The groundbreaking theatre company, Clean Break haven’t stopped this past year and they have no intention of doing so anytime soon. We chat with Co-Artistic Director, Roísín McBrinn to talk 40ths and how women will always be at the forefront of their work.
Clean Break is a women-only theatre company, created 40 years ago to empower and educate women who are incarcerated or who are generally affected by the criminal justice system. Despite recent government policy fortunately only presenting small obstacles for the work of Clean Break, they’re gathering momentum and working on more projects than ever before. After a pandemic that has had a devastating effect on the Theatre industry, Clean Break has only gotten stronger, expanding into new types of projects, one of which, Blis-ta (you can read the review here) – now available to listen for free online is an audio drama adapted from the play written by the late Clean Break member, Sonya Hale. Directed by one of the Artistic Directors of Clean Break, Roísín McBrinn, it is a no holds barred story of two young homeless girls, struggling to survive on the streets.
I had the opportunity to speak to McBrinn, who was appointed Joint Artistic Director three years ago alongside Anna Herrmann, about her work at Clean Break. McBrinn tells me that “a major part of our work since taking over is really integrating an educational programme with an artistic one.” McBrinn knows that members (women who work with Clean Break who have been affected by the criminal justice system) have to be “at the heart” of everything that audiences now interact with from the company. As social issues rise in prominence in mainstream conversation, discussion has highlighted that affected people need to be at the helm of organisations driving progress. “We have become actively more outward-facing and that was strategic” — McBrinn has been ahead of the curve and putting this principle into practice since 2018.
In January of this year, the government announced a plan to create 500 new places in women’s prisons. Clean Break strongly opposes this, joining a campaign with sister organisation, Women in Prison, to instead push the £150m intended for new places towards the women’s centres that provide support within communities. McBrinn gives me a thoughtful response to this after I ask if Clean Break could be considered a political or partisan organization. “We consider our campaigning voice to be vital… by telling the stories that are misrepresented or unheard, we can actively change the narrative.” However, McBrinn is clear that, “policy is really central to that work… but this doesn’t necessarily make us a political organisation. We hold our ideology closer.” She asserts that “we want to influence” whoever is making policies that harm or help women in the communities Clean Break work with. They’re not interested in the mudslinging of politics in general but instead want to practically keep working towards their mission to help the women they work with.
Clean Break champion a ‘trauma-informed approach’ to support women affected by the criminal justice system and I ask McBrinn what this looks like at every stage of their process. “We will create a bespoke support package of need for [actor-members]. We have a three-strong group of women who are highly qualified and led by trauma-informed practice.” Ultimately, the theatrical process “will be led” by the needs of the members involved. In the later stages of the process, if members are invited to watch work, women are “forewarned about content and importantly given a space to digest and dissect what they have seen.” As Theatre increasingly reflects and draws upon the lived experiences of marginalised groups within society, re-traumatisation and insensitivity towards these issues must be avoided to sustain healthy and productive relationships with involved parties. Clean Break are experts in managing this trauma and productively working with women who deserve to have their experiences shared. As McBrinn says, “it’s just best practice and respect for the individuals who might need it.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Clean Break have hosted online events with partners, sharing works in progress and panel discussions with over 1,200 people virtually attending. “It’s substantial when you consider how many audience members can get into a studio theatre,” McBrinn points out. Crucially, she notes that this work is mostly free and “access, when it comes to the digital arena, is something we are really devoted to.” People from all over the world have been able to engage with Clean Break’s work in this way, by both immersing new people and raising the company’s profile which only helps in their mission to reach more women.
McBrinn contemplates, “form is really important to us in the type of Theatre we are making. We have an amazing history of women writers and getting them in to write very important plays. That is something we want to continue to invest in. However, in order to achieve this objective we defined of trying to centralise the member’s voices in the work we are creating, we are also looking at what less formal structures would bring to our work.” Indeed, Clean Break have produced a film, Sweatbox, directed by Anna Herrmann (who contributed a Guest Blog for AYT back in 2015) and written by Chloë Moss. Along with Blis-ta they really are branching out into new creative forms. She adds that the key is to help members “find their vehicle.” McBrinn knows that not all artists might aspire to be playwrights and “all trajectories are celebrated” but crucially, “if you identify as an artist and that’s what you want to invest in, we will help members on those journeys that may look different for each woman.”
I am a Theatre, an exhibition celebrating the 40 years of Clean Break will be opening in June at the Swiss Cottage Gallery. Like the women they support, Clean Break have shown true grit over the last four decades, only to thrive in the last year’s pandemic, which has threatened to harm so many companies of its kind. Simply put by McBrinn, “we haven’t stopped this year.” Under McBrinn and Herrmann’s leadership, the company has continued to lead the industry in socially impactful work and speaking to McBrinn it is clear why. Her words are carefully considered and I can tell that it is of the utmost importance that she clearly distills Clean Break’s mission of female empowerment and undoing the harm of the criminal justice system in affected communities. I’m so excited to get to see Clean Break’s work in person for the first time, as McBrinn persuades me so effectively that it is vital and fruitful, though the creative work they have produced has long spoken for itself.