Clean Break interview

Prisons have been the setting for plays by a range of writers with widely contrasting agendas. Few who saw it will forget the realism of the forced feeding scene in the National Theatre’s production of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play Her Naked Skin (2008) about suffragettes. By contrast, in his recent Hangmen at the Royal Court, Martin McDonagh went all out for laughs despite the initial action being in a Midlands prison. Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow (1954) set in Dublin’s Mountjoy prison has the unseen title character due to be hanged on the morrow. The initial comedy develops into a discussion of capital punishment and treatment of homosexuals.

The daddy of them all (not in terms of age but emotional heft, breadth of message, and appeal to young theatre-makers) is Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good (1988) with its play-within-a-play The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar, which had a rare run-out in a wonderful production at the Donmar Warehouse (more on the Donmar later) in 2012. Prison settings have an obvious appeal for single-gender casts, and Ed Hall’s Propeller Company has given a novel twist to The Merchant of Venice by placing the pre-trial scenes in the city jail. In 2019, thirty male inmates at America’s Sterling Correctional Facility in Colorado not only staged One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but took it on a tour of nearby prisons. Twenty years ago, in my first feature article for this magazine, I interviewed Dr Bruce Wall about his ‘Shakespeare Workouts’ with offenders and ex-offenders. Here, I interview Anna Herrmann and Róisín McBrinn, joint artistic directors of Clean Break.

Anna Herrmann and Róisín McBrinn of Clean Break

Interviewed by Jeremy Malies


Clean Break is a women’s theatre company based in Kentish Town, north London, which for four decades now has organized drama workshops, run learning programmes, and commissioned new writing by women writers with strong political engagement working in both custodial and community settings. Their offerings are open to any woman aged seventeen or older with experience of the criminal justice system as well as those who may be at risk of offending. Clean Break’s performance work and advocacy are seeing the company become a force in mainstream theatre with an influence on the rubric of who and what is represented by raising the voices of marginalized women.

The company was founded in 1979 by two women in custody for non-violent offences who felt an urgent need to tell their stories through theatre. Jenny Hicks and Jacqueline Holborough met in the exercise yard of the high-security wing of HM Prison Durham. Their initial ideas included a staging of The Trojan Women which was prohibited by prison authorities, but when they met again at HM Prison Askham Grange in North Yorkshire, a two-hour play Efemera took form and proved a success. The legacy has been countless case studies that show how people can live a different life to the one that put them in jail with theatre-based work being the catalyst. Austerity, benefit changes, and Covid are of course making the company’s work harder.

I ask Anna Herrmann and Róisín McBrinn if we can focus on just a few lives that have been turned around, and Herrmann takes up an individual’s story. “I can tell you about one participant who came to us through our work in prisons though I’d stress this is only one of the ways to get involved. Introductions can also be through probation, drug and alcohol settings, word of mouth, or mental health environments. So, we now have a member who joined through a theatre-making project during a residency at Askham Grange. She only came along to support a friend who wanted to do it but immediately found the drama workshop inspiring and something she wanted to connect with. It was the springboard to her exploring things, being heard, and finally starring in a play that we put on in that prison for other women residents and invited audiences.”


Zainab Hasan and Thusitha Jayasundera in BLANK at the Donmar Warehouse.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.


The play in question is There Are Mountains by Chloë Moss who has studied under Simon Stephens and had writing commissions from the Royal Court, Paines Plough, and Headlong. Moss has led or participated in numerous prison workshops and is respected for a body of work that often questions why society often fails to re-accept people after condemning them for a crime.

Herrmann continues: “After this production, the woman in question, we’ll have to call her Jane Doe, asked to be transferred to a prison in London so she could carry on working with us. She was willing to transfer from an open to a closed prison so that she could come to our Kentish Town base and work with us on day release.  The engagement continued after she left prison; she did more courses until finally she was awarded a bursary at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama to do a diploma in acting. Since then she has stayed connected, is involved in the governance of Clean Break, and is a source of support for all.

“Many women come to our centre because somebody with an understanding of what they’re going through is aware of Clean Break. When they first come, they don’t necessarily want to do theatre; they just want to be in a safe space with other women. Telling their stories, at any level, unlocks possibilities, and they start recognizing their talents. There can be a sense that their skills might lead to a journey and a career possibility, but of course that’s not everyone, and the arts can just be a route into healing.”

Our conversation is wide-ranging. Two sets of data collected by The Guardian in the last ten years suggest that Britain has some of the lowest social mobility rates in the developed world, particularly in terms of young people from low-income families going to university. There is a preponderance of the privately-educated among politicians, doctors, journalists and actors. If mainstream education is designed to be an engine of social mobility, it’s failing. I float some figures and ask how Clean Break is contributing to enhancement of life chances and a less stratified society.

McBrinn picks up the theme: “A big part of what we’re trying to do is that when it comes to the theatre industry there should be better practice in terms of access – who gets to be an artist, who gets to take up space, and who gets to be centre-stage. Your question touches on a bigger picture of access and representation. What does power look like, whose voice is heard? Those issues are central to what we’re trying to do.”

Herrmann continues with a specific example. “We’ve just had a traineeship scheme that involved touring a short play, Not Pretty Like the Rainbow by Daisy King, which was written by one of our members and performed by three other members. The tour was extensive and part of that experience was that the women had practical training in what it means to be a freelancer, how you sort out benefits, tax, National Insurance, etc. There was also help along the way in terms of what it takes to create a showreel and prepare for auditions. We’ve been offering a rounded experience that hopefully equips women for their next step.”

Not Pretty Like the Rainbow is an advocacy play about short custodial sentences, the detrimental effect they have and the consensus view that they usually derail lives with no positive outcome. The play posits alternatives in terms of community service. I’m not aware of any direct link but the arguments in the play put me in mind of work by Daisy Cooper (a British Liberal Democrat politician serving as Member of Parliament (MP) for St Albans, Hertfordshire) who has introduced a bill in the House of Commons that focuses on the 7,000 women a year who are sent to prison on short sentences for non-violent offences.


BLANK at the Donmar Warehouse. Set design by Rosie Elnile.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.


The futility of short sentences for minor crimes takes us back to Jacqueline Holborough and Jenny Hicks who were determined to tell the hidden stories of prisoners through the medium of drama. Herrmann reflects on the company’s fortieth anniversary last year: “When the company was founded there was no understanding about women having different needs, experiences, or outcomes to men in prison. The system was completely designed for men. Our founders had been placed in high-security facilities under completely misaligned conditions. Forty years on there is a fuller acknowledgement that women and men have different causes of crime. Women are likely to have both committed crime but also been its victims. Their experience often includes trauma as well as having been a perpetrator. There is now more insight and evidence around that but misunderstanding and mistreatment continue. Black women are still disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, and society still refuses to look at alternatives that have better outcomes in terms of reducing reoffending. The system continues to criminalize women for poverty, race and gender.”

Clean Breaks major projects are numerous but I start with a recent success, [BLANK] by Alice Birch at the Donmar Warehouse in October 2019. The company co-commissioned the piece with the National Theatre and Birch wrote a hundred scenes to be performed by girls and adult women. Two Clean Break members, Shona Babayemi and Lucy Edkins, were in the cast. The director (in this case Maria Aberg) assembles the scenes according to personal choice. Some take place in prison, others are on the outside. A unifying structure is showing how the justice system impacts the characters. We see a prostitute being helped on the street by a support worker, and there is even a dinner party in which the insincerity of some insufferable guests is punctured spectacularly. [BLANK] is an interesting experiment with form insofar as companies can use as few or as many scenes as they wish and in any order. A scene that has acquired additional topicality during Covid lockdown shows a woman being denied sheltered accommodation even though it’s obvious that she is fleeing an abusive relationship. Reflecting on the project, Herrmann stresses that there is a massive correlation between domestic violence and the criminalization of women through custodial sentences.

An exciting upcoming Clean Break project will be Typical Girls by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm whose 2018 feminist meta-theatrical play Emilia featuring an all-female cast posits, if tongue-in-cheek, that the man from Stratford stole all the plays attributed to him from Emilia Bassano Lanier, an accomplished poet and a candidate for having been the ‘Dark Lady’ of the sonnets. Positive reviews at Shakespeare’s Globe highlighted clever parallels between the Elizabethan patriarchy and the present one, and the critics saw the play transfer to the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre. Emilia has been optioned as a film.

Subject to the ongoing Covid landscape, Clean Break intend to produce Typical Girls in 2021 partnering with Sheffield Theatres and Soho Theatre. It will be directed by McBrinn. The action – which is part-gig, part-play – sees the residents of a mental health unit within a prison discover the music of the Slits, a 1970s punk band. They are inspired to form their own band as an outlet for their frustrations. The production (currently stalled by need for social distancing but among Clean Break’s top priorities for future work) was originally co-commissioned with the RSC, also a contributor to its early development.


Little on the Inside. L to r: Estelle Daniels and Sandra Reid. Photo credit: Katherine Leedale.


A recent success for the company and one which surely has a future is Sweatbox by Chloë Moss which has an audience of twelve clamber into a genuine decommissioned prison van to be confronted by a cast of three actors. Funke Adeleke, Jade Small and Posy Sterling convey the fears and hardships of being transported to and from court hearings and between prisons. Sweatbox toured widely last year and took in my own south-east patch for this magazine with a stop at Chichester. As a theatre writer, however much I want to avoid the lazy, catch-all adjective ‘immersive’, in this case it’s the only word that will do.

The production was originally conceived by Imogen Ashby and was directed on this tour by Anna Herrmann herself. I’m keen to know if it has a life moving forward. For my own part as a critic and theatre-goer, while I realize the space isn’t ideal I think that seeing eleven other people in the van (probably masked), having sanitized their hands and been given a forehead temperature check might be a more reassuring experience than sharing an air-conditioned space with hundreds of unseen theatre-goers at a major venue.

Herrmann recalls: “It was a rocky ride in securing the prison van and getting it on the road. The first outings were in 2015 when the piece had been conceived and when Chloë wrote it. But technical issues with the vehicle hampered us.  It was important in our fortieth anniversary year (2019) that we should get out to our national audiences. At 15 minutes, it’s a short piece but there is usually discussion and a Q&A. Stepping into the van is very intense; it gives people an immediate sense of the claustrophobia and panic of not knowing what is going to happen. This is compounded by nobody in authority speaking to you – telling you what is going to happen, when you will be let out, and how your children are. After two other legs of the tour were cancelled, first by a strike among university workers and then by Covid, we’ve arrived at a place where we’re now making Sweatbox into a film so it can have an online life and legacy for the future.”

I ask the inevitable question about funding both pre, during, and post Covid. On the day of our interview, McBrinn has tweeted on the subject of the £1.57bn pledged to the arts by Rishi Sunak (Chancellor) and Oliver Dowden (Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.) Her relief is obviously heartfelt, but she uses some of her 280 characters in the same post to plead for fairness and community. Does she fear that some of the money may go towards low-brow musicals on Shaftesbury Avenue where the composers, librettists and producers are already multi-millionaires rather than to more deserving parts of theatre?

McBrinn is diplomatic. “Potentially! As you know, this is a fund that was announced without any information around exactly how it would be used, and it remains important for me personally and from a Clean Break perspective that there is central funding commitment to work which stimulates audiences and participants. Income streams with which we have been successful include Arts Council England emergency funding that we applied for as did most National Portfolio Organizations. Funders have been supportive and helpful over this extraordinary period. That sounds like a generalized statement but individual trusts and foundations who have been with us for a long time have reacted generously in these extraordinary circumstances.”

Herrmann adds to the present funding story: “At the beginning of Covid there was a lot of contact with those trusts and foundations to discuss how best they might be able to support us and whether that would be removing restrictions from their budgets, changing their payment schedules or finding emergency funding pots.  For example, we received funding from our local London borough [Camden] as well as the London Community Foundation. This allowed us to buy digital tablets and Wi-Fi connectivity so that members who weren’t online could access our digital programmes as well as, in these times when absolutely everything seems to be digital, conduct their lives online as we all need to.”


Sweatbox van arrives in Sloane Square. Photo courtesy of Royal Court.


I ask if they worry for Clean Break (who have historically had funding from the EU Social Fund) in a post-Brexit world, and Herrmann quips that she worries more about Brexit as a human being than as the director of an organization! Naturally, the company aspires to be international and outward-looking but projects abroad immediately hit the obstacle of national prison services and their protocols. Even Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own autonomous prison services.

Clean Break has recently introduced a new joint commissioning initiative, Two Metres Apart, with playwrights including Sabrina Mahfouz. Based in south London and with Egyptian heritage, Mahfouz is a poet, playwright, performer, screenwriter, and librettist whose work has been seen at the National Theatre and at a venue in Delmonico Plaza, New York. Leaving a fast-stream civil service programme (and having had an earlier credible aspiration to be a spy!) she has worked in New York on the Old Vic New Voices’ T.S. Eliot Exchange Programme. Her poetry writing has benefited from a Sky Academy arts scholarship.

Herrmann reflects: “Sabrina is a brilliant teacher who has been involved with our members programme delivering workshops. She also worked with us on a major project within HM Prison Styal [in Cheshire] in 2016.  The project involved the play Inside a Cloud which Sabrina wrote following a series of theatre workshops with the women. The play was performed at the prison and an extract subsequently published by Methuen Drama. Sabrina brings a special mix to the table.”

As with Inside a Cloud, it’s envisaged that the Two Metres Apart initiative will be fluid in terms of who is the writer: both a writer’s skills and the lived experience of performers will go towards creating the text. McBrinn picks up this theme: “Fifty percent of the Two Metres Apart group are artists who identify as writers as well, so some of the outcomes are likely to be co-written or the result of a collaborative process. Living our mission as Clean Break is very much entwined in the alchemy between artists and members and locating where that alchemy lives.”

I ask if any of the Clean Break writers or the more experienced members adhere to any recognized, formal methods of working. It strikes me that if the Konstantin Stanislavsky and Lee Strasberg methods are about using your emotional memories then current and former prisoners might gravitate towards them. McBrinn is certainly clear on anything Stanislavskian. “When it comes to short residencies in prisons or other secure environments, say three or five days, our approach is very actively to not invest in the past. It’s about the imagination, about the creativity that comes from making a leap beyond yourself. We don’t think it would be responsible or productive in those settings to open doors [in terms of past experiences] that we couldn’t then manage. Also, the valuable part of our offering is a freedom and release that brings women to their imagination.”

McBrinn has an extensive directing background that includes a version of Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. In a piece about the production for the Irish Times, an interviewer quoted the playwright’s aphorism: “We must reform society before we can reform ourselves”. It’s apposite in terms of Clean Break’s work and I ask her about this statement. She replies, “One of the things that I’ve realized from being involved in Clean Break and theatre in and around the criminal justice system is that a major obstacle to meaningful change is how we view women and how, as Herrmann has already referenced in this interview, we continue to view women not for their actions but for things that they represent. Inequality is something that we know is going to get worse over the next five or ten years at least. This is something that forces women to make or create on a personal level through actions that are out of their control. So, yes, on a personal level I’d absolutely agree with what Shaw says and our cause in terms of Clean Break would be helped enormously if there were more knowledge, more empathy for the bigger picture and the journeys of the women we engage with. It’s a major part of what we do – using theatre rather than other types of advocacy to change hearts and minds.”

The elephant in the room in terms of recent theatre about the custodial system is the trilogy of Shakespeare plays (Henry IV, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest) produced by the Donmar Warehouse in London from 2012 to 2016 with subsequent transfers to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York City. Initially, I saw no direct link with Clean Break during my research but have since realized that company members appeared in the pieces while Dame Harriet Walter, who played leading roles in all three plays, is the company’s patron.

Admired on both sides of the Atlantic, the trilogy (directed by Phyllida Lloyd) sees the plays through a lens of liberty and justice with all-female casts. The single-gender casting is justified by the incredibly clever conceit that we, the audience, are visitors to a women’s prison with intimidating guards patrolling the aisles as ushers. Jennifer Joseph, a Clean Break member since 2010, played Trebonius in Julius Caesar, Sir Walter Blunt in Henry IV, and the boatswain in The Tempest. Joseph studied with the company after a custodial sentence where she proved a model prisoner who became a kind of advocate for younger women. She performed in many short tours and is now a successful actor who takes part in outreach programmes about penal issues and is an Ambassador of Women in Prison.


There Are Mountains by Chloë Moss. Photo courtesy of Clean Break.


In 2014, Clean Break collaborated with the Donmar Warehouse on a response piece related to the Shakespeare trilogy, creating Frientimacy by Stacey Gregg. It’s a linguistically acute play that explores and distils the links between Shakespearian characters and present-day lifestyles in Henry IV by analysing the friendship between Prince Hal and Falstaff which of course ends in rejection and has a dangerous edge in both directions from the onset. Gregg had recently become a commissioned writer for Clean Break, and the success of the project saw it performed at the Donmar rehearsal rooms as a curtain-raiser. Herrmann and McBrinn stress that while Clean Break had a partnership role on the three Shakespeare plays and created Frientimacy, the Donmar trilogy itself was not a Clean Break production. Film versions of the trilogy were shot at a specially-built temporary theatre in King’s Cross in 2016 and can be viewed on the Marquee streaming service.

I ask Herrmann and McBrinn to talk about their favourite Clean Break projects or the ones that have made them most proud to be the current joint artistic directors of the company. Herrmann chooses Inside Bitch, a piece conceived by Stacey Gregg and Deborah Pearson and performed early last year. It has a significant devised element from its four-strong cast. The play is a wry subversive take on prison-based television dramas such as Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, the Spanish series Locked Up, and the British series Bad Girls. The difference is that all the cast members have been there, done time and gotten the boiler suit. The piece is witty in that it depicts the women pitching for their own prison drama series while parodying all the stereotypes of this genre. Herrmann reflects: “The production was an expression of a big change for us as a company. It achieved our aspiration to have our members on stage and have the content connect closely to their personal lives. Inside Bitch was the first point at which we expressed that to the world, saying: ‘This is who we are and this is the work we want to make.’ I’m really proud of the project and how significant we became with it.”

McBrinn opts for [BLANK]. “In terms of work over the past few years my answer has to be [BLANK] and again it’s about fulfilling an aspiration as to who we want to be as an organization, having our members in a premium space such as the Donmar Warehouse where they not only played leading roles but were partners on an equal footing with the Donmar in producing a major exploration of the criminal justice system.”

In a mission statement from a few years ago Clean Break take pride in the fact that “the work will not stand still”. So, what next? McBrinn sums up matters with: “We’ve already mentioned in this interview that we’re re-thinking how we talk to audiences. These are strange times but it’s still a major part of our plan to produce work in 2021. We want to push further and be more radical with our ambition to place members at the heart of the artistic and functioning life of the organization.”

Herrmann hits a topical note. “We’re really struck by the opportunity with Covid in terms of the conversations that are happening around building back differently and better. It gives us an opportunity as a company to make sure that inclusion and access and equality are even more embedded in our work and the industry at large and to observe the imperative that the Black Lives Matter movement is rightly placed within all of us as we step up and put anti-racism at the heart of our work. That will be informing our next stage and the steps that we take over the coming twelve months and moving forward generally.”