Clean Break has been taking its artistic work into women’s prisons for decades. It has been a central tenant of our work that the plays we produce which tell the hidden stories of women who have experience of the criminal justice system should also be seen by women currently serving prison sentences, who we know rarely get the opportunity to see their own experiences portrayed sensitively or without judgement on national stages, television screens or in the media. Our belief is that by seeing these stories shown compassionately on stage, individual women’s emotions of pain and isolation in relation to their own story might, for a short time at least, be lessened and new possibilities of hope, community and feeling understood might take root.
The play is a part of the whole experience that we offer – the women see it then have the opportunity to explore the themes through a range of theatre and writing activities that we facilitate. The women are therefore not passive but very much active agents, bringing their own ideas and experiences to the work. This act of taking plays about women caught up in the criminal justice system into women’s prisons has often been questioned by others on the premise that, why would women living through the challenges of issues such as poverty, abuse or distress want to see these exact same issues on stage? Why don’t we commission plays which purely entertain and provide an outlet and a moment of escape and freedom from this? And of course, we believe that women should have this opportunity as well. There could be lots of different types of theatre inside prisons – humanising the experience of imprisonment and bringing the transformative power of arts and culture to benefit all. But our primary purpose has been to bring theatre which holds a mirror up to women’s lives and to use this as a starting point for a creative conversation with the women in the audience about their own lives, their futures and their potential.
It was with this purpose that we embarked on our Autumn prison tour 2018 with Thick as Thieves, our co-production with Theatr Clwyd written by Katherine Chandler which highlights the enduring effects of childhood abuse on the life chances of adults and asks questions about what neglect is and how do we change. It is a painful story but there is hope of change and the possibility of reconciliation at the end.
We had the intention of bringing this play to women’s prisons right from the beginning, before we knew the script. Our last prison tour had been in 2013 and we wanted to reconnect and renew this commitment to women prisoners seeing our work. Once the play itself had been written, the question of how we could responsibly bring this into prisons was at the forefront of our minds. The play was powerful, the story felt real and reflective of the many women whose stories we knew – childhoods marred by neglect and women at risk of losing their children whilst in prison. So the question begged,
How could we ensure that women prisoners seeing the play had the support structures in place to cope with any difficult and strong emotions it evoked?
One option was to only bring extracts of the play in, however, we dismissed this as it felt like short changing the audience, we felt it was important for them to have the full experience of the play and the production. So instead we set about shaping the package of creative activities that surrounded the play to ensure that the engagement was positive and safe. Our plans started with conversations held with the Education departments and key staff in each of the prisons – talking to them about the possible length of engagement, content of the play and drawing on their knowledge of how best to implement our plans.
Could we make sure that the women who sign up know in advance what the themes are and are able to make a choice about their participation?
Our biggest fear was that mothers who were going through court orders themselves would find themselves in the chapel watching this story unfold without having any idea of what they had signed up to. We also asked to work with a group of no more than twenty women – so that all the women who see the play can also take part in all the workshop activity. We decided that we also needed to run taster sessions before-hand to prepare women for the play and address any concerns they might have and give them the choice to withdraw at that point. The prisons had an option of engaging us for a minimum of one day and maximum of four consecutive days. The one-day programme featured some preparatory drama work, watching the play and then a workshop for the women to process the themes, and create their own responses. The four-day programme extended the exploration of the themes over two days and then spent the final two days facilitating the women to write their own scenes which were performed on the final afternoon by the two actors who had been in the play.
In exploring the themes, the audience were invited to talk to Gail and Karen, the characters from the play, and ask them questions about their lives. Following this we invited the women to offer the characters advice - the women were clear that Gail needed to see through the changes she wanted to make in her life, and that Karen needed to face her past in order to move on. Finally we invited them to imagine positive futures for Gail and Karen which the actors then improvised. This was important to focus on the future and to create a sense of possibility as we were careful not to feed feelings of hopelessness that might exist already. The creation of their own response pieces was the point at which we handed over the narrative to the participating women, asking them,
What do you want to write about? What do you have to say to an audience?
We didn’t ask them to write their own life stories – they worked in the realm of their imaginations – an important asset that we all have – and created characters which were sparked by the story of Thick as Thieves, and the themes that had resonated for them. Most notably, each woman told a different story and each woman’s starting premise was that she didn’t believe she could do it. When they saw the actors perform their pieces, there were many tears of joy and pride at what they had achieved. Everyone in the space was profoundly moved by this shared experience. Their feedback confirmed this. The difficult themes of the play had spoken truthfully to the audience – but it hadn’t been too much.
Bringing Thick as Thieves into prisons has reaffirmed my assertion that women in prison benefit hugely from seeing truthful plays which reflects their lives and from having the opportunity to work through the themes and have the space to express their own voice and become the writers and performers themselves.