“It is to do with cuts. It’s to do with the fact that we’re in a governmental structure that really ignores the needs of the most vulnerable.” Róisín McBrinn, Head of the Artisic Programme at Clean Break, is discussing the accumulating stresses placed on organisations like the one she works for that help marginalised women, including those in – or just leaving – the criminal justice system.
Clean Break is both a theatre company producing new works written and performed by women, and a much larger organisation proving education and theatrical training. “Clean Break is part of a massive network of organisations that work directly with vulnerable women. And there’s absolutely no doubt that over the past six years there has been extraordinary pressure put on most of our partners and thus the offering for women, particularly for women in resettlement (the women leaving prison) and trying to help them.” These pressures encompass both facets of the company. On the one hand, like all theatre companies, Clean Break has dealt with diminishing arts budgets. On the other, their student support team – “the front face and the first place that a student will come to Clean Break to be assessed” – have found themselves providing “services outside of our remit, including housing support and various different elements of life support we may not have had to do when there was more governmental support.”
Yet despite this rather gloomy prognosis for the current state of support for the type of women Clean Break works with, the trajectory of the company since its creation in 1979 reads only as a success story. McBrinn credits Lucy Perman, the Executive Director, with having “steered the company through a huge amount. We’ve increased a lot of what we do; our public profile, but also our funding and how that works. But you know, resilience is a word that’s used a lot in the organisation.”
Housed in a selection of light, airy and crisply white rooms off Kentish Town High Street, the Clean Break studios see up to two hundred women a year come through its doors to work on the education programme where they can study for qualifications. In addition to this, it also commissions playwrights to work on both the education and engagement programmes, including going into prisons such as H.M. Prison Styal in Cheshire and the soon to be closed H.M. Prison Holloway in London. Graduates of their courses both go on to work in theatre – including with Clean Break as professionals at a later date – and in other professions, helped by the confidence and skills completing the courses has given them. A recent news story highlighted a graduate starting a Masters Degree at the Central School of Speech and Drama. McBrinn, however, is quick to point out that all success is relative and equally important – a story like that one is not seen as having more weight than when a woman makes significant steps forward in any personal or creative way. Just completing the programme in itself is often enough of an achievement.
McBrinn’s own projects since taking the role in 2014 have included inaugurating an emerging writers programme for female BME writers. It was out of this programme that Clean Break’s current productions, House by Somalia Seaton and Amongst The Reeds by Chino Odimba, were created. The pair played at the Assembly George Square Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2016, and transfer to The Yard in Hackney from 1 – 17 September. House is about a women returning to the family home after a five-year absence to re-meet the mother who used the religious teachings of the Nigerian church as a reason to neglect her child. Amongst The Reeds is about two homeless women existing in a co-dependent relationship. With one woman heavily pregnant, they are forced to consider making themselves visible to the wider world. The two pieces are presented as a double bill; a decision McBrinn believes works well.
“I always thought they worked as a good and interesting couple… They share a lot whilst being very different stories and hugely different voices in that both writers are very distinctive from one another as well as being alone quite distinctive. The umbrella is the organisation itself. But both plays are about invisible worlds, so we’re being invited in to internal places that you don’t get to see normally; they’re kind of about hidden stories.”
In between going from Edinburgh to London, the company are making a “few cuts” and also considered changing the running order of the plays. Audience and critical reaction has so far been largely positive. Although in terms of using this to develop the works, getting honest feedback from the former can be challenging. “People who react to plays react positively. You don’t get negative feedback…they don’t tweet about bad things! It’s more about listening in a room for me as a director. So listening to when an audience gets fidgety or listening to when they laugh, for example. Or they don’t. And then the few people who do confide in me and who I trust to give me feedback, are important.”
Audience reaction in general is vital to Clean Break. One of their aims is to help change perceptions of women inmates and vulnerable women living on the edges of society. This theme is being taken up in a future work for the company by Deborah Pearson and Stacey Gregg, which looks directly at mainstream perceptions of female prisoners. I ask McBrinn if she thinks Clean Break plays do change audiences’ perceptions, or if the people who buy tickets are already largely sympathetic to the cause.
“It really depends. That was one of the reasons it was exciting to be at the RSC,” she begins. Clean Break recently performed Joanne, a one-woman play comprised of five monologues at The Other Space in Stratford-upon-Avon as part of the Making Mischief Season.
“That audience don’t necessarily know us and we don’t know them and that is one of our aims. So that was fantastic. And also occasionally the reach of the organisation is quite broad. We are a women’s theatre company so you get feminists who come to the play, for instance, but also female theatre makers. And we also work a lot with writers so there’s a huge cross section for just audiences who are interested in new writing, as well as liberal audiences.”
With this in mind, it’s worth remembering that Clean Break also operate not only with the political aims in mind, but also artistic ones.
“I think though, as well, it would be a real shame is someone came as you say: the converted, and then weren’t altered by anything. I think regardless of your political sway I hope that a Clean Break play changes your heart a little bit as well. These are pieces of drama and we want, like any great theatrical experience to bring you on a journey that is not alone, intellectually, I hope.”
Prior to working at Clean Break, McBrinn was the Associate Director at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff. The political aims and ethos of Clean Break can easily overshadow thinking of them as a theatre company in the same way as others. McBrinn states that, “I got this job because I am a theatre director so I sort of treat it how I would another rehearsal room, it’s about telling stories and opening up people’s lives to an audience.”
The specifics of Clean Break as a unique organisation are, for McBrinn, “a liberating thing rather than anything else. You suddenly realise how vast the array of story-writing potential is when you look at women and the cross-section between women and criminal justice, and vulnerability and victimisation, but also the law and where they all come together. It suddenly means that you’re talking about huge, massive swathes of how we act and how we live as a society. Which is fascinating.”
Being female-centric is central to what Clean Break do. As a final question, I tell McBrinn about a conversation I had recently with a playwright and friend. We discussed how attending plays, or films, often leads only to a feminist rant about the inadequacies of the portrayal of women in the piece. Whilst accurate, this also feels quite negative, leaving open the question: Well, what do you want to see onstage in terms of representation of women? I put this question to McBrinn, who replies:
“I would hope that some of the things that we do at Clean Break are part of what I would like to see as an audience member as well. But in the broader sense, I would like, and where I get excited, is in seeing female characters that are flawed, that are complicated, that are totally surprising in the way that everybody in the world is, that every woman in the world is. And women who are not predictable and don’t kowtow to any stereotypes that have been put upon them by patriarchal structures.
I wonder as well about how, if there was an increase in female theatre makers with bigger platforms, what and how aesthetics would alter and where notions of protagonists for example, or questions around the body and physical representation, how that would change. And I suppose what I’m advocating is, what I’d like to see is something I’ve never seen before – a proliferation of work that might just be different by virtue of ownership.
And I don’t know what that looks like, but I’m looking forward to it.”