a close up photo of a butterfly, slightly out of focus

Black History Month 2021: Interview with Tracey Anderson

An interview with Tracey Anderson, Clean Break's Members Support Manager and Esme Allman, our Participation Associate.

Tracey Anderson has been part of Clean Break since 2006, bringing her wealth of experience, passion and joy to our Participation team. To celebrate this Black History Month, she sat down with Esme Allman to speak about her journey, her practice and what makes her proud to be Black.


Hello Tracey! First I’d like to ask you, what was your journey to Clean Break?

My journey to Clean Break was as a performer. I was at Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama and I did the Community Theatre course. At the time I wasn't allowed to do the Acting course, that was for the sylphlike white group, and the Community course was the diverse group. I found it interesting but I can't say I learned everything there. I think I mainly learned my craft after I left but it was good, and I met good people including Cheryl Fergison, she was on EastEnders. We were all in the same college, sticking together, working together.

Then I joined the Black Mime Theatre Company with Denise Wong, she was absolutely my greatest teacher. She taught us what performing was really about, because when you’re doing mime you have to create that world, you have to create the emotions. We worked a lot with emotions as a universal language, and we brought who we were. We created, we worked hard, Denise really was brilliant. I was there for a good couple of years, in the women’s troupe first. The first show we did was called Drowning, which was about women and alcohol. It was just beautiful, beautiful work.

I then did an MA in Theatre Development. I went to Tanzania for three months working with street children, and again I used theatre as a communication tool. Being dyslexic, I didn't even know I was at the time, but being creative and practical, that was my way forward.

After my MA I started to work with the police in Community and Race Relations. That was eye opening and fascinating work. Each time I did something I found a different layer of myself unfolding. It was just amazing work, looking at racism and exploring what race is. I was looking at the ways police were miscommunicating what people do. We would talk about the ‘gaze’ and ‘defence’. I don't know if it’s the same for all Black people, but I know when I was younger if I was talking to anybody in authority, I wouldn’t look at them in the eye. I’d avert my eyes as a mark of respect, because if I looked at my mum in the eye she’d say “you think you're big like me that you can look me in the eye?” But a lot of the police officers, who were white, would think “if you don't look me in the eye, then what are you hiding?” So of course, when they stopped Black people who didn’t look them in the eye, they were looking at them and thinking “You’re looking shifty.” But the Black person would think “I'm looking down, I’m giving you respect, even if I don’t want to that’s what I’m doing.” So you can see these mismatches and miscommunications, because of different cultural experiences.

I was working with the police for about 10 years on and off, and with the Crime Academy on hate crime, I loved it. Working with the police paid for me to train and become a Craniosacral Therapist, which is another way of understanding how the body works and how we process trauma, our lives, racism, it’s very holistic.

Then in 2006 I came to Clean Break, which is about drama, it’s working with women, with trauma. But I won't lie to you the job I came to do at Clean Break, I didn't get, so I thought “I’ll go and work at the post office”, but I didn't get that job either! But Clean Break then called me back and asked if I would teach on the Access Course. I was ready to say no, but then Imogen Ashby twisted me around her little finger, and I said yes. I was having to first teach myself what I was going to teach them, about History of Theatre. But because I had to learn it first, I taught it in such an accessible way, because I had to translate how I was learning it to the Members.

From there I applied to be the Education Manager. I loved that job, we did short courses at the time, lots of courses, different aspects of theatre. One of them we did was make-up for theatre. We always used to do it in the darker months, because you’d be working with colour it was a really uplifting thing. It was also very scary though because Members would have to come in without makeup, so you’d have to be stripped bare. You’d also have to touch, which for some people is a very delicate thing. To work close up looking into each other's eyes, we had to lay the foundation and let Members know what the course was about. It wasn’t just make-up, it was a lot deeper, it was a very rich course.

Then I adopted my son so I had to take time out, and I came back under the tutelage (if you’ve seen Typical Girls, you know that word) of Jacqueline [Head of Participation], as the Members Support Manager.

I want to ask you more about your personal practise. You spoke about how theatre and performance are a useful tool for effective communication. How do your different creative mediums interact with each other, and what does that mean for your practise, especially your photography (- which is stunning and is displayed in the Clean Break building)?

My uncle was a photographer, and I don’t think I realised that I was picking it up from him, he had a darkroom in the garden. There are many Black families here who have black and white photos of their weddings, and they’ll have the stamp of my uncle on there. It's amazing, I didn't even realise.

I think it’s because of how I process things visually, I can't draw, but I can see you, I can feel you. That moment represented is through my eyes, so I'm showing you the world how I see you, through my eyes. In terms of Clean Break when I photograph Members, I want to show them how I see them, I want to show them the growth that I see. I want to show them that they’re participating. Even if you don't want to see your face, I can show you a representation that you were there, so that you know. Even if it’s just your hand, your tattoo, your elbow whatever, so you can know “I don’t have to show my face, but I was there.” It’s about showing you as who you are through my eyes, and I hope that’s done with care and with empathy and respect.

A black and white photo of two hands holding

Photography came up even more because of my son. He's adopted and I couldn’t show his face all the time when he was growing up, so I use different ways to explore that. What I want to do is share those moments that I see, and that's the beauty, that's what I want to be reflected back, the beauty of life to you or to myself.

That’s what photography is to me, and theatre, it’s the same thing! It's communication, it's how we share who we are, the good and the not so good. It's just out there and you're in the story, you can see it, or you can feel it, hear it. I’m obsessed with Typical Girls, and who would think that I would like punk music! But you know what, when you get the story and the song together, come on now!

I was the same way, I've had to be schooled on punk. It’s rebel music and a lot of Black people were punk pioneers, but unfortunately they don’t get represented. I was listening to our Member artists, Eddy Queens and Lucy Edkins play and sing and I felt really invigorated!

I’m singing the tunes in my head now! That song Instant Hit, wow the harmonies in there! You know whether it’s gospel music, whatever, once there’s a harmony in there I’ve gone, I've gone somewhere. That drum, once it beats, I've gone somewhere. Whether it’s tribal, it’s deep when I hear those sounds, I'm taken somewhere else. Yeah, music is very important as well. All the arts!

We jokingly say you’re our resident DJ but since I've been here, we've been online, and the music you serve has been such an important part of celebrating our work at the end of the Season. It shows how we work with care and with joy. That brings me on to what I want to ask you about next. What is the importance of having a trauma-informed approach when you're working creatively?

We all have lived experience of something at whatever level, and for me, my lived experience of trauma is how I can resonate with the Members and with staff. Because who knows what people are holding, the more we can support Clean Break to be safe, the more the job unfolds in a different way. You’re setting the foundation for how you progress through the organisation. Once you've established that trauma informed base, by checking and rechecking and growing and learning, moving on, reflecting then putting it back in, once you do that, the work just gets deeper and richer and it grows in a different way. I think that's what us becoming trauma informed is. Yeah, things can still escalate, but not in the same way because they've been held, you are being thought of, cared for and kept in mind.

For example I hadn’t heard from a Member, so yesterday I just sent her a postcard. I just thought, “I’m letting you know I'm thinking of you.” You’ve not answered my calls or texts, so I don't know what's going on for you, but if I send you something handwritten through the post, you know I've got you in mind. The team have got you in mind. That’s what I think trauma informed is, we've got you in mind. How can we empower you so that you can let that joy come in, because too much of our default setting is thinking “that could happen again, I’m not good enough, they’re better than me, they don’t like me” and that’s protection, don't get me wrong, we have to protect themselves, but there are other ways. Life is up and down sometimes but there’s always a way, and that’s the joy. Jacqueline has a joy that I just hold my hand up to, because some days I'm just like “woah today’s a tough day” but we just fire off each other and she dances, we dance we sing, she brings joy. She has the joy of the company. Hands up Jacqueline, that's my tutelage.

I'm talking about me, Jacqueline, but I have to tell you, Giovanna [Support Worker & Members Assistant] I'm telling you that woman is off the scale! The whole Members Support team we have right now is off the scale!

The theme of this Black History Month is ‘Proud To Be’, so I wanted to ask you what or who makes you proud to be Black.

I have to go back to family, I have to go to my parents. Because I can't envisage coming into a new country with just £5 in my pocket. Leaving all my friends and my family behind and leaving a really hot, lovely place to come to a place that's a bit grey, eating chips out of newspaper. No offence!

To start living in one room, to get rejected from jobs. My mum was telling me about how she went for this job and another woman said “nah they won’t take you, they didn’t take me.” But my mum said “I didn’t care. I didn’t walk this far!” So she went there, I don't know what charm she done but she got that job. But all the rejection, and they just kept going at it until they got their house.

They always wanted to live back in in the Caribbean, so they went back and lived there. That all takes a lot of courage, I'm indebted to my parents. I would not be here now without what they’ve done and the sacrifices and turning the other cheek for all the stuff you know, I won't even go into some of the stories they told me. To me, that’s who I am and I'm proud, and I hope I can make them proud because they've given me everything I need, to be who I am now.

I love that. My family have a similar story, so that really resonates. Indebted is such a powerful word, and I hope to make them proud too.

Family is what you make it, and family doesn't have to be blood. I have friends who are more family to me than some other people who are blood family. When I say family it's about some of them aunts, who we call aunts, but who aren’t really connected, but they’ve been around all along. Now my parents aren't here, some of them will still call, checking in. They just care, they just know. When I say family I'm talking about my immediate family, but I'm also talking about the bigger word ‘family’. You know my son, he’s my family.

My final question before we wrap up, is can you tell me a bit about the importance of joy in your work at Clean Break, in your practise and in your life?

We have a supervisor who we speak to, because sometimes it can be quite challenging, the lives of Members can be challenging, the lives that we live can be challenging. She gave this advice, she said to have hand cream. Have hand cream, because when you're rubbing it into your hands it helps you to get back in touch with who you are, it helps you to ground yourself back. To me, once you’re grounded you start see the world how it really is again, and there is joy. Even if it's raining, that sun is still shining somewhere in the world and it will come back here. Yeah, there is joy but sometimes, because we've got all these other things going on, we're not remembering, we’re not holding on. Right now I'm literally holding my hands like I’ve got hand cream on!

3 postcards which say the word 'hope' in neon lights, laid out of a green sheet

It's hard to remember or believe that good can happen when we've had lives that have been so sad. Clean Break is about making that clean break, it’s about saying “If I trust, if I've got the support around me, there is another way to experience life” and that is the joy, that is the other side of all the other stuff. That seed you plant is going to take time to come up, but it will flower and that's what I think about joy.

We say to Members have a shower, have a bath, let water touch you, experience the feeling, the sensations, it’s warm, it’s cosy. Get something you can smell, something you can taste, something you can feel, music you can hear. Get back to your senses and you're back in the joy. You know I've always got my nice oils and rescue pastels. We should have shares in Rescue Remedy Pastels! One of the hardest things with Covid is that we can't touch in the same way, but we can still touch with our souls. Our souls can meet, our elbows can meet.

My joy comes when I’m looking after myself. And that's what we're trying to do at Clean Break. We look after you a little bit, we give you food, we help you get in with your fares, so that you can start modelling how you can look after yourself. That’s what we’re encouraging. That's where joy comes from, because when you feel good the world is open to you.

Oh, and humour! You laugh till you cry, you cry till you laugh, it’s all a release. Maya Angelou says you should laugh as much as you cry. So if you're crying too much, know you can laugh a bit as well. It’s the same line.

Photo credit: Tracey Anderson

tags : Blog