Clean Break Theatre Company was founded in 1979 by two women who met in prison and believed in the power of theatre to transform lives. Our founders Jacki Holborough and Jenny Hicks were pioneers. The first British group of prisoners to perform outside prison, on release they set up Clean Break as a theatre company for women ex-prisoners, touring plays that revealed the struggles faced by women in prison. Our work is as necessary today as it was in 1979, and we are still one of only two theatre companies in the world whose exclusive focus is women and criminal justice.
In 2019 Clean Break celebrated our 40th Anniversary by embarking on an ambitious journey to document the remarkable story of the company. Over two years we established our archive at the Bishopsgate Institute, interviewed 42 women from across our 40 year history and staged exhibitions to share our story of theatre, feminism and justice.
Our existence is based on the injustice women face in a criminal justice system built for men, by men. The drivers for women’s offending are tightly linked with mental health, addiction, trauma, domestic and sexual violence. Too often women struggle to access support and find themselves punished by a system that does not understand or meet their needs, and frequently exacerbates them.
Our vision is of a society where women can reach their full potential free from criminalisation. In 2021 we hosted an exhibition to celebrate and amplify our rich history, whilst continuing to ask: what has changed? And what kind of society do we want to live in today?
This digital timeline has been made possible by the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund; Arts and Humanities Research Council; Arts Council England; and the Bishopsgate Institute, where Clean Break’s archive is now held.
Here is our story.
In 1977, two women prisoners tried to stage Jesus Christ Superstar in the exercise yard of HMP Durham’s high security wing for female prisoners – nicknamed ‘She-Wing’.
Their names are Jacki Holborough and Jenny Hicks.
They are stopped by the wing governor, who deemed this a ‘security risk’.
HMP Durham's high security wing was opened in the 1960s for train robbers, but was closed in 1971 after a series of prisoner riots and government reports that conditions were 'inhumane'.
In 1974 it was re-opened for women by the Home Office. It held 35 women, yet only three were Category A (high security) prisoners. The intense security measures included strip searches, restricted visits and 24-hour surveillance.
The experience of being in H-Wing had a profound impact on our founders. It was the location of Jacki Holborough’s plays Killers and The Sin Eaters, and they were vocal supporters of a campaign to 'Close H-Wing' in the 1980s.
H-Wing was finally closed in 2005, after HM Inspectorate of Prisons reports concluded, following several suicides, that it was unsuitable for housing female prisoners.
In 1978 Jacki and Jenny are re-united after being transferred to HMP Askham Grange Open Prison.
First staging pantomimes, with the full support of the governor Susan McCormick, they began a theatre workshop with 20 women prisoners.
The group started writing their own plays after growing 'tired of always playing men's parts.' (Jenny Hicks, 1979)
Despite the governor's support, some prison staff remained 'suspicious': 'What we were doing didn't fit into the system' (Jacki Holborough, 1981). The women were not allowed to write about their experience of prison.
The group created a two-hour performance called Efemera, a series of sketches they wrote and performed at HMP Askham Grange. The artistic director of York Arts Centre saw the show, and was so impressed he invited them to perform there to a public audience.
They were granted permission by the Home Office, on the condition that they keep their status as prisoners a secret. The 20-strong group performed under the name Ask'em Out – and became the first British prisoners to perform outside prison.
The performance generated an audience buzz – including a Koestler Award for outstanding art by prisoners, for Jacki Holborough's A Question of Habit. On release Jacki was invited to stage a reading of her play at the Royal Court Theatre in London, on 8 March 1979.
Governor Susan McCormick brought a group of women prisoners from HMP Askham Grange to see the show. Jenny Hicks had recently been released, and meeting in the bar afterwards, Jenny and Jacki decided to form the company.
'Clean Break' was born, and they set their sights on performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Clean Break began to perform openly as ex-prisoners. Their first tour of ‘A Question of Habit’ and ‘Under Eros’ by Jenny Hicks and Ros Davies to the Pleasance Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 1979 brought them recognition and success.
Keeping the group together was a constant challenge. Clean Break was a ‘fragile group with members shifted around from one prison to another and each with different release dates’. One member was released from prison on the day of a performance, and with some women still inside they had to conduct rehearsals by post.
They returned to Edinburgh Fringe in 1980 with another double bill – Killers by Jacki Holborough, a monologue from the perspective of a female prisoner in Durham H-Wing, with songs by Cat Coull; and In or Out by Jenny Hicks and Eva Mottley, staging the relationship between a prison officer and a prisoner on the eve of her release from HMP Holloway.
Clean Break quickly established a reputation for powerful and authentic performances about women and crime: ‘genuine primitives in the Rousseau style’ (New Statesmen 1979).
They took on challenging subjects – women on life-sentences, mental health, hunger strikes, addiction – with their trademark wit and gallows humour, and hosted lively Q&As after every show that provided a vital space to debate issues in the plays.
Each year they created and toured new plays written, devised and performed by the company, including Avenues, Decade and The Good Life which toured to Amsterdam, and The Easter Egg, written by the founder of Women in Prison, Chris Tchaikovsky.
In 1986 Clean Break toured the US with The Sin Eaters, written by Jacki Holborough and performed alongside Jenny Hicks, directed by award-winning director and actress Ann Mitchell, who Jenny met whilst studying Community Theatre Arts at Rose Bruford College. As well as performing in New York and at the Women in Theatre Festival in Boston, they toured to men and women’s prisons across the US, including the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women.
‘Working together with such great passion and energy in those early days was integral to the establishment and long life of Clean Break and other organisations which still exist today.’
– Jenny Hicks, 2020
Clean Break ‘broke the silence’ on conditions for women in prison, and as a theatre company had a unique role in advocacy – describing the conditions for women in prison to audiences many of whom would never come into contact with the criminal justice system.
From the beginning Clean Break was part of a network of committed activists, collaborating and campaigning to improve the lives of women in prison. This included:
Throughout the 1980s, members of Clean Break led and supported the Close H-Wing Campaign, participating in protests and raising awareness through theatre and film. In 1984, 20 of the 35 inmates participated in a mass hunger strike for over two weeks to demand transfer to another prison. Despite these efforts, HMP Durham’s H-Wing was not closed until 2005 – after it was deemed unsuitable for housing female prisoners following several suicides, and 34 years after it was described as ‘inhumane’ for housing male prisoners.
In 1985 Criminal Women was published, a collection of first-hand accounts of life in women’s prisons authored by Jenny Hicks, Chris Tchaikovsky, Josie O'Dwyer, Diana Christina and Pat Carlen. They spoke about their inspirations for the book in a panel interview on Channel 4.
After the departure of our founders, there was a need for new artistic collaborators to continue making work. This saw Clean Break shift practice and commission our first playwright without lived experience of prison, Bryony Lavery to write Wicked in 1990.
We quickly developed an eye for commissioning some of the most talented women in UK theatre, including writers, directors and designers. We offered writing commissions for all-women casts to stage issues faced by women in the criminal justice system. The plays toured to theatres and women’s prisons, accompanied by post-show discussions and workshops. This led to successes such as:
Head-Rot Holiday by Sarah Daniels (1992)
Opening up the world of psychiatric institutions, a trio of performers – including a woman with lived experience of being in a secure psychiatric unit – multi-roled as patient-prisoners at 'Penwell Special Hospital'.
Directed by Paulette Randall, the programme for Head-Rot Holiday featured poetry by women who had been or were still held in secure psychiatric units. It was illustrated by a woman who had been in HMP Holloway’s C1 psychiatric wing, and her painting became the poster for the play.
It opened at Battersea Arts Centre, London before a National tour.
Mules by Winsome Pinnock (1996)
Our first collaboration with multi-award winning playwright and subsequent Trustee of Clean Break, Winsome Pinnock, followed the lives of two young women in Jamaica and London who are convinced to become ‘mules’ - people who carry drugs across borders.
Mules was researched with the support of Hibiscus and prison visits in Jamaica and the UK. A co-production with the Royal Court, it opened in London directed by Roxana Silbert, before being produced in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Yard Gal by Rebecca Pritchard (1998)
Set in East London in the 90’s and told through the eyes of two teenage girls, Yard Gal is a story of friendship and a fast-paced portrait of life on the edge.
It was a huge success for emerging writer Rebecca Prichard, who won the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright. It opened at the Royal Court before transferring to New York, and touring across
Europe. It was directed by Gemma Bodinetz and designed by Es Devlin.
Aspiring to create more opportunities for women prisoners and a future pipeline of members for the company, we embarked on a research project to understand the training needs and interests of women prisoners.
The Survivor – 1991
The first ever performance by the Training Company from our pilot year of the Performance Course.
Sexing Venus – 1992
After the success of the pilot, Clean Break made the Performance Course an annual programme.
Forbidden Fruit – 1994
Devised and written with Anna Reynolds, this was the first time a commissioned playwright worked with our students to make a tailor-made play.
In 1992 Clean Break was incorporated as a charity and limited company, enabling us to access more funding. As the importance of the arts in rehabilitation gained traction, our work grew to include new courses, workshops and increased numbers of students.
In 1993 a three-tier training offer was introduced, starting with introductory courses for women with little or no previous experience in the performing arts, followed by the ten-week Training Company, and a newly established year-long Further Acting Course, accredited by the London Open College Federation. This later grew into our Access to Theatre in the Community course.
We also introduced our first annual ‘writer in residence’, working with the commissioned playwright Anna Reynolds to run creative writing workshops and develop plays with women on our training programme – a model which continues today.
Redevelopment of the premises began, creating four studios, kitchen and social spaces, offices and garden – a home for Clean Break.
The new building was launched on 17 March 1999, by renowned barrister and Patron of Clean Break, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC. Led by newly appointed Executive Director, Lucy Perman, it hailed a new era in the life of the company. Twenty years after the company had begun, we were now in a position to realise our dream of providing theatre-based learning for women impacted by the criminal justice system, underpinned by specialist support in a safe, women-only space.
‘As an artist my commission with Clean Break has inspired and sustained me creatively in brilliant and unexpected ways.’
Lucy Kirkwood, Olivier Award Winner and Patron
Over the next two decades we continued to commission and produce new plays every year.
Today Clean Break has staged over 100 original plays that shine a light on women’s experience of the criminal justice system. This includes 24 published plays by leading playwrights, including:
There are two key pillars of a Clean Break commission: that it must explore the criminalisation of women, and be performed by an all-women cast.
Over time we crafted a unique commissioning process, providing space for the writer to hone their artistic voice and supporting their research into a largely hidden world.
Each ‘writer in residence’ runs workshops in prisons and with women at our studios, developing their skills and gaining understanding of women’s experiences of the criminal justice system.
Our first play took place inside a prison, and prison audiences remain a consistent part of the company’s touring circuit, alongside theatres, festival and specialist criminal justice and academic audiences. Each of these settings speaks to the company’s ambition to connect audiences with women’s stories, stimulate debate and deepen understanding.
For theatre audiences, the plays offer a powerful insight into a world that many of us will only see on film and television. In prisons, the plays are a source of hope, courage and often a mirror of their journeys. In professional settings, the plays reconnect practitioners to women’s experiences in humanizing and profound ways.
‘[There Are Mountains] left the governor visibly moved. She told the audience that she had learned more about women’s resettlement from prison through that performance than in all her previous years working in the criminal justice system.’
Lucy Perman, Rebel Voices, 2019
Many women playwrights, performers and creatives have found their voice at Clean Break. We have discovered new talent, including women with lived experience of criminal justice at our studios and prison residencies. Launching these emerging talents onto the theatre scene is a source of great pride for us and continues to encourage the wider theatre industry to take a chance on previously unheard voices.
In the mid-2000s we introduced ‘curtain raisers’, where Clean Break students would perform short pieces before our mainstage productions, connecting our theatre and education strands.
The first curtain raiser was Five Go To Hollywood in 2006, a performance devised by Clean Break Access students for women at HMP Holloway, as part of their ‘Community Theatre’ module, which became the curtain raiser for Mercy Fine at Southwark Playhouse.
Heart Speak by Zawe Ashton (2009)
17 Minutes by Chloë Moss (2010)
Frientimacy by Stacey Gregg (2014)
In 2018 we received a Tonic Theatre Award in recognition of our commitment to new writing, increasing diversity in UK theatre and changing women’s lives. By producing plays with all women creative teams, we are determined to change the theatre ecology and increase the number and diversity of women working in theatre.
The canon of Clean Break plays has left an indelible print on audiences and the theatre landscape. The plays have been performed across the world, and the playwrights are some of the most admired in UK theatre.
“This is the best thing I have done in my life. I have gained so much, it’s brought back my sense of being – being alive – being someone – being loved.”
Clean Break student, 2010
Our Student Support team offered a confidential and non-judgmental listening space as well as providing travel and childcare expenses, and hot meals onsite. By referring women for counselling, domestic violence, and resettlement to our women’s sector partners, and providing advocacy around court appearances, housing issues, and other statutory services, they enabled the women to continue to attend our courses and achieve on their own terms.
We developed partnerships with probation, prisons, drug, alcohol and mental health services to refer women from and to our services. At our bi-annual information days potential students could see performances, hear personal testimonies of transformation and share food together, creating a regular stream of new women eager to join.
The Access to Higher Education Course ran yearly from 1996 to 2011. It began as ‘Access to Theatre in the Community’ in 1996, and offered 12 places a year to women who had completed our training courses – Acting 1, 2 and 3 – and wanted to take their learning to the next level.
Equivalent to two A-levels and accredited by the London Open College Network, we delivered Access in partnership with City & Islington College. It included a year of theatre-based education, the opportunity to stage a final performance, and enabled women to grow their career opportunities and aspirations, including to study at university.
In 2001 we began a partnership with Royal Central School of Speech and Drama to increase the diversity of women participating in degree level courses, by auditioning and offering places to Clean Break Access students on their BA Drama, Applied Theatre and Education course.
This led us on to partner with Rose Bruford College, Middlesex University, the University of the Arts and others, creating pathways for our students to study at degree level. In 2016, we celebrated the achievements of Clean Break students with an exhibition and research project called Changing Face of the Arts, showing the huge potential, talent and ability of our students.
Access ran for the last time in 2010/11. Increased tuition fees made it more difficult for mature students to go to university, and austerity affected our ability to continue the course. But its legacy continues: nearly 100 women gained the qualification, and many progressed on to university and careers, having re-entered education as adults at Clean Break. The National Youth Theatre modelled Playing Up on our Access course, which continues to run for young people today.
Each year the Access Course would culminate in a final performance by the students, which could be adapting an existing text, devised by the group, or written for them by a commissioned playwright.
Cakehole by Lucy Kirkwood (2008)
Written for Access 2007/2008
The Boiler Room by Laura Neal (2009)
Devised by Access 2008/2009
Cleaning Up by Winsome Pinnock (2011)
Written for Access 2010/2011
Supporting our students to develop new skills to secure employment in the arts and broader fields was a key driver, and in 1999-2001 we ran ‘Breaking In’, offering an NVQ in Workshop Facilitation to enable women with lived experience of the criminal justice system to become trained arts facilitators.
Breaking In offered traineeships to women with experience of the criminal justice system to develop skills as drama practitioners in the community. During the two-year project, trainees worked with young people at risk of offending and other marginalised groups in partnership with community-based organisations and prisons. 11 trainees completed the training, with several completing portfolios for a Level 3 NVQ in Delivering Art Form Development Sessions.
The project was unique in its aspiration to ensure that theatre practice in criminal justice settings was led by those with experience of the system themselves.
In the 2000s we expanded the offer of short courses to create different pathways into the arts for students: from stage management to poetry, voice and singing, workshop skills, literacy and playwrighting. We also developed specialist courses in self-development, anger management, and wellbeing in recognition that these life skills were vital for Clean Break students to progress. By the late 2000s we were running 30 accredited and non-accredited courses for over 200 women per year. Many women studied with us over a period of years, progressing from short courses to longer term accredited courses.
We partnered with the University of the Arts to offer introductory courses in make-up for theatre, costume and set design, and provide bursaries for courses at London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins – offering routes into theatre that were not performance-based.
We established The Arts Placement Scheme (TAPS, later called Stage Works), which matched students with arts and cultural partners to gain first-hand experience of work beyond Clean Break, including as Front of House at theatres including the Roundhouse, Soho Theatre, Arcola Theatre and Royal Court.
Recognising the importance of early intervention with young women and girls to prevent offending and tackle its causes, in 2002 we piloted Got Ur Back: a three-phase project which saw us work in a Youth Offending Institute (HMP/YOI Bullwood Hall), with a local Pupil Referral Unit and with a mixed group of local young boys and girls at our studios as a summer theatre making project.
In 2005 we launched Miss Spent, a 30-hour multi-arts programme for young women in contact with Youth Offending Services, that was accredited by ASDAN and evaluated by London South Bank University. It was delivered five times between 2005-2008 in Luton, Bradford and London for young women aged 14-17.
We then integrated our young women’s work into our onsite programme, launching Brazen in 2012, a theatre course for young women at risk. Our young women’s work continues to evolve – reshaping as we learn more about young women’s aspirations and the challenges they face.
In 2019 we worked with young women to explore the theme of “belonging” as part of a national project funded by the Co-op Foundation, culminating in Belong, a performance at the Arcola Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith. Today we run a Young Artists Development Programme, and in 2020 we commissioned Yasmin Joseph to write Inside This Box for our young artists to perform at the Arcola Theatre and Clapham Omnibus in 2020. (Directed by Stef O’Driscoll)
In the 2010s we created an engagement programme to hold our work in prisons and the newly named Graduate Touring Company. We secured a contract with Manchester College (now NOVUS) to deliver theatre writing and making in women’s prisons, alongside working with York St John’s University Prison Partnership Project which saw us increase our presence in women’s prisons and refine a three-day residency model, which continues today.
In 2015-2016 we began work in PIPEs Units (Psychologically Informed Planned Environments), which had recently been set up in a number of women’s prisons and were designed to support women diagnosed with personality disorders to maintain the gains of treatment. During a residency in a PIPE unit at HMP Send, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm wrote 3:48, performed by the women residents to a small invited audience (including Phyllida Lloyd!) This led to the development of our 2021 production, Typical Girls.
In 2008 we piloted and later established the Graduate Touring Company: an opportunity for students we had trained to gain professional experience performing in short plays which toured to specialist audiences – including probation, the Parole Board, drug and alcohol agencies and women’s organisations.
Each play was accompanied by a workshop to better understand the impact of the criminal justice systems’ treatment on women. They played a key role in advocating for change, whilst also supporting the careers of our graduates.
Our Theory of Change, published in 2017, evidenced the success of our education model grown over three decades, providing high quality courses in a trauma-informed space, with crucial wrap-around support services and clear progression routes.
With a growing pool of Clean Break graduates eager to progress as theatre makers, and the increasing impact of seven years of austerity on funding, Clean Break began to carve out a new future. After 25 years of theatre education, in 2017 we closed our education programme to join the different strands of our work into one integrated model – as a theatre company, first and foremost, that places our Members (no longer students) at the heart of everything we do.
After 40 years we took inspiration from our founders once again to amplify the voices of our Members and find new collaborative models of artistic work that would ensure better representation of women with experience of the criminal justice system both on and off stage.
“Clean Break is rewriting its own narrative at 40 years-old. As our Members will tell you, rewriting your narrative can be life-changing, whatever your age.”
Ellie Kendrick, WhatsOnStage, March 2019
2019 heralded a new dawn for Clean Break. 40 years after being founded, we launched our anniversary year at the Great Hall of the Old Bailey, a statement of our ambition to take up space, to make more noise and to challenge the justice system to work for women, not against us.
We produced Inside Bitch at the Royal Court – conceived by Stacey Gregg & Deborah Pearson, and devised and performed by Clean Break Members: Lucy Edkins, Jennifer Joseph, Terri Ann Oudjar and Jade Small. A playful subversion of the representation of women prisoners on TV and film (created by women who aren’t guessing), the production signalled a new era with our Members at the heart of our artistic work – and centre stage.
The year of celebration continued with a partnership with Cardboard Citizens, All the Lights are On, performed in our studios by Clean Break and Citz Members and led by performance artist Paula Varjack. This was followed by a revival of our 2015 play Sweatbox by Chloë Moss, performed by our Members in a decommissioned prison van, and culminated with our co-production with the Donmar Warehouse of Alice Birch’s [BLANK]. With a cast of 14 women and girls (including two Members), [BLANK] proved our largest production to date, and paved the way for an ambitious future of exciting artistic work, ranging from writer-led to more collaborative practices as we looked to diversify our artistic voice, and activate the lived experience of our Members in all areas of our work.
We published Rebel Voices: Monologues for Women by Women: Celebrating 40 years of Clean Break, offering female performers a rich and diverse collection of monologues by and for women and an opportunity to embody complex, flawed and brave roles. This was launched in a celebratory event at the Donmar Warehouse, which saw our co-founder Jacqueline Holborough performing alongside Patrons, Members and actors including Ann Mitchell, Lia Williams, Michelle Greenidge and Daisy Bartle.
We launched our leadership programme which built on the rich body of training, research and sharing best practice that we had undertaken over the decades. A major research project in partnership with Queen Mary University of London Women, Theatre, Justice, was announced and we held anniversary events including: Activism, Women and Power with our founders and Southall Black Sisters at Shakespeare’s Globe, hearing from Clean Break writers in Here, There, Then, Now at the Royal Court and asking what next for women and justice, with our Trustee Deborah Coles and Patron Sonali Naik QC at Garden Court Chambers.
We ended the year with a filmed interview between two of our Patrons: Dame Harriet Walter DBE and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, called #ImagineAnotherWay, inviting audiences to reimagine a future which does not rely on imprisonment to solve societal problems.
Behind the scenes, we were busy cataloguing our archive, interviewing 42 inspiring women who are part of Clean Break’s story, and preparing for a planned exhibition in 2020 to offer audiences a glimpse into this rich past.
Poised to enter 2020 with an explosion of artistic work to build on this legacy, our plans were disrupted. Covid-19 took hold and our building closed for the first time in over two decades.
Working out how best to support our Members in a time of increased need was our top priority. We responded to the first wave of the pandemic with three projects: Write 2 Connect, 2 Metres Apart and Members Online, each designed to foster creativity, care and collaboration by connecting with our Members, women in prison and our artistic community.
We entered 2021, emboldened by the level of support we received in 2020 and ambitious to bring to life new plans, including investing in our digital voice and global audiences to further the mission of the company in the years ahead. Our 40th Anniversary exhibition was still part of our plans and we secured dates in June-July 2021 at Swiss Cottage Gallery Library to share artefacts, archival material, audio footage and memories from our rich history with live audiences in Camden – our home borough for over thirty decades.
Celebrations aside, our mission is needed as much now as it was when we were founded. We will continue to shine a light on injustice through powerful theatre that platforms women’s voices and invites us all to imagine another way.
Our mission still burns strong to keep women’s equality, justice and decriminalisation on agendas and stages across the country.
After more than four decades, Clean Break remains essential.