Naomi Joseph talks to Lucy Perman about how Clean Break works with female ex-offenders not just in theatre-making but also offering pastoral care.

Image of women in workshop

Tracey Anderson

Clean Break is not your average theatre company. In the first instance, it uses theatre to transform the lives of female ex-offenders and women who are at risk of offending. As Executive Director Lucy Perman explains: “We use theatre as a platform to immerse audiences in the world of crime, women and justice, working with professional women playwrights to tell these stories.” Indeed the company has an impressive catalogue of productions, most recently Pests by Vivienne Franzmann (co-produced by Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester and the Royal Court Theatre), which focused on lives affected by the care and criminal justice systems, drug and alcohol addiction, and a wholesale failure by society. In the second instance, its mission statement extends beyond professional theatre productions. The company comprises both artistic and educational programmes, offering theatre-based training courses, residencies and outreach projects at our purpose-built studios in north London and in prisons. Alongside this, it provides a support service assisting with both practical and emotional needs, from housing issues to welfare queries. “It’s equally important to integrate the theatre education courses with pastoral care,” urges Lucy. “Our opportunities provide the women with a clean break from their past experiences and help them to move forwards positively.”

By working at a grass roots level we are challenging the stereotypes and misconceptions of women in the criminal justice system

While there are many arts organisations working within the criminal justice system, Clean Break is different in that it works solely with female ex-offenders. The complexity of women and crime can often be overlooked. Because women make up such a small percentage of offenders, the system is designed for males. It provides a safe space for women which meets their needs holistically, as Lucy explains: “You find a lot of the time these women have encountered abuse or difficulties at the hands of male figures in their lives. Many of the women feel more comfortable in a female environment because their relationships with men have been largely negative. They find support and friendship in the environment where the women often have similar histories.”

It is not just the female-only environment that is inviting, it is also the medium of theatre itself. Often, by the time the women reach Clean Break their experience of education has been limited and, much like their experience of the justice system, negative. Theatre is engaging in a completely different context and so they tend to embrace it. It can be challenging but at the same time really brilliant. Mostly these women are excited - they are eager for stimulation and hungry for opportunity.

“By working at a grass roots level we are challenging the stereotypes and misconceptions of women in the criminal justice system,” adds Lucy. “The stories stem from our playwrights’ experience of working with us and with women in the criminal justice system in prisons and the community. This provides an authenticity, an integrity to the work. It brings these real situations faced by women offenders to the forefront of our work which makes it difficult to ignore.”

The active involvement from the women themselves makes the ‘ex’ in ex-offender ever more prevalent as our educational programme enables them to realise interests and options that otherwise might not be considered. They benefit from theatre-based education as it enhances their communication skills, confidence and self-esteem. It equips the women with the confidence to embark upon opportunities. Indeed, over 70% who graduate go on to either higher education, training, volunteering or employment. Additionally, some have gone on to achieve theatrical success, including being cast in the Donmar Warehouse's recent all-female production of Julius Caesar, which went on to New York.

But it is not just the women who have benefited from the experience - the work has had profound effects on criminal justice professionals. Lucy explains: “Professionals can become desensitised from the offenders they work with and they find it affirming to recognise these stories as being the reality for women offenders.”

Productions are purposely not restricted to prisons and those working within the criminal justice system, as it is important to raise awareness of such issues to mainstream audiences in theatres. Lucy admits that the support she receives is encouraging but not without its challenges: “We have lots of recognition but we also exist within tough times for the justice system which is undergoing significant change and at a time when there are changes to prison education, the banning of books and other items in prison, and the overall prison population is rising. We're exposing stories in a political and economic climate within which people are suffering their own hardship which makes anything else easy to ignore.”

Naomi Joseph is a journalist working in the creative industries.

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