Clean Break is participating in the Big Give Christmas Challenge 2020 and this year the funds raised are going to supporting our Members in the ever-changing crisis presented by COVID-19. Over the last year our support has ranged from one-on-one check ins, practical help and advice, care packages, Health & Wellbeing workshops, and an online creative programme. All of our programme, and other services, moved online making them inaccessible to many of our Members who don’t use computers or who relied on our building or libraries to access the digital world. One such Member was Rachel, who was unable to connect when the world went online.
Rachel came to Clean Break in 2018, following years of domestic abuse which had left her with severe depression, anxiety and a diagnosis of PTSD. As a result, Rachel was withdrawn, reclusive and spent the majority of her time isolated alone indoors, fearful about leaving the house for long periods of time. Yet Rachel was keen to reclaim control and make positive changes in her life. After an initial consultation with Members Support it was suggested that Rachel first join our Health & Wellbeing Group, where she would learn how to manage some of her complex mental health symptoms, rebuild her confidence using drama techniques and creativity, and integrate into company life in a safe low pressure environment.
After a year on the programme staff began to see a significant change in Rachel; she became more talkative, developed strong, supportive relationships with other Clean Break Members, and was eager to join our Writers Circle Group after discovering her love of poetry during the Health & Wellbeing Group; poetry gave Rachel the power to unpack some of the trauma she had experienced and the space to rewrite her own narrative and start again.
However, in March 2020 Covid-19 changed everything and Clean Break was forced to close its doors. Yet for many Members like Rachel, Clean Break was one of the few places they felt safe, supported and able to pursue a brighter future. With the building closed and the future now uncertain, Rachel was thrust back into isolation where many of her unhealthy behaviours began to return; she became reclusive, lacked motivation and no longer wrote poetry, her depression deepening as the weeks of lockdown continued. Like many other Members Rachel did not have a computer or internet access and was almost totally disconnected from her loved ones and the women she had built friendships with at Clean Break. The experience triggered increased anxiety and more prevalent symptoms of PTSD.
Rachel never felt she could learn how to use a computer; neither could she afford one, or seen it as a priority. Yet during Covid-19 Rachel was excluded from many services as they went online, including Universal Credit appointments, therapy sessions, and Clean Break’s Online Members Programme. However, thanks to dedicated emergency funding, Clean Break was able to buy Rachel a laptop and MiFi to get her online and connected at a time when internet access is fundamental.
Having a laptop changed Rachel’s experience of lockdown entirely; she was able to access Clean Break’s Online Members Programme and watch new sessions of Health & Wellbeing, Theatre Makers and Weekly Writers uploaded to Vimeo each week, giving her well needed structure and the sense of being part of an online community; she has joined various sessions on Zoom, including Yoga, Drama and Reflective Circles. The weekly newsletter sent by Clean Break gave her TV, film and theatre that she could watch online kept her uplifted and inspired creatively.
For the first time in months Rachel had a routine and access to the outside world. Rachel began to feel less isolated, more motivated, and started to write poetry again. With technical support from the Members Team Rachel’s confidence using the computer grew and she soon began pursuing more of her own interests online, including cooking and baking. As a recipient of food vouchers, Rachel never felt that she had much opportunity to be creative with her cooking. However, with the newfound freedom and independence provided through her access to the internet Rachel started researching low cost recipes online and trying out some of her own creations, something that she has found to be hugely beneficial to her mental health, now that she has the time to really experiment in the kitchen. Rachel is extremely thankful for being supported with a computer and internet access; something she never thought she could have.
Help us support more women like Rachel, whatever the future has in store for us by giving to our Big Give Christmas Challenge. Your donation will be doubled if you donate before Tuesday 8 December 2020.
Can you tell us a little about what you did before Clean Break?
I’ve always been driven to work with people who are without privilege and who live in places where the resources are quite deprived. I feel the injustice and have always wanted to help those who are vulnerable and might need assistance, whether that’s been in the community or in schools.
Immediately before I came to Clean Break, I was working as the education lead for a youth offending service, trying to keep young black boys (in the main) from being excluded from school.
How did you hear about Clean Break and when did you start working with us?
I saw an advert for the role of Student Support Manager in The Guardian when I was on maternity leave and applied, but it was just too soon - my baby was still so young - so I retracted my application. However, they didn't appoint, and I got a call a few months later asking me whether I was still interested.
I did some checking and spoke to a friend who used to be head of arts and leisure at the Council and she said Clean Break was absolutely brilliant and to go for it because it was the perfect job for me…that was 17 years ago!
How did you feel when you first starting visiting prison?
What really struck me was the state of them; physically how repulsive and degrading and awful they were, the number of rats, it was disgusting and inhuman.
There’s something about seeing a woman in prison – an older woman, a pregnant women - it's just another level of everything, compassion, embarrassment for us that as a society this is what we do that, you know, feeling their shame but also seeing their joy that someone's come in, who hasn't got keys, and who's coming to talk to them, to work with them, to laugh with them.
But it was all those hurtful stories about being strip searched with male officers present, being told they have to take a shower, to have a pregnancy test, it was all those awful unimaginable things that really struck me and stayed with me irrespective of the race of the woman, it was a woman being treated like that.
When I say that, I don't want to just say that women are victims, there were real moments in those prisons where I saw joy, I saw nurturing, I saw caring, looking out for each other, I also saw a lot of resilience, a lot of togetherness, a lot of sisterhood in there. I saw moments where I thought my God, I'm in awe of you because even in this environment you have managed to create a maternal space.
Can you speak about some of the pivotal moments and reflections you have on the Criminal Justice System over the past 17 years?
I think one of the one of the biggest moments was Baroness Corston’s report in 2007 when there was a political will to show what was happening in women's prisons. She did her homework, she spoke to women in prison, and her recommendations were completely on pointe.
Another pivotal moment was the impact felt by the introduction of trauma informed work and organisational gender responsiveness by Stephanie Covington in 2014. Although representation wasn’t being addressed at the time, Stephanie also recognised that racism (in itself) is traumatic so when you think of the experience of imprisonment being traumatic, these two traumas are compounded for those women of colour who are in prison. They then have the debilitating lack of opportunity when they get out, so they carry that trauma with them throughout their journey.
There were more women’s prisons back when I started working at Clean Break, but even though we have less now, it is so stark that there are over 2,000 more women in prison. During this time, I’ve seen the decimation of the probation services, the rise in short term sentencing and the disregard for many of the recommendations from David Lammy and Baroness Corston.
Did you see systemic racism in prison?
During my visits, many Black and mixed-race women were telling me how differently they were treated. How they don't get the privileges, “I'm often being told I haven’t done that right even if I was halfway to earning it”. The privileges would be withdrawn. They would never get any of the good jobs (like gardening) which would allow them out into the fresh air. They would have their leave removed so they couldn’t see their children or wouldn’t be given release on temporary licence. These are things that were subjective to the senior officer and then backed up by the governor. It’s all about power. I met one or two people in prison I thought “you're an amazing prison officer,” and then there were many more that I literally shuddered at the thought of them having any power over anyone except themselves.
What these women were telling me was borne out by David Lammy’s Independent Review.
I don't really feel like the situation has changed at all; that's not what I'm hearing from the women who have done projects with us recently. I mean there's no more strip searches and things like that because of Baroness Corston and hopefully its more trauma informed, but we're still seeing the deaths in custody, we’re still seeing things that show there's a lot of work to be done. Prisons are not a place to make money from and once we start looking for profit from those places there will be a cost, but it will be a human cost!
Can you tell us about any of the women you have met during your time at Clean Break (and how racism affected their lives)?
I have three short stories about women who were innocent.
I was really struck when I met a young Black woman back in 2004. She was 23, had a partner – who hadn’t been living with her – but moved in when she became pregnant. Within a couple of months he had changed, no longer the man she had been romantically in love with. Despite her objections, he brought Class A drugs into her home, she couldn't do anything to stop him. Her family lived many miles away and she felt that by telling them she would be putting them at risk. The police raided the house and found the drugs. He was already in trouble and had other charges against him, so he told her that she needed to take the rap for him. He threatened her and the baby so in the end she decided to do what he said. They imprisoned her at five months pregnant, with a completely clean record, and they didn't even question as to whether the drugs could have been her partners. I asked why she thought this had happened, and she said she thought that “they were just happy to get someone.”
She had the baby in prison, and they handcuffed her all the way to the maternity ward, she was in so much pain and distress and yet still they restrained her. That baby remained on the child protection register until she was 18 even though her mother never took a drug in her life and was innocent of the crime. Her world was turned upside down, but she showed enormous strength and resilience and she is doing incredibly well and is now helping other people to turn their lives around
I met another woman in prison, she was older, in her early 50s. She had been a carer for 28 years, devoutly religious. She was part of a team caring for someone in their home when money went missing. There was no evidence that she (or any of her colleagues) had taken the money and when I asked why she thought the finger was pointed at her, she said “I can only think it's because I'm Black”. She was arrested, went to court thinking it would be thrown out, but instead got sentenced for six months.
The sum of money was £10! That floored me, it floored me! She is one of the calmest women I've ever met, she just said “I'm going to be praying, you know I'm sure they're going to find out that I didn't do it, I’m not a dishonest person I would never do that.”
She was a really positive influence on the other women in prison, praying with them, giving them recipes. She was released after two and a half months, spent some time with us at Clean Break and then moved to the Midlands where she could start again to rebuild her life and her reputation.
The third story is about a white woman who was also really young, she was doing an MA in criminology. Her boyfriend didn’t live with her, but without telling her, had stashed Class A drugs at her home because it was a safe place to hide them. He got arrested whilst out with friends and the police raided his flat, and on finding nothing, raided the home of his girlfriend. They found the drugs and questioned her, and although her boyfriend confessed that she knew nothing about them and took the full blame, they charged her, she went to court and she was sentenced to 20 months in prison.
She said the judge said to her that he “wants the full weight of the law to fall on top of her because there is no way a middle class, intelligent young woman like her should be going out with people like him, people like that.” She said the only word he didn’t say was white, she said he didn't need to. Her boyfriend was Black, he also went down, they still charged him, but it just wasn't enough they wanted her to be punished as well, to see the consequences of association.
These are just three stories, there were loads of women I talked to who said that “I'm innocent, I haven't done anything, I've been coerced!’ It's interesting to think how those cases would be looked at now, with a different pair of eyes but who would look back at these stories now and not say that that's a form of injustice?
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Black History Month (laughs) I do have to smile, I mean it's one month to celebrate good food, rich culture, fresh new ideas and I suppose it's also a chance to see many more black faces, new and old on our screens.
I look forward to hearing all the Members ‘sharings’ because there are people who have a myriad of different experiences that are connected to me. It’s an explosion of form, they are full of such rebellion and resistance they are emotive. I can feel quite sad but equally uplifted and empowered there's just more colour on the screen, things just get more colourful, noisier, vibrant and lively!
I'm joyful too because one of the biggest tools against oppression and suppression is humour and you know that's to be found in loads of places but one of the times I see it more is during Black History Month.
But then I think it's all crammed into one month! I mean we're not going to go and hibernate for 11 months, we need to be seen, we are a part of everyday that is the truth. We need to be seen and we need to be heard. I have this analogy which actually was part of a proverb someone told me and it's a bit like during the month we can sing and dance, do whatever with lots of pride and then during the other 11 months we've still got to dance but we’ve got to watch our side and what that means to me is in that month we're out there but when I say dance it means we still have to live, it’s a metaphor for living but we’ve got to watch our side we’ve got to be much more careful those other 11 months.
It’s important that people don't feel that they've been given a month to say every single thing that happens to them or what they'd like to see across the year and then are told to shut up.
What are your hopes for the future?
That’s a big question! I have so many so I’m going to break it down into a few bullet points!
And finally, I would just like to give thanks for all our wonderful powerful talented community of women, our Members, staff, artists and volunteers – and my last thoughts are for all our continued health!
Photography: All The Lights Are On, Tracey Anderson
Paulette Randell MBE is one of the most influential women in theatre and television. She has directed at many of the UK's leading theatres, was the first Black woman to direct a dramatic play on the West End, was the Artistic Director of Talawa Theatre Company and is behind many of your favourite shows on TV. Her path through the industry is also closely linked with Clean Break having met one of Clean Break's founders at drama school. For the company, she then went on to write 24% in 1991, direct one of Clean Break's seminal plays Head-rot Holiday by Sarah Daniels and was Chair of the Board of Trustees.
As part of Clean Break's Black History Month celebrations we invited Paulette to have a conversation with our Development & Members Assistant, Demi Wilson-Smith. The basis of their conversation was 24%, inspired by the percentage of Black women who made up the prison system in 1991 and focusing on the impact the criminal justice system had on young Black women. With the impact of that play as a spring board, in this interview they discuss intergenerational activism, culture, being Black women in theatre, the criminal justice system, the future for Black voices and the search for Paulette's missing play.
In our final 2 Metres Apart blog, Nicole Hall and Katherine Chandler look back over eight weeks of working together remotely.
I was excited, nervous, buzzing before our initial conversation. Having been offered a place on the project it was as though things became very real.
Although we didn’t know one another I felt an instant connection and Kath’s warmth, wit and compassionate nature put me at ease (we clicked).
The hour chat felt like 5 minutes and before I knew it, we were off the call and I was left with a mixed bag of ideas (buzzing).
Being a performer and having the freedom to do what I wanted with it without a pre written script and direction left me feeling like a little fish in a huge ocean (after flapping for a while, I allowed the flow to carry me).
The one thing I did know for sure was that we are a perfect match (thank you Clean Break)
I tried to go into the process with a complete blank page and yet the synchronicity was unreal. We both felt the magic of lockdown coupled with the comedy amidst the trials and tribulations was a great starting point.
On the second call we discussed our week and again it flowed, I felt the element of music (my first love) had to be in the mix. I’ve never written professionally but Kath made me feel at ease about it all as she referenced my emails as ‘writing’ (oh yeah. lol)
Through the struggle of life in lockdown, responsibilities and the lot there is a beauty which is hard to deny; love, compassion and a sense of freedom (when I allow it) when connected with likeminded people (such as Kath).
Third call, again things flowed there was laughter and banter etc – more of the same please!
Our last session was off of the back of me having had a tricky week. I felt a lot more solemn and could be nothing but honest about what was going on for me. Kath helped show me the positivity (she’s a real light) I felt the fear creep in with the feeling of ‘endings’ and Kath gave me a real 180-degree spin on it and suggested it was but a beginning to endless possibilities. Undeniably the experience is one to always treasure and has reignited that fire which had been dimmed (but always flickering) for a while.
Here’s to even more of the same (I hope) the next phase of 2 Meters Apart. To the whole of Clean Break, (Staff, Members and Artists) I thank you (from the bottom of my ‘cheese ball’ heart).
Over and Out x
Me and Nicole first met by phone. I was nervous about the first connection just because we didn’t know each other and I wanted us to get along. Nicole felt the same. We got along straight away. We had an hour chat. We’re both talkers. We had a laugh. Nicole is open and funny. We talked about who we are and what we are interested in creatively. Nicole has a particular interest in music and comedy and magic. Without knowing this I had already started to write a monologue about a woman stand up so I felt optimistic that there was a creative connection already bubbling.
We agreed to meet on Zoom the following week, again there were nerves - what if we ran out of things to say or something went wrong?
Again we talked for an hour. We could have talked for more. Zoom chats have become so everyday and if felt easy to communicate this way. Nicole has lots of stuff going on. We talked about lockdown, about our families, things we were dealing with. Our ‘everyday’ becomes the main topic of our chats. Our days, every days, ordinary days, extraordinary days, bad days, good days, getting through the days, Cardiff days, London days, sunny days, lost days. That feels like something to me. I don’t know what yet. I ask if in our next session Nicole minds talking through her everyday for me.
Between sessions Nicole emails me with thoughts. Sometimes things that have happened in her days. She sends me short YouTube videos of her performing magic. Flashes of who she is.
Our third session was more of the same. We still laugh and chat, I think we’re both open with lots of similarities and common ground and over the weeks we’ve got familiar with each other. Nicole makes me think about stuff. I value our hours.
The openness of the project has allowed us to take our time, see what happens, which can prompt a low level confusion for me that I’m not doing something right but slowly ideas begin to come into my thoughts.
In our last session Nicole talked about the end of the project and I suppose I hadn’t thought of it having an end. I feel like it’s a start. The thoughts, still unformed, are in my head. Stage 1. Phase 1. First wave. Pre-peak - Lockdown jargon.
In our second 2 Metres Apart blog, Funke Adeleke and Danusia Samal reflect on the process of making art in lockdown.
It has been a cathartic journey working with someone as talented as Danusia. She has been helpful, constructive and suggestive along the way. Which in turn has helped to shape the way we’ve worked.
From our first chat we talked freely about our experiences in lockdown and how we are coping.
This in turn fed into our discussion about the things we’ve missed and what we yearn to get back to once the pandemic is over.
We discussed missing live music, performing and seeing shows.
This helped to form an idea of what we would like to put into our creation. We also talked about what has been happening to us as individuals and I told Danusia about my experience of living with a new flat mate and how they are truly disrupting my life.
She helpfully suggested different ideas about how we could go about creating something by the second week. The first being a website that we could use to exhibit the work we create.
We jointly decided to call it Vibrations, as in the feelings that we’ve been going through during the lockdown, both high and low.
In the next week, I started to write different poetry which I submitted for the website.
Then Danusia, suggested that we write monologues from the perspective of the two housemates.
I wrote from the male’s perspective and she wrote from the female’s perspective.
By the fourth meeting we had both worked on the monologues, redrafting them as necessary in the previous weeks, the monologues include music and spoken word.
Currently, I am learning both monologues to record them as a video which Danusia will edit cleverly and they will be on our Vibrations website.
Working on this 2 Metres Apart project has really helped to shape the way I work and ask questions as well as think about things I wouldn’t normally think of.
It has also shown that it is quite possible to collaborate with the aid of the technology that we have available to us nowadays, so although it isn’t the ideal situation. It can work.
It has been a joy to have something to fully focus my energy on as well as material for my acting showreel which is all very exciting for the future and can’t wait to share what we’ve been working on.
Funke and me had our first virtual ‘meeting’ in mid-May – a cathartic catch-up about our lockdown experience so far and the things we missed which Covid19 had snatched away: Theatre, nights out, live events. We’re both actresses and singers. We’d both performed in bands and although the previous year had brought less music to our lives, we both missed live music, singing, and being part of an audience.
You’d think it might be depressing to talk about this, but actually it became an interesting discussion on how we could regenerate that feeling, even if it was going to be a while before we performed anything live, or saw anything live.
It was in that spirit of ‘liveness’ that we let our first couple of sessions be chats about anything. Our week so far, what was annoying us… we also talked about what could we make and how we could be creative. I then compiled a list of some ideas based on what we discussed. You can see them below:
In the end we selected and merged a few of these. We created a website which could be a space to put our ideas. Then we started writing together. The piece is two sides of an argument - inspired by stories Funke told me about where she was living (don’t worry, it’s still a fictional piece!) Funke wrote a brilliant monologue from the point of view of a male flatmate and I wrote a response from the point of view of the female.
Since then, we have gone back and forth discussing and editing our pieces each week. How do they tie together? Who are the characters talking to? What is the journey? Funke is playing two very different characters with opposing perspectives on a household dispute. She is doing this brilliantly. Poetry and music will hopefully weave their way in too.
We are now at the stage of final drafts of our monologues, which Funke will rehearse, perform, and record in the next few weeks. I’m looking forward to then editing the two pieces together – using sound and music and video editing to tell this funny, familiar, and hopefully relatable lockdown story. We have both really enjoyed 2 Metres Apart and we are looking forward to sharing what we have made.
Over 8 weeks during lockdown twelve pairs of Artists met digitally as part of Clean Break's 2 Metres Apart project. It was a space to work creatively, share ideas, and see what arose from the process whether that was to co-write together, to each respond to a selected stimulus, or for one artist to write for their partner to perform. The project was focused on practise rather than product, providing our collaborators the space to explore and experiment.
In three blogs, we have asked 6 of our Artists to reflect on the process of this new way of working, published alongside their collaborator. In our first blog, Lucy Edkins and Sonya Hale share their experience of working together and the triumphs and challenges of making work under lockdown.
A lockdown collaboration sounded like a lifeline to me. My two foster girls have just moved back in with their aunt after a total meltdown induced by lockdown insensitivity to their case from the powers that be. My son and I, enjoying the calm after the storm, were frequenting my little studio near Markfield Park so that we could have a change of scene and get into a bit of spray painting.
In the midst of producing silly self-tapes for adverts, writing up the answers to the Clean Break questions was a welcome slice of reality. In keeping with the self-taping, I filmed the answers in the studio kitchen while my son struggled with his home schooling and people worked around me.
A month after the girls left, I get an email to say I’ve been successful – it starts almost like a rejection, saying how many high quality applications they’ve received, so I was steeled for that, but very happy to get accepted, and later was pleased to see how many familiar faces I saw on the project.
Sonya seemed as keen as I was to get the ball rolling. We were emailing the next day and by Friday I was at a street party with kids doing sponsored runs for the NHS and bunting up for VE Day. After a comedy moment trying to answer my phone, I took the call around the corner away from the noise and we got chatting. Sonya was energised and inquisitive – her method was to fire off a lot of questions, some of which I could answer there and then, some of which I hesitated to share with the neighbourhood.
So, the next step was writing. I did my best to keep up. Essentially, we bashed out the idea pretty quick. Then it was a matter of responding in different media... I was creating a body of work in spray paints, inspired by my son’s enthusiasm for the medium and our creation of a character who did the same. We began by talking up the possibility of a short film idea. I would do a lot of the filming, create ideas for visuals, perhaps do voiceovers, and Sonya would concentrate on the written structure of the piece, the plot, etc.
Sonya worked by getting responses and pulling the various fragments together, always checking in to make sure I was happy with the process.
It became apparent that a short play fitted more into the expectations of the project and what we were able to achieve in the time given. Sonya got busy and thrashed out the results of our to-ing and fro-ing and I responded with a few little edits.
I think the blend of our voices was an interesting and stimulating process, and, given more time and commitment, could produce a unique and engaging piece of work. I hope Clean Break are able to continue to support these kinds of collaborations between Members.
I was delighted to be asked to do the 2 Metres Apart project and even more delighted when I was partnered up with Lucy Edkins. I didn’t know Lucy but had, however, seen her perform in Inside Bitch at the Royal Court theatre and I was very impressed. When we got chatting we discovered we had many things in common; Lucy and I both have a ‘colourful’ past, we both have teenage sons and we are both interested in a variety of arts. Lucy, however, usually expresses herself through fine art while I more commonly write. Initially Lucy said she didn’t want to write but when I read some of her amazing work I knew she had to. Similarly, initially I said I didn’t want to perform. However, after discussion we both encouraged each other and embarked on a real partnership whereby we would both write and perform.
To start with we decided just to have fun creatively; we embarked on a game of artistic consequences whereby I would write or draw something and send it to Lucy who would respond by writing or drawing (or painting) something inspired by what I sent. We wrote and painted some great things. I had not painted since high school so it was an incredible experience for me. What emerged was a lot of wolves and moons and howling and also lots of references to the sea. Also, two strong characters started to emerge, namely Spray-girl and Tent-girl. Spray-girl was very much inspired by Lucy and Tent-girl was very much inspired by me. Lucy sent many images and ideas and I started to weave them together into a short story. Once we had the basic framework for the short story, we could start to shape some of the poetry that we had written in our game of consequences and chisel it into shape to fit with the tale we wanted to tell. Lucy wrote a lot of beautiful, exciting poetry so we decided to include a lot of direct address monologues in the piece. It worked really well.
Working with Lucy who is very creative but historically expresses herself in very different ways to me really encouraged a little artistic explosion whereby we both felt inspired by each other to work in different ways. I have not drawn or painted for many years and I felt very rusty when it came to this. However, our experiences like this in real life became fuel for events in the story that we wrote. In the story Tent-girl, like me, has never expressed herself artistically before and in the story we wrote, as in life, the two girls would never have met before if it hadn’t been for coronavirus but thanks to the lockdown situation they end up sharing a lot of artistic work and uniting on this.
This project, for me, felt like so much more than just a coming together to write a piece for a commission. Lucy and myself really worked as a partnership; we encouraged each other to express ourselves in new, unique and beautiful ways. We submitted the first draft of our little story and I hope that we get the opportunity to work together more in the future, to sculpt it and then perform it together. But more than that I hope Lucy and myself continue to encourage each other creatively, by continuing with our game of artistic consequences amongst other things, to see what else emerges for the future.
The Children's Society - Protecting children from being exploited by criminal groups
Inside This Box is a powerful production highlighting the harsh reality of life of young people who are coerced into criminal exploitation. It shows their vulnerability and the trauma they experience trying to deal with terrifying situations, often on their own.
Young people define child criminal exploitation as ‘when someone you trusted makes you commit crimes for their benefit’. This is the definition we use at The Children’s Society. It conveys well the key components of exploitation – a trusted person taking advantage of children’s vulnerability to deceive, control, coerce or manipulate them into criminal activity. This can include work in cannabis factories, moving drugs across the country, shoplifting, pickpocketing, or threatening violence against others.
Recently, child criminal exploitation has become strongly associated with one specific model known as ‘county lines’. This involves organised criminal networks exploiting young people and vulnerable groups to distribute drugs and money across the country through dedicated mobile phone lines, often from cities to smaller towns and coastal communities. ‘County lines’ is no longer a fringe issue, but a systemic problem reported in almost every police force in the country.
Children are being cynically exploited with the promise of money, drugs, status and affection. They’re being controlled through threats, violence and sexual abuse, leaving them traumatised and living in fear. For criminal groups, exploited children are a commodity they are prepared to sacrifice to avoid themselves being arrested by the police.
There are many signs that a child may be groomed for exploitation or is being exploited – from changes in behaviour to going missing, coming home with unexplained expensive gifts or looking anxious every time the phone beeps.
Sadly, our research report Counting Lives found that signs are too often missed or ignored and that many children remain under the radar of professionals who can help them until they are trapped in the cycle of exploitation. They might only come to the attention of services when they are arrested for possession of drugs, or excluded from school for their behaviour. Even then, questions are not always asked about why they are in this situation and they are treated as criminals and not offered help.
For girls who are criminally exploited, it may be even easier to fall through the gaps. There is not enough awareness among parents, professionals and in the community that girls may be exploited by criminal groups through county lines operations.
Any child can become a victim of exploitation, though Counting Lives shows that a combination of factors can put children at higher risk:
• Their vulnerability as a child, which can be exacerbated if they have additional needs like learning difficulties.
• Vulnerability created by society - for example poverty, experiences of discrimination, lack of opportunities, or the inability to access education.
• The lack of protective factors in a child’s life, including a lack of support from their family or the local community.
• The proximity or access a perpetrator has to a child.
COVID-19 can exacerbate many of these factors in the lives of children increasing the risk of them being targeted by criminals.
Exploitation never stops. Even during the current pandemic, when children and families have been forced to spend more time in their homes, there are concerns that exploitation has continued. Many vulnerable children have been at even more risk. Being away from school and spending more time at home has meant they have been ‘invisible’ to professionals who might have helped them, such as teachers in schools or youth workers. There are also concerns that more are being groomed for exploitation through online platforms as children are relying more on technology to stay in touch with friends and family, and to learn.
That’s why it is so important, now more than ever, that children are supported and protected. We all have a role to play in keeping children safe. As criminals are targeting, and trapping children in exploitative situations, it is the responsibility of professionals and everyone in children’s lives, as well as wider communities, to do everything they can to prevent and disrupt exploitation and protect children.
At The Children’s Society we work with children and families affected to help children stay safe. We also raise awareness among professionals and decision-makers of signs of exploitation and steps that need to be taken to disrupt it.
To help prevent criminal exploitation from happening, we need changes to the law to make coercion and control of children for the purpose of exploitation a criminal offence. We need to change systems that make children vulnerable, address poverty and provide the support they need.
Yet, the first step to making things better is something that does not require any policy changes. It is about showing young people that we care, that they can trust us and that we are there to support them to stay safe. Each of us needs to be more like the train conductor who our heroine meets in this play - kind, non-judgemental, caring and able to act on signs that a child is at risk.
For resources on how to identify the signs of criminal exploitation and what to do if you are worried a child may be being exploited, please visit www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/our-work/tackling-criminal-exploitation-and-county-lines/county-lines-resources
For many of us, the Coronavirus pandemic has brought problems in our lives into sharp focus. For girls and young women already feeling cut off or overlooked, this period has magnified the challenges they face.
‘Social distancing’ has explicitly asked us to keep apart. To avoid one another, not to gather together, form large groups or go to the kind of places that provide us with social support and contact.
For many of the girls and young women Agenda hears from, the challenges they have faced growing up – domestic abuse, mental health problems, poverty - can already leave them feeling isolated, abandoned, and not knowing where to turn for the help they need.
Early experiences of being hurt or let down by family, excluded from school or repeatedly moved between care placements, can be deeply unsettling. Sometimes, when help or interventions do come, these can lead to them feeling further disconnected from the lives they knew. Even when the environment they were living in before was tough, being torn out of it can be even harder, as Sheena told us:
"All my friends are in [my city]… like as much as like I didn’t get along with my family and whatever else, all my friends, everything I knew - I know every street in [my city], I know how to get [every]where."
Children facing greater disadvantage and poverty report feeling lonelier than others; 27.5% of children aged 10 to 15 who received free school meals said they were “often” lonely, compared with 5.5% of those who did not. And as they get older, girls report loneliness at higher rates than boys. Only a third of young women aged 16 to 24 say that they “hardly ever or never” felt lonely, compared with nearly half of young men.
Feelings of loneliness are likely to be exacerbated for young women with other marginalised identities, including LGBTQ girls or Black, Asian and ethnic minority young women, for whom loneliness may also be associated with experiences of discrimination. In the context of events such as the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Belly Mujinga, and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, it is likely that reminders of the grave inequalities some groups of minoritised young women face could leave them feeling particularly isolated.
There can be stigma or embarrassment associated with admitting to feeling lonely. For young women already facing social stigma – perhaps relating to being a young mum, being in trouble with the police or experiencing problems at home – the shame they might feel may stop them from describing how they really feel.
Being hurt or having their trust betrayed by those meant to love them - like family or intimate partners - can leave young women traumatised and have a profound impact on their ability to trust others. Which is why – when young women need help - being able to develop positive trusting relationships with adults and peers is critical. And why having had limited access to that kind of support during lockdown has been even harder for some.
Rebecca, who was exploited as a teenager by people she thought of as her friends, told us about the importance of being able to get support from a specialist young women’s service, and how vital this was to combating her isolation.
"I’m 26 now but I still need support. I’ve got no family support and no friends really, so the support workers here are the only support I’ve got."
The government recognises loneliness as a condition that should and can be challenged. This acknowledges some of the ways in which women might be affected – as carers, if they face language barriers, or if they’re in prison and separated from family. But this doesn’t go far enough to understand the specific challenges younger women might face.
Too little attention is given to the reality of young women’s lives, particularly for girls who are most marginalised and too quickly overlooked. Which is why Agenda has launched Girls Speak to hear more from young women and the services supporting them, to help develop a better understanding of the challenges girls face and find solutions to improve their lives.
We know that young women themselves hold many of the solutions to the problems they face – like getting the support they need to combat the loneliness they can face - and we look forward to continuing to hear from young women like Sheena and Rebecca as we do so.
Jess Southgate is Interim CEO of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk. We exist to ensure that women and girls at risk of abuse, poverty, poor mental health, addiction, homelessness and contact with the criminal justice system get the support and protection they need.
In Spring 2020 Clean Break's Young Artist Development Programme worked with Eastside Film Crew (a programme to develop young filmmakers aged 18-25) to document Inside This Box, a play by Yasmin Joseph, directed by Stef O’Driscoll.
Eastside Film Crew (EFC) is an initiative which aims to create professional film and editing opportunities for young people aged 18-25 years old. The crew of up to 10 young people, have the chance to work on professional briefs, trying different roles from camera operators to editors, learning valuable skills and a portfolio of work on the way over the course of a year. On this project they got the chance to film and edit a live theatre show for the first time.
Both Clean Break's and Eastside's team were women only and the young women from both organisations had the chance to meet and speak with each other, connecting on the themes involved and why they both wanted to get this work seen by a bigger audience.
Young artists from Clean Break and Eastside have written blogs about the project. You can read more about the experience of one of the Eastside Film Crew, Sade Briggs, here and Clean Break Young Artist, Chloё Florence's interview below.
Tell us about your connection to Clean Break
I’m on the Young Artist Development Programme.
Tell us about Inside This Box
It’s a Play that follows Alex, a young vulnerable homeless girl, as she navigates around a city that never seems to be on her side. She finds hope and home in her little sister and follows a path to try and change her fortune for good.
How did you find the experience of collaborating with other artists, creatives and filmmakers on this project?
Amazing - I felt so supported. It was really nice to work with other young people and not feel so isolated and alone in making art. It was hard work but enjoyable, I had so much fun, a very rewarding process.
What do you think Inside This Box says about the pressures facing young women?
That there are so many pressures put on young women specifically and lack of support when they need it. That it’s hard for young people to know who to trust, when they are betrayed constantly by people who are supposed to be helping. That they therefore hold a lot of pressure and responsibility on themselves.
How has the world changed for young people since you first performed Inside This Box?
The Pandemic. For young people like Alex, the pandemic is literally a death sentence. More people are facing having to stay in abusive situations or/and be forced onto the streets. People who don’t have a ‘home’, can’t stay ‘home’.
There are now fewer opportunities and less hope for young people to get out of negative situations because the world has literally stopped.
When we performed Inside This Box, London was a city that never slept. Now, it sleeps. If you have nowhere to go, there are fewer survival options than there were before. Services that help people like Alex are being stretched even further. The hope has been taken away for many young people. It feels like a different world now.
Are the themes still relevant?
The themes are 100% still relevant. They just exist in a city that has changed which offers up a different set of problems for someone like Alex.
What do you see as the biggest pressures on young women in risky situations?
From my experience, I feel one of the biggest pressures on young women in risky situations is they feel like it’s their fault. Their problem to fix; they blame themselves and there’s lack of access to support which leads to isolation. This in turn negatively impacts their self-worth and mental health. Which then can lead to exploitation, abuse, and all sorts of other pressures from dangerous people in order to help them fix their problem. These pressuring situations then become the only place they can find belonging, hope, worth and purpose.
How do you think projects like Inside This Box help to address youth loneliness and to find a sense of belonging?
I think they help by bringing young people together to help find their power, voice and feel part of something collaborative where they are not alone. It’s important for young people to know they are not alone. They might feel like they are the only person suffering in their world but there are thousands of people going through the same thing. It’s not their fault. Projects like this address those issues and bring audiences closer to those people in those isolated situations and show young people that they aren’t alone.
If you could imagine another way, what could the world look like for the character in Inside This Box?
In an ideal world... Support there for Alex without her having to ask for it. The Council gives her a council flat near her family as soon as she needs it. With money / grants to fund it until she is fully financially able to pay for it herself. Support Groups - for her mental health and career. Friends that care for her. A world where she can breathe, that is there for her without chasing it. A world that feels like everyone is on Alex’s side, not against her. A world where she can just be at home with her sister.
This week has seen a global protest against the unlawful killing of George Floyd by the police in Minnesota, USA. We have seen widespread anger and hurt and a demand for action and change from people all around the world. Individuals and organisations across the UK have acknowledged the need to fight for justice and to ensure anti-racism lies at the heart of their work moving forward. At Clean Break we have pledged our own commitment to anti-racism and will strive to continue to shine a light on the presence of racism and discrimination within the criminal justice system and the need for change.
We asked some of our Members to respond to this moment through the lens of their experiences of discrimination in and around the UK’s criminal justice system. Ann, Beverly, Fatima and Sandrine shared their stories in a very personal way.
Please note that these stories contain potentially distressing material for the reader.
I knew George Floyd
Back in the eighties, we were close friends. Full of life, love and laughter. We had a beautiful naïve hope. Content to be in a world we thought was promising us endless possibilities. The harsh reality of how our life would almost inevitably unfold, hadn’t quite hit us yet. The phrase “systemic/institutional racism” hadn’t even been coined. But make no mistake, it was/ is real.
I knew George Floyd
She died in police custody. Not even out of her teenage years. I saw her on the day she was to die. She was planning to spend the afternoon with her young son. Excited at the prospect, she decided to go to town, and shoplift some goods to sell. She was planning to take him out and buy him some gifts. She lived a life, that maybe you would not understand. A product of her environment, some would say. A teenage mum, in and out of prison for petty offenses. Brought up on a notorious predominately black council estate. In foster homes for most of her short life. Crime was the only way she knew how to escape the poverty that surrounded her.
I knew George Floyd
A social scientist would have a field day studying her life. Her young son already in care like his mother before him. Would they have known she had a heart of gold? A zest for life? No amount of trauma she had endured, ever dampened her spirit. This beautiful young black female, may have been a petty thief, known to the police and the justice system. Yet she was also a human being, with dreams and aspirations like all of us. She was happy in the only world she knew.
I knew George Floyd
The “justice” system, which (still) comprises mainly middle-class white men/women, coming from an opposite perspective, a different world view, never actually saw her. She was treated in death the same way she was treated in life. Killed in police custody. During the “investigation” I was told she had hung herself. Told by the very same police who diligently removed, on a daily basis, all potential possessions that could harm anyone. Belts, ties and coat cords were routinely taken away, and given back when released. A police officer who interviewed me during the inquiry, stated her death would be called suicide. In a cell, that he agreed, had no possible means in which to hang yourself.
I knew George Floyd
In the coroner’s report the boot-prints that were found on her face and clothes, were never explained. Bills have been passed, laws have changed, but the heart of man has not. There have been many George Floyds before my friends murder, and tragically, probably many more after. The justice system is broken in this world. My hope is in a God who will judge what man will not. Jesus take the wheel.
Listening to the radio presenter and guest gush over the 'timeless image' of the current Monarch on a horse. I see another 'timeless image' l am not able to let go of - the still at the beginning of the video detailing the murder of George Floyd through extreme aggressive state representation. One member of our human race ending the life of another human being. I'm not going to watch the video, and perhaps (as well as the need to shield @home) that's why l'm not amongst others outside the US Embassy demanding justice that leads to peace.
In the days since the British Transport Police (more human beings) closed the terse investigation into the assault on Belly Mujinga leading to her Covid-19 related death. I'm not getting a sense of justice and the peace lacking in my heart and mind is manifest in protestors worldwide.
These days of systemic discrimination within our institutions that are here for our protection; is that right? Have l misunderstood? These days of relentless unconscious bias are a culmination of centuries of one set of humans with greed, status, and easy living in mind (in my opinion) stating with absolute authority that the people with different skin colour sitting on natural resources that hold, potential prestige for you and yours back home are not just different they are a different race. A lesser species therefore... 2020.
It takes real desire to change, to actually see another person as another person equal to you. Not above or beneath, you, equal to you. I am using the pronoun 'you' intentionally, the second by second, hour by hour, day in day out, work you need to willingly engage in (reflecting on outcomes regularly) to effect the changes that have justice leading to peace as the consistent natural outcome for you and all of us. This is what l want to see; what about you?
With the protests that are alive now, l am feeling real hope (thank goodness cos Minister Hancock understanding #BlackLivesMatter, numbed me) that, more of us are willing to do the work of transforming systems in society that are not working justly for all of us. My biggest complaint is that l don't feel people, other humans enough of us are willing to do this transformative work, that begins with looking within yourself to assess how have l contributed to the situation, am l ok with my efforts to date, and what can l do in this moment to create value for myself, and others, with aim being justice that leads to peace?
People protesting at this time all over the world, tells me, compassion and empathy are ALIVE, and that humans can get it - they don't have to have the lived experience of being handcuffed lying on your front arms pinned behind your back, whilst another human being (empowered by the state which is paid for by you) pushes his full body weight on to your neck as you lie unable to protect yourself and are murdered as a consequence of.
I can't look at these recent present moments of state/government representatives killing - through decisions based on hidden discriminatory values- with impunity without referring to our 400+ years past. And so yes l see l am going round in agonising circles in my heart and mind-the micro, and l see the same in society-the macro.
I'm back to where l began, one of these timeless images is soothing and pacifying, the other, helps, l hope, break the cycle of incomplete humanitarian revolution within our criminal justice system within our institutions that need to develop total respect for the dignity of all lives, yet, for at least the next 100 years emphasise the #BlackLivesMatter, cos we all need - supported by law - to find ways to make these words our reality.
“Stop. I can’t breathe! “-George Floyd, dying words of latest police murder victim in USA, 2020 Ignorance allied with power, is the enemy of justice. (James Baldwin)
Dreams and memories: police abuses of power
Whilst studying at Tottenham college, I dreamt our college disco was raided by police, with all jumping through windows to avoid police arrest of youths dancing, enjoying themselves. I recall waking in terror, sweating, unable to breathe!
This was nothing compared to my feeling, hearing that my dream had come true; my best friend jumped through a window fleeing police arrest and brutality she witnessed. The US police murder of unarmed black man, George Floyd with hands up saying, Don’t Shoot, reminds me of police slaying of Mark Duggan in North London culminating in ‘The Hard Stop’, documented in film by George Amponsah (2016). Armed police were witnessed shooting unarmed black man Mark, contrary to Metropolitan Police allegations of him dumping a gun. UK inner city uprisings: socio-economic, legal and political inequalities Urban 1980’s uprisings in Brixton, Toxteth and Manchester were documented in films:
Blood Ah Go Run (Dir: Menelik Shabazz), examining the inequalities in socio-economic conditions: housing, wages, inequalities before the Law and the CJS. Time and Judgment (Dir: Imruh Bakari) records injustices meted out to the Afrikan-Caribbean community systematically criminalising Black youth.
Comparing experiences globally, I found evidence of sustained police brutality, terrorisation and complicity in Black deaths in police custody and police house searches. What of police legacy: killing innocent unarmed women, whilst supposedly searching houses for Black men: Cynthia Jarett in North London, and Cherry Groce in Brixton, one killed, one maimed? Police investigating police has on balance proved ineffective: examining the New Cross Fire investigation: where 13 Black teenagers died in a mystery fire whilst celebrating Yvonne’s birthday, yet nothing was said. Peaceful marches protested what the Black community perceived as a ‘racist attack’ in a known National Front racist area, New Cross, South-East London. Having agreed the route of the march, police then tried sabotaging the outcome, Attacking peaceful unarmed marchers hoping to provoke violence, but marchers chanted:
‘Thirteen Dead. Nothing said! What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!
Conclusion: Film and music documenting inequalities in CJS, US & UK Activist, Spike Lee’s enduring film message, Do the Right Thing, seeking an end to police brutality could have been filmed in 2020, instead of cataloguing African-American deaths at the hands of racist police officers. Oprah highlighted on her TV show, a video recording of Rodney King brutalized by police saw no appropriate action brought against officer(s) concerned. Junior Mervin’s song, Police and Thieves still rings true now. ‘Until the philosophy that holds one race superior, and another, inferior, is toppled…abandoned, everywhere is War! (Bob Marley song, War). LOVE conquers hate, fear and ignorance, bringing healing and transformation. I envision ‘justice flowing down like a river’, Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
First of all my deepest, deepest condolence for the GEORGE FLOYD family
I am going to speak emotionally and from my heart
It is fucking inhumane the way we treat black bodies
I am so fucking sick and tired of trying to convince people (white people specifically) that racism is fucking alive and well.
you know what
fucking good for you for not being able to see colour
well done for not noticing a security guard following me around shops and supermarkets.
well done for not noticing young black men being stopped and frisked constantly just because of how they are dressed.
I am honestly so sick and so tired,
God I am really tired.
I can’t master the sound
to expressing what I feel
Every time I open my mouth all that comes out is an animal sound
I am howling!
a hyena sounds
I am the hynena
I fear for my
For my brother, for my sister who have yet to be grown
How do I protect them
how do I make it better?
how do I hide them from the system that is determined to claim them before they have grown?
Must take arms
in this war
The anger must be eaten and suffocate deep into my bones rest I burn the world down
I must numb
Must numb all this anger and pain in fear of suffocating myself
This what black people must do every time one of us is shot, put in a cage or humiliated for the fun of it by the system.
what I am told I must do as an individual by society
1) It must be my responsibility to get justice
2) I must be obedient
3) I must wait for nothing to be done by “the judicial criminal justice system”
4) I must be thankful that this time there was video that showed the truth
5) I must
6) I always must
I will rage until I am heard
I will be motherfucking seen
I will provoke until we start getting somewhere
until I am treated the same as my white friends
I will begin burning the world down one corner at the time until something new grows on scorched ground
Something must give and it will not be black people that give
We have given you enough of our sons and daughters
We are the new generations and we are not afraid to take hostages in this war
Seeing as you choose violence as your weapon of choice
Dear our ancestors
Dear our foremothers
We call on you
We call on you our foremothers
We on your children
We call on our continent
Lead us into this battle and may we succeed, Amen
With our thanks to Ann, Beverly, Fatima and Sandrine.
#BlackLivesMatter #BetheChange #ImagineAnotherWay
Clean Break aims to use theatre to keep the issues women face in the criminal justice system on the cultural radar. In our four decades on the ground, we know that theatre intervention work that puts women’s lived experience at the centre is important, empowering, and conversation starting. We also know that the real experts on this topic are those with experience of the justice system.
In the lead up to our Young Artists Development Programme cohort performing Inside This Box at Omnibus Theatre and The Arcola we caught up with them to ask - why is making work about women in the criminal justice system important?
These voices / stories are important and valid and necessary to tell. People affected by the criminal justice system are arguably the most marginalised people in the country and their voices are often never heard and misrepresented. In this strange aggressive political era, it’s more important than ever to tell these stories, give them a stage and challenge people’s perspectives in order to promote positive political change. People often die at the hands of the criminal justice system. The more people are heard, the less people suffer at the hands of their aggressors. These stories need to exist outside of incarceration in order to make change & challenge how society treats these people. - Chloë Florence
The theatre industry is very nepotistic and crowded with the voices of people with limited experience, most of whom have never had to do laundry in their life. It's vital that work is produced by people with diverse experiences. – Lu Dennis
Everyone wants a role model right? Like someone that has walked his or her path; someone to empathise with. We have people like Martin Luther King and Obama; Black Panther breaking box office records to prove our skin colour is not going to stop us achieving our goals in this day and age. Women in the CJS also need that kind of confidence in themselves. Someone to show them that sure they have records, priors and maybe mental health that has held them back on their journey. But that’s not all they are and that is very important. Women in these situations need to know they are strong, resilient and loved no matter what label has been pinned on them. – Tia Thompson
Woman in the criminal justice system are amongst the most marginalised and forgotten groups in our society. Making work about them gives them a voice and allows their stories to be told. It shines a light on the difficulties they and their families face as they find their way through a system where everything feels stacked against them. It is important to produce work on the subject to show that the whole system reinforces the continued inequality and sexism of our society. – Lisa Marie Ashworth
There are still so many prejudices/ injustices against people who have been through the criminal justice system. People rarely seem to think how the person themselves might off been affected by that experience. I hope bringing real stories to life, we can bring a sense of understanding and compassion for women who have been effected/ gone through the criminal justice system. Breaking down systematic stereotypes, that have been placed there merely to oppress, I hope when audiences understand more, they themselves will want to help with the change. – Phoebe Douglas
Real change has to come from within. Making work about the criminal justice system by people affected by the criminal justice system, flips the perspective in mainstream culture and challenges status quo. Making work about any marginalised or silenced group by that group means that’s its informed and true to their own experiences and is informed by what they need rather than other peoples assumptions. It puts people at the heart and allows things to change from the inside out. Telling difficult and uncomfortable stories, with and about complex women. - Athena Maria
To get a real look into how important this kind of work is, come and see Clean Break Young Artists perform in Yasmin Joseph ‘s Inside This Box, showing at the Arcola and Omnibus theatres 26 – 29 February, click here to book your tickets.
To mark International End Violence Against Women Day 2019 we asked Clean Break Member Amanda to talk us through her experience in our Advanced Theatre Group, as they tackle the theme of violence against women with Stef O'Driscoll.
We started out this season discussing what we needed from each other in order to feel safe - we spent a lot of time doing that and some of the words that came up were grace, respect, and confidentiality. Some of us have come from backgrounds where we personally experienced violence and we respect each other's stories and honour the pain that we have individually and collectively experienced as women.
We had one day this season where we devised these deep stories about childhoood trauma, sexual violence, and many of the stories were based on real experiences, however, our director Stef O'Driscoll chose not to use this work for our final sharing. That seems to be the norm when devising though, we create a lot and select the parts that are relevant to what we wanted to show. Instead, we created a piece that is a bit more upbeat - a women's TV channel.
Although some of the pieces are meant to be comical, it's not a joke that we really wanted to empower women and make them feel strong, intelligent and uplifted. It's interesting to be conscious of the fact that so much media out there still does the opposite, whether it's social media, music or television, there is such negative messaging towards women about not accepting and loving oneself and we wanted to create something that did just the opposite. There's ways to do that with heavy stuff and there's ways to do that with light-hearted stuff and we chose the light-hearted way, so there's a lot of music, dancing, and jokes in our show.
Our TV show show is called Herstory - an alternative to History that has stories and content mostly about men. We realised in conversation that it was important to us to bring to light the fact that women have been left out of past narratives such as books, stories, and culture. It might seem like jumping on the bandwagon but it's what Clean Break has been doing for 40 years so it's something deeply rooted in our company culture, you could say we were ahead of the trend. We talk about meditation, sexuality, veganism, the elderly, the environment, menstruation, dating, aging, and poverty as well as stuff that is just for laughs like fake adverts. I think providing a safe place where we can laugh and make others laugh is a way to take a stand against violence in itself.
Amanda, Clean Break Member
Find out more about the Clean Break Members programme here.
This week’s blog comes from Holloway United Therapies who have shared their thoughts on [BLANK] and explain the parallels between the play and the work they carry out with women with experience of the criminal justice system.
Clean Break’s powerful production of [BLANK] at the Donmar Warehouse perfectly illustrates the need for services such as ours. We’re Holloway United Therapies (HUT), a charity established by members of the former psychotherapy team at HMP Holloway, we provide specialist psychotherapy outside prison walls to women affected by the criminal justice system.
[BLANK] is a series of vignettes encapsulating some of the predicaments that women in the criminal justice system face or have experienced, and that we at HUT encounter in our sessions with our clients. To us, the title of the play suggests the idea of women as nameless statistics within a system, endlessly asked to fill in the blanks on official forms.
The hallmark of Alice Birch’s writing is that she does not shy away from the horror of human interaction, and the reality of cruelty and trauma. When watching [BLANK] for us four scenes stood out for thematic reasons;
When we meet Kate in the opening scene, Arms, she is desperate to communicate her excitement about her new partner, ‘Richard’, whose very name seems more than she can believe or conceivably deserve. She wants to be held in his long arms. She asks her daughter in a later scene, Scar, to confirm that Richard ‘gives good hugs’ but the child is wary. She is used to having to summon up her own defensive weaponry, as her needs have always been subjugated to those of her mother. When someone first comes to therapy, they want to be held symbolically and wonder whether they can trust the support – an authentic containing presence - the therapist is aiming to provide.
In Magnolia, a foster mother sits outside, as she always does, on the last night of a child’s stay, and in sharing a peaceful moment with her foster daughter, she evokes a parallel between her relationship to her charges and that of a gardener to a magnolia tree.
"That’s a magnolia tree ….. It only flowers for one week…. Isn’t that incredible? … You tend to it for a whole year and then it only blooms for a week. … But it’s so so so so beautiful for that week."
Together they are relishing the beauty of the present; but again Birch allows the ugliness to emerge, as the foster mother gives vent to her frustration about the fact that she has tended over time to this child, but that it might be her biological mother, who eventually sees her bloom.
In Carrier Bags two young girls are meeting for the first time in their foster home bedroom. Both girls have brought their own ‘stuff,’ in more than one sense. But they do not wish to be affected by the other’s stuff – not even their name. Children whose boundaries have been violated, constantly test them or seek them out in other less positive ways. This is why the boundaries of therapy, known as the therapeutic frame, are so key.
Salt, the final scene is about a woman trying to make amends for her long absence during her daughter’s childhood. Dissociating from the feelings her guilt and pain bring up for her, the mother tries to share in happy memories. But her adult daughter disabuses her of the reality of the idealized seaside outings. Both characters say ‘OK’ to break silences. But for both, OK is a fill-in for loss – loss of what they can find to say, and loss of all that could have been. It’s as if ‘OK’ is short for ‘out of kilter’ as the two women are so misattuned in their recollection and interpretation of their relationship.
Therapy is about working alongside the client to break down defences that hamper development. Some defences seem inappropriate; yet they may be adaptive and essential to survival in a difficult world. We see our clients for up to a year at HUT and once that time is over, we are left, sharing the feelings of the foster mother in Magnolia, with the uncertainty of not knowing whether the growth we have witnessed in our clients will continue to bloom.
You can find out more about HUT's work here.
[BLANK] runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 30 November click here to book your ticket.
Image Helen Maybanks
“It’s a ripple effect isn’t it? We’ve been sentenced but our children have been sentenced with us. It is a struggle.” The preceding words from one woman imprisoned in one of the 12 women’s prisons in England are repeated to us, at Women in Prison, by so many. The experience of motherhood from within prison is often pained with guilt, anxiety and isolation for both the mother and the child left behind on the outside. Nine out of 10 children will be forced to leave their home as a result of their mother’s imprisonment to live with relatives or to go into care. This can have devastating consequences for those children, as well as family bonds which can take a lifetime to repair.
[BLANK] so powerfully showcases this ripple of harm that radiates from the experience of imprisonment, cutting through relationships and severing opportunities to move forward with your life. The play also tells of the complex social circumstances and harmful histories, often rooted within complex family relationships, which chart a course for women to come into contact with the criminal justice system. Childhood abuse and neglect, poverty, domestic violence, mental ill-health, harmful substance use, poverty, inequality are all tightly weaved together to lead you down an inevitable path.
In the UK, we have a chronic overuse of the prison system. Through the decimation of community support, housing, mental health services and refuges, we are now in a position where we, as a society, turn to the police to step in to plug these gaps in services; it is the police who are called in response to someone in mental health crisis or someone who is sleeping on the streets. [BLANK] very clearly demonstrates how all-too-often women feel they have nowhere to turn to – no more room at the domestic violence refuge, too little understanding of post-partum depression, or a family member not equipped to support a daughter’s addiction. Women in Prison has engaged with thousands of women in our prison system who went out and shoplifted just so they could get a roof over their head in prison or so they could escape from a violent partner. Women seek refuge in prison because they have few choices and this comes at great personal risk as imprisonment causes harm to your mental and physical health. Additionally, after prison it will be a greater struggle to find a home or job, your social circumstances and opportunities will have been reduced further.
Women in Prison campaigns to radically reduce the women’s prison population and end the harm caused by prison to women, their families and our communities. Our #OPENUP Manifesto offers 10 solutions to achieve this with investment in community support services and opening up pathways away from criminal justice interventions at its heart.
It is little known that the UK is globally unique in having a network of specialist Women’s Centres that provide support for women affected by the criminal justice system. These Centres provide a community for women to come together to support each other, eat lunch, take part in a crafting workshop, or gardening, meditation, knitting as well as find counselling for childhood trauma, support with addiction, mental ill-health, advocacy to find housing or support with parenting, debt advice, CV writing workshop. These Centres are packed with activities and support in an environment that does not judge and does not punish. They enable women to address the root causes that lead to offending and prevent them from coming into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place. But they are also used by the Police to divert women out of the criminal justice system into community support and give Magistrates an alternative to sending individuals to prison. Women’s Centres are proven to reduce offending and enable women to move forward with their lives far more effectively than a prison sentence ever could.
There are around 35 Women’s Centres across the UK, there are many areas of the country that do not have access to this support and the ones that exist need urgent investment to be sustained. Through investment and Government policy that acts on the evidence we have, the very real possibility to achieve something that we can be really proud of and set an international standard in how to reduce the human and financial cost of imprisonment and create healthier, safer communities for all of us. Our vision is for our #OPENUP vision to be delivered so that the [BLANK] of the future is packed with stories of support, opportunities and hope for women and their children.
Claire Cain, Campaigns & Public Affairs Manager at Women in Prison – a national charity that provides support for women affected by the criminal justice system in prison and via women’s centres and campaigns to reduce the women’s prison population.
[BLANK] runs until 30 November at Donmar Warehouse, click here to book your ticket.
Image Helen Maybanks
This year we were very proud to pilot our first Young Artists Development Programme. Over nine-months four extremely talented young women embarked on a programme of workshops, co-wrote an original production which was performed at both the Arcola and Hammersmith Lyric Theatres, and have each developed their own shows, covering topics such as mental health and police harassment. With this year’s programme now at an end, we spoke to these amazing and inspiring young women to find out what they have learned after the year and what the future has in store.
When I needed help, I wasn’t sure if Clean Break was for me. I didn’t think I qualified, deserved it, had enough experience, had too little experience. I didn’t really believe that there was a place that would be able to help because I felt so alone.
The first time I came into the building I cried and Carole gave me tissues. The second time was the same. The third I was so nervous I couldn’t eat, and everyone was so kind to me. Which almost made me cry again. That was two and a bit years ago. It was also in another universe.
This year I have co-written and performed in a play, developed a new solo show, been mentored by an inspiring writer and met and had the support of the most incredible group of people I know.
But it goes so much deeper than those practical, visible from the outside things. It actually goes so deep that it’s in the territory of not being able to be expressed in words at all. How do you sum up a year of such growth?
It’s in the laughter. The moments of clarity. The shared struggles. The times you don’t think you can, but you do it anyway. Having your space when you need it. Shared food. Cups of tea. Being able to say your name and look someone in the eye while you say it. Speaking your truth and knowing that people get it.
This year has been the start of me finding my voice. The one I’d squashed, ignored, clipped short. It’s going to be a continued and sometimes difficult journey towards feeling self-expression, not being angry, depressed or self-hating. But now it’s a journey that I’m looking forward to, not scared of. I’ve already taken the first step along the way.
I guess the most important thing that I've learnt on the young artist development programme is trusting in each other and believing that if you create an environment of true care and respect, people are going to do their best, and their best is more than enough. I learnt new ways of working and relating to each other in the world of theatre, where this environment is really rare to find. Of course, I had to very quickly learn how to write for theatre, what different roles in the production of a piece are and what you call stage left or right. But an even more precious discovery that I made is quite simple actually. Kindness is not a given thing or an innate personal quality, but it’s a practice. Similarly, love is not just a feeling but an action and solidarity or collaboration cannot come about unless there is true respect cutting deep, deep... and why wouldn't we respect each other? The gift of working with the people I did on this show, was a real privilege and I cannot express my gratitude for the commitment that each and every one of us had towards the play, but above all, towards each other.
My aspirations have developed into a more concrete realisation that I have found my path and direction in life and that from this moment on I am only ever going to be known and defined by my work in theatre and that my past doesn’t matter and all that came before this.
I am now sure as what I am going to do with my life and where I am going. I have gained complete confidence in my skills as a writer but also as a creative. I have something to say and my voice is important and needs to be heard. I am sure that I can create my own work as well as perform in other people’s works.
I want to speak my truth and show people how that can be a very powerful tool. I want to build femme solidarity and abolish the prisons. For that we need to open up new understandings of what a post-police, post-prison world might look like – what does transformative justice look like? How do we need to change the ways in which we hold ourselves and others accountable? I think theatre is a powerful too in imagining new futures. This programme enabled me to start to do that.
We would like to extend our thanks to the Co-Op Foundation for their support of the Young Artists Development Programme.
When a prison van drives past us, on our way to work, or on our way back from buying groceries at the supermarket, we think little about the stories of those held within; the people inside become nothing more than hidden cargo, transported to an unknown destination. It’s an experience of invisibility that many of our Members are all too familiar with, their trauma obscured by a series of walls. Yet with Chloë Moss’s Sweatbox these walls are broken down, bringing the hidden stories of arrival, anticipation, fear and resignation to light, forcing audiences to confront the cruelty of our prison system, even before perceived offenders are placed in cells.
In anticipation of the Sweatbox tour hitting Manchester we caught up with Anna Herrmann Joint Artistic Director of Clean Break and Director of Sweatbox and Dezh Zhelyazkova Producer of the play, to find out how the response to Sweatbox in 2019 has differed from it’s first outing in 2015.
Anna Herrmann: Prison vans are part of our environment, but only for those who either work in the system or who are caught up in it personally, are they any more than a backdrop to which we live our lives. Sweatbox The Play changes that – providing a unique chance to step inside a decommissioned van and experience what it is like.
In December 2018 new guidelines were put in place which included: the provision of seatbelts in cellular vans, men and women being transported in separate vans and pregnant women being given alternative transport. It has been positive to recognise these small but important steps to improve conditions for prisoners, especially at a time when our prison system is in crisis. However, it is devastating to witness the story of Rachel, one of the characters in the play who has been given a short sentence of six months for a first offence. The Government has acknowledged that short sentences are ineffective, and yet sadly Rachel’s story is still one that is very real and happening on a daily basis. It needs to stop. Women’s centres offer a viable and evidenced alternative to custody for women but are struggling to survive. We need to invest in these options and change the use of prisons in society for the future to benefit everyone.
We have been thrilled to see audiences come out of the show very moved and provoked to discuss the issues of women affected by the criminal justice system. The feedback from the first half of the tour has included praise for the writing and acting, which engage the audiences with the subject matter, on a deep personal level.
It has been interesting to hear from audiences that the reality of the storylines of the three characters is entirely new to them, and they have previously been unaware of how these experiences affect the women who have them.
Unconventional settings normally add novelty to productions but in the case of Sweatbox the prison van has been described as the 4th character in the play, as it provides for an extremely visceral experience which has resonated with our audiences and left them with food for thought about the destiny of the characters and the bigger picture of the systematic issues within the criminal justice system.
Through the stories of an expectant mother, a first offence, and a woman living with addiction, Sweatbox powerfully explores the varying contexts which contribute to female offending. Emotionally charged at its core, the play prompts us to question how services could have supported each woman and highlights the importance of preventative support for women struggling and at risk of offending.
If you’d like to find out more about Sweatbox click here.
Arts journalist Holly Williams talks to Alice Birch on all things [BLANK], our new co-production with Donmar Warehouse and her experience of creating work with women with experience of the criminal justice system.
When I tell Alice Birch I’ve read her new play, she’s shocked: “You didn’t read the whole thing? Wowsers.” This is hardly the usual reaction at basic interview prep – but then, the 32-year-old’s latest script is hardly a usual play.
[BLANK] comes in at 214 pages, with 100 separate, self-contained scenes: 50 to be performed by adults, 50 written for children – although fear not, no production should ever stage the whole thing. Instead, Alice’s script begins “This play is a challenge and an invitation to you and your company to make your own play”.
The play looks at the experience of women in prison as well as the impact incarceration has on their families. All the characters are unnamed – simply designated A, B, and so on – but Alice does thread tantalising character arcs and thematic connections through this exhilaratingly experimental piece. It would be possible to stitch together some dramatic narratives about women’s paths in and out of prison – but equally possible to make something abstract and multi-voiced. Crucially, no two productions will ever be the same.
“It’s a strange thing,” Alice acknowledges. “You want to offer something that could be very character-driven, the stakes could be high…but you also want each scene to work on its own, in case a director wants to do something much more kaleidoscopic.”
Her work has always been driven by formal experimentation, from Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. – a feminist text blowing up the conventions of gendered language, which won her the George Devine award – to the Susan Smith Blackburn prize-winning Anatomy of a Suicide, where the words of three generations of women are scored like a piece of music so that they overlap.
In the case of [BLANK], the structure grew out of a very specific set of restrictions. Clean Break actually gave Alice her first ever commission, following the success of her first play, Many Moons, at Theatre 503 in 2011. But Alice “couldn’t find the right thing for ages.” Then, the National Theatre’s Connections Festival, which commissions plays for young people, approached her about writing something too.
Most people would probably not leap to the idea of combining a play for a large youth cast and a play for adult women. But it was this “impossibility” that finally fired Alice’s imagination.
“I couldn’t see a world in which those two things existed – and then that became the point,” she explains. For the young people, the play is about the absence of their mother; for the adult women, it’s about being separated from their children.
[BLANK] has already been performed by NT Connections groups, using mostly the children’s scenes, and watching proved surprising: “You go ‘oh I didn’t see that in it, that’s really thrilling. And terrifying.”
The production, for the first time drawing on all 100 scenes available, will be performed by a cast of adult women, including two Clean Break members, as well as a few children or teenagers. How involved is Alice in shaping this production with Maria Aberg, in choosing which scenes make it in?
“I genuinely don’t know the answer to that,” she says. “I can’t say what should be in the production, otherwise I would have written that play.” And that’s why it’s titled [BLANK] – the invitation is genuinely open. But she adds that there is “something about the kaleidoscopic version that keeps it big, which I think is useful.” That broader approach may reveal how structural inequities within society and within the criminal justice system can funnel women into a cycle of crime and reoffending. Those structural problems are what have fuelled Alice through the writing of this play.
[BLANK] goes to some bleak places, but Alice felt she had to reflect the reality of a failing, overloaded system. “There’s a scene about someone having to make 45 meaningful observations [of female prison inmates] in an hour, and each of those people is at risk of self-harm or suicide. That was a figure I’d taken from a real-life inquest,” she says. “It is horrific: these women are dying. How society treats its most vulnerable says everything – and I think we treat prisoners appallingly.”
Alice had been an admirer of Clean Break since she first started writing. “As a young female playwright, lots of the texts I was picking up were commissioned by Clean Break. And often the plays felt quite quiet; it wasn’t about women walking into places and shooting everybody, it wasn’t highly glamorised. I really felt drawn to the quiet craft, the kindness.”
It’s an important point. Alice’s plays often have a ferocity and anger that’s certainly not evident when you meet her in person – she is a gentle presence, thoughtful and considered. And to see her work as just a howl of rage would be wrong: “I think kindness is really what I’m writing about all the time.”
Holly Williams is an arts journalist and editor. She reviews theatre for Time Out and the Mail on Sunday.
This piece originally featured in the Donmar Magazine.
In the lead up to Clean Break Writer’s: Here. There. Then. Now. we’ve been having many conversations on what it means to be a woman in the creative arts. After a year of stories of me too, gender pay gaps, the lack of opportunity for BAME and working-class artists and arguments concerning job shares in the West End, now seems more pertinent than ever to regroup and share our experiences.
On 7 September we’re heading to the Royal Court to hold an afternoon of discussions with Clean Break writers past and present to begin to tackle some of these problems and discuss what the future holds for women playwrights and why complicated, multifaceted representations of women on our stages are more essential than ever. In the lead up to this we caught up with some of our panellists to ask them two important questions.
The best advice I have ever received is to get rid of my smartphone - Lucy Kirkwood
The one piece of advice that helped when I began is the tried and true old chestnut - write what you know. That certainly kept me going for some time. - Jacqueline Holborough
Call yourself a writer. When people ask you what you do say "I write". Ingrain it into your identity and then write every day, no matter what. Then you are a writer. This helped me to stay focused and determined to follow my dream of seeing my work performed on stage, no matter what obstacles came into my path. – Sonya Hale
Realistically: I would like to see a much greater culture shift in terms of the consideration we give to childcare, so that neither women or men have to choose between being an artist or being a primary care giver.
Unrealistically: I would like every pre-conception we have about what is “good”, “bad” or “important” to be erased, because so much of this consensus is rooted in subconscious deference to the male canon and things that smell like it. – Lucy Kirkwood
The change I'd like to see to help women thrive has to be equal pay. Perhaps not such a problem in the theatre where we sometimes work only for love - but definitely in the television and film industries. It took me some time to realise that male writers on the same level were being paid 20 - 30% more. Maybe it's not so bad these days but fee transparency would be a start. - Jacqueline Holborough
I would like to see more groups, run by theatres helping women from minority backgrounds - different race and class - helping women to hone their skills as a writer. Then I would like to see theatres taking more of a risk to put new writer's work up on stage. It's still really hard for working class women to get their work performed because they simply don’t have the time or the money to spend learning how to write plays. It takes a lot of time and effort to write a play, how are you going to do that if you have to work long hours and bring up kids and stuff?
I think as cultural institutions, in order to encourage culturally diverse plays we have a responsibility to give certain groups a foot up into the industry. My gosh, if we don’t, we are all going to keep on watching the same middle class, vanilla culturally bland plays forever more. Plays that just reflect one set of people's take on life and that's not art. I think we are in real danger of that. - Sonya Hale
Clean Break Writer’s: Here. There. Then. Now. takes place on 7 September at the Royal Court, click here to book your ticket.
To mark Clean Break’s 40th Anniversary, we are delighted to be working with the Bishopsgate Insitute to create an archive of Clean Break’s work, to document the history of our organisation and make it publicly accessible for the first time.
For us the Clean Break archive presents a unique opportunity to study the history of women in criminal justice, feminist activism and alternative theatre in the UK in the 20th Century. Our mission is to bring the hidden stories of imprisoned women to a wider audience, and we hope that the stories in the archive will continue our work to inspire playwrights, captivate audiences and fuel research on the complex theme of women and crime.
We have been working with Clean Break Members and community volunteers to explore the contents of our archive on-site, and will be collecting oral histories from our founders, staff and members past and present. Bringing together these women, we are working as a team to explore the archive with each woman bringing a unique experience and hope for what they want to achieve from the process. Each day the Archive Team have been inspired by what we have uncovered, some highlights so far have included; postcards created on International Women’s Day 2007 which included drawing, poetry and personal opinions from clean Break Members, original posters from productions as early as Sin Eaters and folders of lesson plans from our old education programme.
As part of the project the team visited the Bishopsgate Institute, and were treated to a tour of their archives by Special Collections and Archives Manager, Stefan Dickers. One member stated;
“What insight into how varied and interesting archiving can be – it whetted my appetite to discover more about Clean Break’s history. I also noted the “Harass Your MP” T-Shirts by the Stop the War coalition – which was so relevant to our Clean Break Mass Lobby of Parliament with Women in Prison to reduce the number of women in prison”
We asked the Archive Team what their hopes for the future are from looking at the past, their answers highlighted the importance of undertaking a project which looks in such detail at the past in order to influence the future, these included;
“That more organisations can look to Clean Break as a model of how to change lives.”
“I Have been accepted to do qualification in Archiving at UCL and hope this will help put theory into practice.”
“I hope I can refresh my mind. If ever in doubt that it’s okay to feel the way I am feeling, and it will pass. And with the tools I have picked up along the way anything / everything is possible”.
As well as setting up an archive at Bishopsgate, we will be creating a touring installation inspired by the archive that will tour alongside Sweatbox from September 2019, working with designer Miriam Nabarro, supported by Clean Break Member Liz Whitbread to transform the prison van into a space where you can explore some of Clean Break’s history.
Claire Stone, Heritage Project Manager commented, “In 1979 Clean Break was established by two brilliant women who refused to let prison silence them. We are delighted to be working with our Members, volunteers, artists and the Bishopsgate Institute to share the story and legacy of Clean Break’s work, and how it continues to tell inspirational and challenging stories about women and justice today.”
Ella an Unlocked Graduate joined Clean Break on a work placement, to celebrate Volunteers Week she wrote a blog for us about her experience.
It is not often you walk into a work space and feel immediately welcomed, but the moment I began volunteering with Clean Break I was introduced into the environment with an incomparable warmth and openness. As both a work environment and a centre for creative expression Clean Break presents a safe space that supports and drives both its members and staff. The organisation runs as a well-oiled machine yet allows space for emotion, humanness and humour to be shared. The unwavering commitment that Clean Break has towards it members was inspiring and a world away from the treatment I am witness to every day in my work place.
I have spent the last 20 months completing a graduate placement working frontline in a women’s prison. It was only until I came to volunteer at Clean Break, and saw a functioning example of rehabilitation, that I realized just how dismal and damaging the current prison system’s approach is for women. The services available for women in prison are inaccessible and uninspiring, yet it is charities such as Clean Break that provide a glimmer of hope in a repressive and failing system. During my placement here I was able to observe just how transformative providing women with creative expression and a holistic safe environment can be, I have witnessed the devastating effects that the criminal justice system can have on women’s lives but during my time at Clean Break I was able to see women, who have experienced this system, heal from some of those effects and have space to tell their stories.
The women who I work with everyday have been robbed of their voices, if prisons are to provide sufficient care we need to begin to acknowledge and give centre stage to these women’s narratives. Working with Clean Break allowed me to re-configure my outlook towards my everyday work which had become defeatist and pessimistic, I was reminded of the power of the creative and the strength that a collective group of women determined to create change can exude. I have gone back to work with renewed energy, striving to emanate the hopeful and determined drive of the Clean Break Members I worked with, taking back with me both a restored faith in the potential to change a failing system and the fight to provide women in prison with creative and restorative spaces. The connection between Clean Break and the female establishment is key to this fight and I will strive to raise awareness among the women in prison about the possibilities available to them.
It was refreshing to be part of a workforce who care for each other and strive for a joint ethos and vision, the unity among staff is testament to the care provided by management. The effective management at Clean Break made me acutely aware of the lacking welfare support and management I, and most other prison staff alike, have experienced. This is a topic which is close to my heart and one I am currently writing policy to try and change. The Members team at Clean Break made it clear that their Members are continuously the priority but had a crucial understanding that the only way Members can be prioritised is with a workforce who themselves are cared for and confident.
I knew prior to volunteering just how professional and visionary Clean Break is as a theatre company, you simply have to look at past productions to know this, however it was the everyday running of the workshops that demonstrated to me just how adept this charity is at running a trauma informed safe space for women to meet fellow creatives and explore their own narratives.
The highlight of my work placement with Clean Break was witnessing their celebration of International Women’s Day 2019 which was a chance for both staff and Members to come together, share food, stories, music and inspiration. This moment allowed me insight into the gratitude people felt towards the organisation and the strength that flourishes through creation.
Would you like to volunteer at Clean Break? Find out more about our volunteering opportunities here.
We took some time to catch up with Lucy Edkins cast member and co-deviser of Inside Bitch which is currently playing at The Royal Court Theatre. She shared some thoughts on the process of devising, being on stage and of course, the representation of women in prison in the media.
Fact is, I’ve spent a long time trying to be someone else. What I mean by that is, in order to avoid difficult questions, which lead to a position of no employment and uncomfortable situations which lead to … distance, one keeps one’s past at arm’s length. So, yes, I was interested in this process but, not without some trepidation.
Society is not cool about accepting people’s past mistakes or understanding the reasons behind the life choices they take. I guess where I’m coming from is, yes, I’ve made some bad choices; I’ve done some stupid things, but the history behind it usually adds up. Is this me talking, a version of me or an aversion to me? I dunno, you decide.
With Inside Bitch I knew what I was getting involved with from the start. Yeah, I knew some of it would be about me. I didn’t know for sure if I’d end up in it, I thought it was only going to be a couple of us, so the fact that nobody got weeded out from the initial four was a plus, ‘cause we’re all quite different, so it would have felt strange to lose one of our stories.
Well, I've got to admit I screen out quite a lot of mainstream TV. Probably ‘cause I couldn’t stand watching the crude depictions of criminals. Women and men and let’s face it, a lot of what gets shown is sensationalist (dare I say it?) rubbish.
However, having an interest in foreign drama (I do enjoy a well put together crime thriller, a lot of the foreign imports, maybe because they’ve already been through a bit of weeding) I quickly lapped up the first series of Locked Up, the lurid Spanish equivalent to the US ‘comedy’ Orange is the New Black. Both have in common the protagonist being the annoying stereotype of a slim well-to-do blonde who trips up in a moment of mischief and finds herself embroiled in a world of shock! horror! poor and depraved characters. A world she would not normally enter into; one of ethnic diversity and grotesque power struggles, one which is apparently a ‘way in’ for middle class audiences who want to take a peek behind bars. Needless to say, I have yet to get round to series two.
Spin off to …
Been a while since you were there but the essential bizarre cruelty still remains the same - one set of people are given the right to contain another set of people. The clichéd image expresses what we all fear: the door is shut on us and we are not allowed out. A state-imposed deprivation of liberty. A sinking feeling as we realise our lives are going down the pan; we are apparently so bad, so irredeemably evil that the only recourse our society has is to remove us from its midst and hold us hostage for an agreed period of time.
We were lucky enough to speak to two of the tyoung cast members performing in Belong as they prepared to open at The Arcola Theatre last week - they are performing again at The Lyric Hammersmith on 7&8 March. Tickets are available here.
CB: I’m here with a two of the cast members of Belong which is Clean Break’s young women’s company who will be opening at the Arcola this weekend. Could you introduce yourselves and tell me what your involvement with the production is?
S : I’m Sandrine, I’m an actor I play Esther
Ch: I’m Chelsea, I’m an actor, I play Lucy and the Head Teacher …. And a Security Guard … and Damian!
CB: Sandrine, how did you get involved with this?
S: I remember when we came up with the core of my character, we were just sitting down about two years ago and we said about my hair…. How short it was and stuff like that and somehow, about two years later became this character beautifully written by River and Carys. Its incredible, its been an incredible two years, I’ve been here from scratch all the way to this.
CB: And what about you Chelsea? How did you become involved?
Ch: I came here a couple of years ago to do a course, because I had an interest in acting, but now that I have such a big interest in it they emailed me and called me and asked if I would like to come down for an audition? But I missed the audition! And they still contacted me, so I came down and then that was it! The script just got put in front of me.
CB: Nice to be in demand! The play is touching on youth loneliness, that’s what you have been exploring as a company. Obviously you are yourselves young women in London - do you feel that this is an issue that affects you? That you have experienced yourselves?
S: Yes, for me in so many ways! I remember being 15 and not speaking any word of English and having to go to a school that had so many mixes of people that I’ve never seen. Different people from different ethnicities I have never even thought of, I literally had to sprint to learn English! I don’t know how I got through it!
CB: That must have been really something!
S: Oh it was a fight, I had to fight, I was frustrated because I couldn’t express anything. I spoke a different language from my family as well. I had been to several countries so I had spoken different languages, so it was just really confusing. When you ask a question in my language then I had to go back to translate it in my head. It was quite difficult. So it just came out as anger, just rage, because I couldn’t express how lonely I was.
CB: That must have been so frustrating.
S: Yes it was, but I had books, books definitely shaped me into who I am and turned that rage and I realised that it was more than just rage it was loneliness. So books really became my friends.
CB: And what about you Chelsea? Do you feel like that’s something that’s affected you too?
Ch: I feel like most of the characters, I can touch base with them really. Mix and blend, just a little bit of each, it’s real life. These things happen. The more we dig into the story ourselves as actors the more we are like “Oh my gosh!”.
CB: Do you feel you are learning about yourselves as you go?
CB: It must be quite an experience to go through together.
Ch: It is and it’s so challenging for me as well because I am playing characters that I’m like, just, “Oh my days”, that’s not me as a person. But me trying to be a different person as a character, I’m just like “Oh my gosh”. So I’ve literally thrown myself into the deep end here.
CB: Yes, but what an amazing challenge and potential to absolutely smash the game, its fantastic. And how do you guys feel about performing at two well respected London theatres?
Ch: Not thinking about it! Not thinking about it! I was calm, I was feeling alright until you mentioned that, now I’ve got butterflies.
CB: I’m so sorry!
S: I remember when they said it’s the Arcola, we just went “Ah yeah! It’s the Arcola” Because we were like – there’s no way, it’s the Arcola, it’s world renowned – people see incredible work there. Even to this day it’s not real.
Ch: Yeah when I heard the Arcola, I said “What?”
CB: Then you’re getting a transfer …
Ch: To the Lyric in Hammersmith!
CB: Which is another prestigious London stage, which is amazing! You’re being taken seriously as artists.
Ch: It’s nice, the nerves are real, but the nerves are good.
CB: It will give you energy.
S: That’s why everywhere, every environment I go to I keep saying “Come to Clean Break, come to Clean Break.” That’s why I come to Clean Break, because I get this kind of opportunity with this amazing script.
CB: Thank you both very much for speaking with me.
We sat down with Alyson Cummins, celebrated theatrical designer, to pick her brains about her work on Clean Break/Theatr Clwyd's currently touring production Thick As Thieves. Book your tickets to see the show at Theatr Clwyd, Salisbury Playhouse or Hull Truck now!
What attracted you to working on Thick As Thieves?
Well there were loads of reasons really! I’ve wanted to work with Clean Break for ages, I’m such a big fan of what they do so I was completely delighted when Róisín spoke to me about Thick as Thieves. Also I love working with Róisín, we’ve worked together quite a bit over the past few years and she’s a brilliant director as well as being great fun to hang out with. And on top of all that Róisín I worked on another play together that Kath wrote called Before it Rains which I absolutely loved. Kath is an incredible writer so I jumped at the chance to work with her again too.
What is it like to work with Clean Break and how is it different from working with other theatre companies?
Clean Break is such an important company, and one I’ve admired for a long time knowing their history and their commitment to creating work of such a high standard. It’s not only that that's so impressive but it's also their education and training schemes that are so integral to the production process. Its also really wonderful to work with a brilliant all female team, not only on the production itself but within the wider Clean Break company. I am lucky enough to have worked with lots of brilliant women over the years but I think creating a company committed to promoting and developing women in an industry that was traditionally male dominated is so important. The main difference with other companies is having the opportunity to tour the show to prisons which is a really exciting challenge. From a practical point of view they are not necessarily theatre spaces or ready made performance areas so there are certain considerations that that brings. However its so brilliant knowing you're working on something that will tour to an audience that isn’t necessarily able to get to see theatre or live performance.
What are you hoping audiences take from your design and how will that augment their experience of the show?
Whenever I’m designing a show the main thing I hope I can do is support the story that the writer has written. Its really important that my work helps to tell the story and underlines what the writer has presented. Kath has written a story with amazing characters who have been on really interesting and divergent journeys. What I hope we’ll be able to do is create a space that represents their experience and relationship with the world around them and hopefully through that also show part of their interior worlds.
CB: What was it like to write for Clean Break; how is it different from being commissioned by other companies?
KC:I have loved working with the company for lots of reasons. It is a different experience from working with any other company because of the process. I spent a lot of time initially at Clean Break with the women who were attending classes there and then spent time at Holloway prison with a different group of women who were there.
I tried to go into my time at both places without any thoughts about what I wanted to write about and really just came out with a lot of ideas. There was always, in both groups, continuous reference to kids and family and although we didn’t talk directly about anyone’s stories - because we were there for workshops about theatre – the kids was a big thing and were always being mentioned in chat.
It made me think a lot about motherhood and separation and the immediate judgements we make about each other based on generalised, ingrained ways of thinking and just the way we judge each other about our mothering whoever, whatever we are, so I was interested to challenge that a bit.
The commission was for two companies, Clean Break and Theatr Clwyd so that was also a consideration when I was thinking about the play because the two companies have different identities so the play had to fit with both. I just felt that I wanted to write a really big, small play!
I would say that when I had the seeds of an idea I wrote a first draft very quickly and then have spent a long time redrafting. Normally my plays are between three and six drafts and this play is currently on draft ten. It’s a play with a cast of two so I felt the script had to be really tight, it’s like a game of tennis with dialogue and every word counts so it’s taken time to get it right.
I also seem to start a play with a first draft that has murders and overly dramatic things happening and then through the drafting process the true story emerges which in this case was a reconnection of two sisters that were estranged.
CB: What are you hoping audiences will go home thinking about after seeing Thick As Thieves?
KC: I hope they go away having been entertained for an hour or so. Then if they think a bit about mothers and how we regard each other, that would be good. Themes that runs through are also about our starting points in life, paths we take, helping each other, judgement, class and family. I hope it might provoke thoughts about any of those things but I’m happy if they just like it!
CB: What have you taken away from your experience of writing Thick As Thieves and will it impact any of your future work?
KC: I feel very satisfied with the play now and when I hear it I can see the influences of my time with Clean Break and the women. It was an experience that I really value and I won’t forget it and the women and I think it’s been a really interesting way of working. For me all my plays are different and I think the process of your current one is likely to impact the way you write the next one, in one way or another. The play I wrote after Thick as Thieves was a completely fictional, comedic monologue that I went into with a solid structure and was written in two drafts, it couldn’t have been more different! I enjoy the differences. The next project I’m working on is similar in the process to Thick as Thieves.
CB: Tell us what you’re working on next!
KC: I’m working with BBC and Children in Need to develop an idea for a one off drama influenced by a project that is supported by Children in Need. I’m very excited about it, I think it’s a brilliant thing and very similar to the process with Clean Break.