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Claire Stone: I Am A Theatre – 40 Years Of Clean Break Theatre Company

By | Published on Friday 18 June 2021

Many readers will be aware of the Clean Break Theatre Company, a group that works with women in prison, as well as staging productions that deal with the topic of imprisoned women, and using those projects to keep the failures of the criminal justice system on the cultural radar.

The company was founded in 1979 and this month stages ‘I Am A Theatre’, an exhibition celebrating forty years of its work and activism. They have also been busy in the last couple of months too, releasing acclaimed filmed and audio plays online.

To find out more about the exhibition, I spoke to curator Claire Stone.

CM: Could you start with a quick potted history of Clean Break, for those readers who aren’t aware of its work? When did it begin and what were its aims?
CS: Clean Break was founded in 1979 by two women in prison – Jenny Hicks and Jacqueline Holborough – who believed that theatre could bring the hidden stories of imprisoned women to a wider audience. Among many exhibits, our upcoming exhibition ‘I Am A Theatre’ features handwritten correspondence between these two incredible women and Susan McCormick, then Governor of HMP Askham Grange, who supported them whilst in prison and after their release as they established the company.

For four decades, the company has created ground-breaking plays with women’s voices at the heart of its work; inspiring playwrights and captivating audiences with its award-winning plays on the complex theme of women and crime. In recent years, we have celebrated our 40th anniversary in 2019 with a programme of plays including ‘[BLANK]’ by Alice Birch, a co-production with Donmar Warehouse, and ‘Inside Bitch’, at the Royal Court Theatre.

CM: A tough question, I’m sure, but are there any particular highlights from all those decades of work?
CS: That really is a difficult one to answer and something we wrestled with whilst curating the exhibition – there are so many highlights to choose from! Just some of those include…

‘Killers’, Jacqueline Holborough’s play written in 1980 based on her experience of HMP Durham’s H-Wing, being filmed for Channel 4 TV in 1984. Touring to the US in 1986 and then again in 1998. Commissioning six leading women writers to write short plays for a takeover of the Soho Theatre in 2010’s ‘CHARGED’.

Working with Lucy Kirkwood on multiple plays including ‘It Felt Empty’ and ‘Cakehole’, written specifically for our members – Lucy went on to become a trustee then patron of Clean Break. Staging a play within a prison, 2012’s ‘There Are Mountains’ by Chloë Moss, performed by a cast of eight residents in HMP Askham Grange, alongside acclaimed actor Zawe Ashton.

Performing ‘Inside Bitch’ at the Royal Court, a play devised and performed entirely by our members – women with lived experience. Staging ‘[BLANK]’ at Donmar Warehouse in 2019, with a cast of fourteen women and girls, our largest scale production to date. And opening our new building in Camden in 1999, the UK’s first centre for theatre dedicated to women with experience of the criminal justice system.

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about the exhibition now? What can we expect from ‘I Am A Theatre’?
CS: ‘I Am A Theatre’ celebrates over 40 years of Clean Break’s work and impact. The title of the exhibition comes from a poem by a member of Clean Break called Abigail, written for our original ‘Voices From Prison’ production back in 1987. The exhibition delves into Clean Break’s origins in 1979, four decades of productions, our home in Kentish Town and support for women with experience of criminal justice system, our 40th anniversary in 2019 and response to lockdown in 2020, showcasing Clean Break today.

It features previously unseen archival materials from the early days when the company founders first met in HMP Durham, alongside original photography, artwork, TV and documentary film, and highlights of interviews with women involved in the company across our 40-year history.

It also features an installation by artist Miriam Nabarro and designer Liz Whitbread, a member of Clean Break, inspired by ‘Sweatbox’, a play by Chloë Moss which toured in a decommissioned prison van – a brilliant film production of which is now available online.

There is also programme of digital events around the exhibition – including a series of online conversations with Winsome Pinnock, and a workshop with Paula Varjack and Clean Break’s co-founder Jacqueline Holborough, alongside a live stream of her film ‘Killers’, originally screened, as aforementioned, on Channel 4 in 1984.

CM: What was the motivation behind the exhibition? What made the company decide to do this now?
CS: In 2019 Clean Break celebrated its 40th anniversary by embarking on an ambitious journey to document its remarkable story – a story which encompasses four decades of theatre, feminism and justice.

The history of Clean Break and of the women with which we engage is largely untold. These are stories of inequality and disadvantage but also of triumph and overcoming the odds. Our stories, which encapsulate race, class and poverty, sit at an intersection between the history of women, theatre, the criminal justice system and politics. Our heritage is of national significance, in that it tells of individual women’s experiences alongside the changing context of criminal justice policy and practice over the last 40 years.

With funding from the NLHF and AHRC, Clean Break began the work of documenting the company’s heritage. As well as presenting the exhibition, we have established a publicly accessible archive of our work at the Bishopsgate Institute; recorded interviews with 42 women from across our history; and are creating a digital timeline.

It is a great moment to look back at how the company has evolved and all it has achieved, and also to celebrate where we are now, placing our members’ voices at the heart of all our work, and to look to the future.

CM: How was the exhibition created? How did you go about deciding what to include in it?
CS: The exhibition research began with cataloguing our archive on-site, with a group of Clean Break members and community volunteers. Once the archive was transferred to Bishopsgate, I researched sections of the archive relating to Clean Break’s founding years, so 1979-1989, productions, education programme, and digital archive.

With such a wealth of archival material and history to choose from, curating the selection for the exhibition was a complex process. For example, Clean Break has staged over 100 plays since 1979 – rather than trying to give an overview of them all, we chose one play per decade that demonstrated a different issue faced by women in the CJS – from drug trafficking to the fears surrounding release – and dived into the unique process behind each play.

Working with co-designers Miriam Nabarro and Liz Whitbread, and graphic designer Zeta Fitzpatrick, we translated these stories into visually compelling and theatrical presentations, which we hope capture the boldness of Clean Break’s spirit in the exhibition.

CM: Can we speak a bit now about the other things that Clean Break has been doing this year? Last month the company released an audio play, ‘Blis-ta’ by Sonya Hale. Can you give us an idea of what that’s about, the narrative and themes it explores?
CS: ‘Blis-ta’ is a project very dear to Clean Break. It is a play that the company had been developing over a number of years with Sonya Hale, a long-term member of Clean Break, an incredible theatre artist and friend to many.

Sadly, Sonya died last autumn. Due to the pandemic, the team wasn’t able to produce the play onstage, but Sonya was excited by the idea of an audio production.

The play itself is an immensely powerful piece – about hidden homeless and the transformative power of friendship. It is a wild tale featuring two young women who meet each other on the streets and it follows their journey and what they need to do to survive.

It has been fantastically well received with great reviews in The Guardian and The Stage among other praise. I think it’s fantastic – it really transports you into another world.

CM: The company also very recently released a new film, which you already mentioned, of Chloe Moss’s ‘Sweatbox’. Again, can you tell us a bit about that? What are its narrative and themes?
CS: ‘Sweatbox’ premiered at Latitude Festival in 2015, staged in a prison van. It has since toured theatres, festivals, education and criminal justice settings.

During lockdown, the company created an electric film adaptation, performed by three Clean Break members, and produced with Quiet Storm Films and an all-female team.

The play features three women as they sit in a prison van outside HMP Bronzefield, each caught up in their own worlds as they anticipate what’s next. It offers a glimpse into the experience of women as they are pulled away from their lives and transported to prison. As with all Clean Break plays, it reveals a story and experience that is seldom seen or heard.

The original doors from the prison van have been salvaged and recreated into the amazing installation at the heart of the exhibition, designed by Miriam Nabarro and Liz Whitbread.

CM: The pandemic has affected the arts industry as a whole, obviously, but how has it affected Clean Break? How were you able to survive it?
CS: We saw our building closed, live productions and the exhibition cancelled and postponed, access to prisons denied, and extreme levels of pressure on our members’ lives due to increased isolation, ill health and socio-economic inequality.

In the first few months of the pandemic, we rapidly reimagined our approach. The needs of our members came into sharper focus and our energies went into supporting their basic needs – food, digital access, mental health provision and housing security – alongside a pivot to providing creative and wellbeing activities online and increased one-to-one support and therapy via the telephone.

Our financial sustainability in these uncertain times was a pressing concern. We are incredibly grateful for the help that we have been able to access from the government, our supporters, and new funders. The way our funders rallied around us through this difficult year has been very emboldening. Their flexibility, swift response, and offers of emergency funding not only allowed us to survive but to fulfil our aims, in new and exciting ways.

As well as our focus on members, we innovated new projects to provide connection for some of our freelance artists, and with women in prison, most of whom were locked in cells for 23 hours each day.

We made use of new digital platforms with our partners, particularly our research partners, to find ways to talk to audiences through events online. We strengthened our digital voice artistically with the creation of a film and a radio play, and we are delighted that we will be presenting live work again and to open the doors to our exhibition this week.

CM: Lots of work from lots of companies has been made available via digital platforms over the last year. Do you think this is a way of delivering performances that might continue once the pandemic is over?
CS: Our ambition to strengthen our digital voice was part of our strategic aim before the pandemic, but the necessity of it during COVID-19 has propelled it to the forefront in ways we couldn’t previously imagine.

We now have a blended offer of activities for our members that will continue beyond the pandemic, as it has increased access and engagement beyond our geographical location.

We have found new ways to engage with prisons through our digital offer, and we have broadened our artistic voice to embrace audio and film, which has shown us the potential of reaching new audiences and ensured we communicate these stories far beyond the usual sphere of theatre goers.

CM: What’s coming up next for Clean Break? What can we expect in the future?
CS: Clean Break’s summer season celebrates and reconnects our community of members, artists and audiences, and we are looking forward to the future with an imminent announcement about an exciting new major co-production this autumn.

We know that our mission is needed as much now as it was when we were founded. We continue to shine a light on injustice, to platform women’s voices and create powerful theatre which invites us all to imagine another way.

We are driven by our on-going commitment to keep women’s equality, justice and decriminalisation on agendas and stages across the country. After 42 years, Clean Break remains essential.

The ‘I Am A Theatre’ exhibition runs from 24 Jun-31 Jul at Swiss Cottage Gallery. Tickets are free and can be booked in advance online here. You can find audio play ‘Blis-ta’ here, and the film of ‘Sweatbox’ here.