Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Posy Sterling: Dixon And Daughters

By | Published on Friday 7 April 2023

Every time we talk to someone from Clean Break, I preface the Q&A by saying “you all probably know what fans we are of this company because we are always talking about it”, and this time is no exception.

Founded in 1979 by two women who met in prison, it exists to tell the stories of women in the criminal justice system, and has been producing brilliant work for more than forty years. This week, their latest production ‘Dixon And Daughters’ opens at the National Theatre.

To find out more about the piece and the creatives behind it, I spoke to performer Posy Sterling, who has been working with Clean Break since 2015. 

CM: Can you start by telling us about what happens in ‘Dixon And Daughters’? Where does the narrative take us?
PS: ‘Dixon And Daughters’ follows Mary over the 48 hours after being released from prison. She comes home to her family, her daughters and granddaughter, and wants to move on and forget what happened.

Her stepdaughter, Briana, has other ideas and over the course of the play we find out why Mary was in prison, and about the ripple effect it has had on her family. The narrative takes us from a biting, darkly funny portrayal of a dysfunctional family through to uncovered secrets and devastating truths.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
PS: Like with all of Clean Break’s plays, ‘Dixon And Daughters’ explores the complex theme of women and criminalisation. Clean Break is a women’s theatre company founded by two women in prison, and uses theatre to change lives and change minds – on stage, in prison, and in the community.

Through Clean Break’s work we see that it isn’t as simple as crime and punishment, and in ‘Dixon And Daughters’ particularly we see the knotty landscape of society, the complexities of people, and how they converge in the criminal justice system. 

Deborah Bruce, the playwright, has so skilfully explored the link between abuse and criminalisation with this play. She has looked at it in all its forms and across a spectrum, questioning what is deemed as abuse, how insidious it is throughout society, and how we can be complicit in abuse.

We also see what we do to cope and survive, sometimes in destructive and painful ways, and sometimes through resilience, community and love.

CM: Can you tell us about the role you play in it? What do you like about playing this part?
PS: I play Leigh, who Mary has spent time with in prison. They formed a close bond in the short time they were there together, almost like mother and daughter, and Mary invites her to stay.

Leigh is one of the 50% of women leaving prison who don’t have stable housing on release – in fact one in 25 women sleep rough after being released from prison – and Mary takes her under her wing. She brings her own form of resilience, humour and fight to the world of the play. 

Leigh also gives us an outside perspective on the family, but it isn’t one you’d expect. For her, extreme violence and abuse has been so normalised that she challenges our perspective and the taboo of these subjects.

Leigh’s response might startle or even disgust you, but she represents the reality of the trauma that is part of the lives of so many women in prison – 53% of women in prison have experienced abuse as a child and two thirds have experienced domestic violence.

I love playing Leigh because through all of this she is – in her own unique way – funny, brazen, caring and truthful.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the playwright?
PS: Deborah and I both started at Clean Break in 2015, although we only crossed paths when I joined the research and development of ‘Dixon And Daughters’ in 2019. 

Deborah came to Clean Break when Róisín McBrinn – director of ‘Dixon And Daughters – had just started working with the company. She became writer-in-residence and worked with writers in prisons, and subsequently wrote a piece called ‘Hear’ in response to the Corston report. That show went on a tour that included a performance at the House Of Lords.

She also has worked on Clean Break’s members programme – a theatre programme for women aged eighteen and over with lived experience of the criminal justice system or who are at risk of entering it, offering workshops and performance opportunities, underpinned by holistic support.

I have been so privileged to have been able to work with Deborah as part of the development of this play – in 2019 when we first met and again in 2022 – and to have seen the play, the character, and both myself and Deborah grow in the process.

From when we first met in 2019, we really had a bond, and I respect her so much as a writer and a human.

Her intention for the play was so loud and pure through her writing, and represented so much of the truth that I have seen at Clean Break; she has really captured and honoured these women without sensationalising or pitying them.

I’ve loved working with these complex characters and stories and I can’t wait for an audience to meet them.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your fellow cast members – and other members of the team involved in the production?
PS: It has been a real privilege to work with such an extraordinary company. Bríd Brennan, Alison Fitzjohn, Yazmin Kayani, Andrea Lowe and Liz White have been a dream to work with and we are surrounded by such a talented and supportive team.

We’ve created a beautiful community where we support each other through what is a challenging play. It’s the antithesis to a ‘leave it at the door’ attitude, we’re here to support each other as well as tell this story.

We are dealing with sensitive topics, so we need to remind each other about why this is important and hold each other whilst we do it. It has allowed us to have a trusting and safe space to try things out and be vulnerable when we need to, and I think what we have made as a result of that is truly beautiful.

It has also been a real pleasure to work with our director Róisín McBrinn. We were both at Clean Break at the same time – Róisín was formerly Joint Artistic Director – but never worked together there, though we have since worked together on projects outside of Clean Break.

It feels so special for us to both be back and working on this play, it feels pretty cosmic that we’re here together!

The whole team have been amazing – stage management Jo, Ruth and Hester; our wellbeing practitioner Sam Llewellyn; our movement director Sarita Piotrowski; and our staff director Monaé Robinson.

Plus Kat Heath, set and costume designer; Paule Constable, lighting design; Sinéad Diskin, sound designer; and Shereen Ibrahim on voice has also been a dream coaching me with my ‘stage screaming’!

Just everyone at Clean Break and the National – both as artists and people – it’s been a really special process.

CM: Can you tell us about your relationship with Clean Break?
PS: I joined Clean Break in 2015 on the young women’s programme before I did my degree at drama school.

I went back after graduating in 2018 to do ‘Belong’ by Carys Wright and River, which then went to the Arcola and the Lyric Hammersmith as part of Clean Break’s Young Artist Development Programme. 

Clean Break led me to explore so much of my creativity and artistry – I studied writing, comedy and performance poetry, as well as performing and theatre making, through their programme.

They’ve also matched me with the most incredible mentors: they introduced me to the Amy Winehouse Foundation who supported my song-writing, Zawe Ashton has been mentoring me for a play I’m writing, and Sabrina Mahfouz and I worked together on a short piece over lockdown. 

I’ve also performed in various Clean Break shows over the years. I sang original music at The Old Bailey as part of their 40th Anniversary and I performed in Clean Break’s tour of ‘Sweatbox’ by Chloë Moss, which we then turned into a film.

That piece holds a special place in my heart: the title refers to a prisoner transport vehicle, which are claustrophobic, confined spaces – hence ‘sweatbox’.

I remember we did a performance for local MPs and a Crown Court judge. The judge had never been inside one of these vans before. Honestly, when I came out at the end, he looked grey. I remember him saying: “I’ve really learned something”.

CM: Have you always wanted to perform? What steps did you take to begin your career?
PS: Yes, I knew all the words to ‘Cats’ when I was three and likely attempted a one hander rendition of the full score of ‘Les Miserables’ by the time I was five! I had a real love for musical theatre.

I dipped in and out of it as I was growing up but that was my only understanding of performing. I’d never seen a straight play or even heard of them. I especially never thought of screen acting as a career.

I remember two wonderful acting teachers I had whilst training in musical theatre as a teenager, Claire Cox and Melanie Machugh, suggested the straight acting route.

I then found Italia Conti Acting – where I think it took me about eight years to graduate from when I first started! – and Clean Break in between.

That, combined with all the life experiences I’ve had – which I feel are the best lessons of all – lead me to fall in love with storytelling, particularly with the history of women at the heart of the projects.

Through divine timing, things have certainly changed and it all feels absolutely more aligned with me than I could’ve ever imagined.

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life so far?
PS: I feel quite spoilt because right from the start of my career I have been working on important projects, in women-led spaces, with special stories at their heart.

My work at Clean Break has been central to this but also working on the film ‘The Outrun’ with Saoirse Ronan and directed by Nora Fingscheidt and ‘World On Fire’ – both in post production – were amazing experiences.

A real highlight for me was last year when I made a film called ‘Lollipop’, written and directed by Daisy-May Hudson for Parkville Pictures, BBC Films and BFI. This was my first leading role in a feature film and will be my screen debut.

I played the lead, Molly, who is a young mother recently released from prison who is fighting to get her children out of the care system. Approximately three in five women in prison have children under the age of eighteen, and an estimated 17,000 children each year are separated from their mothers when those mothers go to prison, so it felt like a really vital story to tell.

When Lucy Pardee got in touch for me to audition after she saw Clean Break’s short film of ‘Sweatbox’, it felt like the stars had aligned and everything had been leading up to this moment. This is what the momentum of the whole film making process felt like.

It was such a unique and special experience because Daisy-May created a magical space for us all to create, the whole cast and crew were amazing.

It also felt special to have real ownership of the role, being a part of the full process. We workshopped it loads before filming and I was invited to the editing suite. I had no idea how rare this was for an actor as it was my first experience.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
PS: I’d love to do more screen work. I’ve only just started working in film and I know it’s just the start of seeing what I can do.

I’d love to continue working on important stories and I’m also ready to break away from the genre I’ve been working on over the last few years and see what else is out there. There are so many stories to tell and I’m all about growth and trying new things. 

I think that’s why this job excites me so much, to really be with a character and create this world you’re in with brilliantly creative people and then you let them go – and they make sure to leave you with something that will stay with you forever. Each one has taught me something about myself and/or the world.

After dipping my toe in the water, and being able to see a part of the wider filmmaking process, that’s really got me thinking about the future.

Last year I directed some screen projects with the fantastic young people who attend Screen School, an organisation I founded in the East Midlands. I love being behind the camera too so I’m excited for what comes next in all capacities.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
PS: ‘Dixon And Daughters’ begins previews on 15 Apr with press night on 25 Apr and final performance on 10 Jun. After finishing a job, I love heading up to see the students at Screen School and share all I have learnt with them. Working with young people is such a huge part of my purpose so I’m very grateful to have such an amazing team.

The big moment for me this year is starting the next part of the ‘Lollipop’ journey and sharing our ‘film baby’ with everyone. It’s my first time doing press for a film so I’m really looking forward to that, and seeing the creative team again and celebrating each and every one of them. ‘The Outrun’ will be out soon too, so you’ll be seeing my face quite a bit!

‘Dixon And Daughters’ is on at the National Theatre from 15 Apr-10 Jun. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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