It is not just the women who suffer. Their children suffer too and may end up in the criminal justice system. And so the harm gets repeated down the generations.

What’s next for Clean Break?

A £240,000 grant from the Catalyst Arts programme (where the Arts Council matches benefactor funding) has put Clean Break in a strong position to continue its current work and to develop new strands. Vivenne Franzmann, one of our commissioned playwrights, is leading a play-writing residency in a mental health unit. Her first play, Mogadishu at the Royal Court, received great praise, and she has been working as our Resident Playwright. Other new work is being commissioned including from Katie Hims who has won awards for her radio writing.

And Dream Pill will continue its tour. After Latitude, its next appearance will be at the Greenbelt Festival in August.


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