The playwright and actor answered our questions about Dixon and Daughters.
Could you tell us a little about your history and work with Clean Break up to Dixon and Daughters?
Posy Sterling: I joined Clean Break in 2015 on the young women’s programme before going to drama school. I went back to do Belong by Carys Wright and River, which then went to the Arcola and the Lyric Hammersmith. That was with the young women’s new writing group. I’ve done various Clean Break shows since then.
Deborah Bruce: I came to Clean Break when Róisín McBrinn had just started working with the company. She came to see a play of mine at the Orange Tree and then in 2016 I became writer-in-residence at Clean Break. I had worked in prisons before then, but never in a women’s prison. I subsequently wrote a piece called Hear in response to the Corston report. That show went on tour which included a performance at the House of Lords.
How has Clean Break’s ethos informed the process behind Dixon and Daughters?
DB: It’s quite a thing writing a Clean Break play. You really want to honour the stories of the women that you meet. Not the literal stories, but the essence, because you hear so many elements of them repeated. The writing that comes out in those intensive workshops often reveals a great deal about the experience of the women that you’re working with. I was very conscious that a lot of women I met were incarcerated for a crime that resulted from coping mechanisms that masked early trauma.
You peel back the layers, and at the centre there is almost always a woman who has been a victim of childhood or relationship abuse.
PS: Yes, two thirds of women in prison have experienced domestic violence. One of the biggest questions asked in these situations is ‘why didn’t you leave?’. That question puts the responsibility on the victim. It condemns and judges the coping strategies of a woman who is just reacting to her current or a previous environment.
DB: Absolutely. The justice system often exacerbates the problem. They may have their children taken away; they are removed from their support systems. They are separated and vilified.
Clean Break has a very specific rehearsal holding space which enables us to make this kind of work. The structure opens with a check-in at the beginning of the day, which can be as personal or as general as you like. It’s just a ‘hello, I’m present, this is where I’m at, this is what I’ve come in from in terms of the outside world, I’m bringing this in with me and this is my starting point today’. I’ve worked in lots of places besides Clean Break, but I feel like I would never want to work in a space now that didn’t have a lot of that structure in place.
PS: It’s the antithesis to a ‘leave it at the door’ attitude. Instead, the approach is we are opening up this space together and, as far I’m willing to share, I’m letting you know where I’m at. It’s about being honest and saying where you are. So, even when we are dealing with sensitive topics, we can feel safe. If someone is feeling sensitive today, we are mindful of that. And then there’s the closing check-out as well. If something has come up for you that day, this is a chance to give voice to it. So that when you leave rehearsals, you’re not taking all of that on your shoulders.
Clean Break was founded by two women, Jacki Holborough and Jenny Hicks who met in HMP Askham Grange in the 1970s. But now, not everyone at Clean Break has had lived experience of prison. Clean Break is for people who have been or at risk of being affected by the justice system in any way.
DB: It makes sense to make the reach wider, because the Clean Break approach is to not wait for the worst thing to happen to someone before you give them support. It costs £32,716 per year to send someone to prison. If you invested in them earlier, you would avoid that cost.
Why theatre? In terms of both participating and watching, what is it about theatre and performance that is key to the stories Clean Break tells?
PS: For me, it’s because the creativity around it doesn’t need to always be so in your face and literal. Difficult topics and questions can be explored so tastefully, sensitively and gently in a way that can help you feel held but also released. Ultimately, it’s an expression, and in this company, theatre is a space for women to be able to express themselves.
DB: Creating a character allows for a degree of separation while still unpacking those layers. It creates that distance needed to able to look at those stories; to spend time imagining what it’s like to be another person, looking at how things happened and how they might have happened differently.
Confidence is also a big part of what Clean Break offers. There’s a real confidence building journey in the process of investigation leading to performance. I’ve seen Clean Break Members change through that process. Sometimes when people come to their groups they feel as though they have somehow become diminished or have very low self-esteem. Then through writing or performing or singing, they find their centre again somehow.
PS: I performed in Clean Break’s tour of Sweatbox by Chloë Moss. The title refers to a prisoner transport vehicle, which are claustrophobic, confined spaces (hence ‘sweatbox’). The play is set inside the van and follows three stories. 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’.
DB: Just by stepping foot in the box. What’s interesting about theatre is that the people who are making it understand the concept of imagining what it’s like to be somebody else, but a lot of people do not understand that. Unfortunately, some of those people are judges, or have a role in the legal system, or are politicians. They’re seeing everything through their own lens.
PS: Yet they’re the ones making the decisions.
Why is it important to tell this story, now?
DB: I wrote Dixon and Daughters in 2018 as part of my commission as writer-in-residence with Clean Break. It took me a really long time to decide what story I wanted to tell and how to tell it, and then development was delayed by the pandemic. When we started rehearsals, I was worried that in the four years since we started, we’d have moved on so substantially the play would feel dated. So much has happened in the world since 2018. What’s so depressing is that we still need these conversations.
PS: It feels even more important to tell this story now than in 2019 when I was first involved, because of the increase in domestic abuse happening in the home over lockdown. There was suddenly more coverage on the news and numbers for helplines. Nearly 1.7 million cases were recorded in England and Wales up to 2021.
DB: We’re still in the foothills of it all. Nine out of ten rape cases are perpetrated by someone the victim knows and 31 per cent happen inside their own home. The language of stats focuses on victims rather than perpetrators. Yet, the focus and media coverage in terms of women’s safety is around stranger attacks.
PS: There has recently been a change, [Section 28 for vulnerable victims and witnesses in Crown Courts] to allow victims of rape to pre-record their cross examination straight away, because obviously it can take two or three, sometimes four, years to go to court. Since that change we’re now seeing a higher rate of guilty pleas. Even then the percentages of crimes recorded that make it to crown court are shocking.
DB: I’m glad Dixon and Daughters is on a National Theatre stage. These stories are often examined sensationally rather than empathetically. It’s really important to reach a wider audience, potentially speaking to people who might not have thought about the relationship between trauma and behaviour. If more people had some understanding of the connection between somebody’s childhood or their experience and how they might be behaving as a result, I think we’d be having healthier conversations.
PS: Absolutely. There’s so much silencing. So many women have experienced domestic abuse, but the taboo that surrounds it means that often people do not talk about it and then it’s not acknowledged. It’s important to tell these stories not just because of those who don’t have experience of this, but for those who have. So they can know they’re not alone.
This article was first published in the programme for Dixon and Daughters, a co-production between Clean Break and National Theatre.