Clean Break at 40: a theatre company rewriting its own narrative

Writer and performer Ellie Kendrick reflects on the seismic work done by Clean Break

Ellie Kendrick
Ellie Kendrick
© Faye Thomas

There's a theatre game used to forge links fast. Everyone sits in a circle and someone makes a statement about themselves. If it applies to you too, you run to another seat. It lets people know that they have more in common with each other than they think.

A writer friend used this set-up whilst running workshops in prisons for Clean Break – the life-saving all-female theatre company working with women with experience of the criminal justice system. The same statement came up every time: "I am a mum". Almost everyone in the room would scramble across the room for another seat.

Incarceration has an effect that ripples outwards. You might have committed a minor offence – non-violent theft is the most common for women, many of whom might have been struggling to provide for families – but no matter who you are on the outside, if you're in prison, you're wrenched away from your communities and networks, and from the narrative of your life. It can be impossible to get back on track.

Whilst reforms in the British criminal justice system lag, Clean Break is shifting with the times

That's where Clean Break comes in. This unique theatre company makes work with women in prisons and in the community. It tours groundbreaking plays to theatres, site-specific locations and secure settings across the UK. It empowers women to rewrite their own narrative, and puts those voices at the heart of its work. It is a small company that makes big waves: just five per cent of Clean Break members re-offend within a year, compared to 48 per cent of prison leavers; and 90 per cent of members feel more confident and hopeful about the future, progressing into education, employment or volunteering.

When I had the fortune of taking part in Pests (Clean Break's 2014 production by Vivienne Franzmann), I felt for the first time that I was making theatre which properly engaged with the real world. Part of that engagement took place at HMP Askham Grange in Yorkshire. I'd never been into a prison before, but when we played that game together I discovered we all had a lot in common. It's a particularly meaningful location for Clean Break: 40 years ago on this site, two fearless women, themselves serving prisoners, founded the company. Since 1979 the organisation has grown into a network, a political advocacy group, an award-winning theatre company that forges links, creates communities and speaks truth to power.

Rewriting your narrative can be life-changing, whatever your age

This year we celebrate its 40th birthday in style. Whilst reforms in the British criminal justice system lag, Clean Break is shifting with the times. A political theatre-making force of nature, it places its members at the heart of its work, and now it's amplifying their voices even louder – at a time when society most needs to hear what they've got to say.

Members take centre-stage in the explosion of work this year: soon, our Young Artists perform Belong (Arcola and Lyric Hammersmith) and Inside Bitch, conceived by Stacey Gregg and Deborah Pearson, devised and performed by Clean Break member artists, opens at the Royal Court. All the Lights are On is an intersectional collaboration with homelessness theatre charity Cardboard Citizens; a revival of Chloe Moss's hit immersive show Sweatbox tours in a prison van, and in May, a book of 40 monologues from 40 Clean Break Voices. That's only the beginning.

Clean Break is rewriting its own narrative at 40 years-old. As our members will tell you, rewriting your narrative can be life-changing, whatever your age.

Jade Small, Terri-Ann Oudjar, Stacey Gregg, Jennifer Joseph and Lucy Edkins
Jade Small, Terri-Ann Oudjar, Stacey Gregg, Jennifer Joseph and Lucy Edkins rehearsing for Inside Bitch at the Royal Court
© Jemima Yong