Clean Break uses theatre to bring the hidden stories of imprisoned women to a wider audience. Anna Herrmann, their Head of Education, writes about the importance of a non judgmental approach when working with women in the criminal justice system and how Clean Break’s training doesn’t make assumptions about their experience.

Creating a safe space

One of the principle considerations of our theatre education programme at Clean Break is how to create and maintain a safe space for the women we work with. This is imperative in all theatre practice with vulnerable groups; in order for participants to take creative risks, build trust with others, learn new skills, and ensure their voices are heard, they need to feel safe. At Clean Break, where we work with women with experience of the criminal justice system and women at risk of offending with drug and alcohol and/or mental health needs, the women’s emotional and physical safety in our building is paramount. The creation of a safe space enables many life affirming and theatrical moments to happen and supports the women in their transformative journeys to a more positive future. One of the ways in which we achieve this is through a non-judgmental approach. But what does this mean?

A non-judgemental approach

When women arrive at Clean Break, they are given time and space to share their personal stories with a member of our student support staff, who can then work with them to look at their goals and the barriers they face, and look to establish connections with other support agencies that can help.

It is vital from this point onwards that in the retelling of their story the women experience a deep sense of being heard and listened to and not feeling judged. It is from this very early point that they will start to feel that this organisation is different. What happens next is also hugely important – they know that this information – their life story- is not shared outside of this small team, and that all theatre artists, tutors, education staff that they meet will not know this. They are free in the space to be who they are and become who they want to be. But they also know that confidentiality has its boundaries and that this is also a way to keep them safe. All our theatre artists work with the potential of the women who are in the space. It is easier for them to do this when their heads are not full of information about the women – who has been to prison, who is in recovery, who has been separated from their children. The sharing of information is on a need to know basis and as such only the learning needs of the women are shared, if they are on medication which affects their concentration or if they have any disabilities.

This is the same as when we work inside the prison walls. Many prison staff want to tell us about the women’s offences, and what they have done. We politely close our ears. Our role there is to see the women in front of us for who they are in the space and for what they can become. Being non-judgemental is something that can be truly felt by participants and starts the important process of building trust between the professional, the organisation and the women.

Trauma informed work, spearheaded by Dr Stephanie Covington in the USA, who has developed an approach to women’s prisons, which she is now sharing with us in the UK, is about the importance of understanding the background of trauma that most women coming through the prison system have experienced. She articulates the need to develop a service which is informed by this understanding and doesn’t further perpetuate trauma through its ill conceived practices. She asks not what the women have done but what has happened to them?

At Clean Break we move this question to the future and ask what they have the potential to do? So we are not making assumptions about the women we work with on an individual basis, at the same time as building our service around the assumption that many women will have experienced trauma and abuse and they will be dealing with the effects of this. It is both holding an open mind with the women standing in front of you at the same time as being mindful and aware of a likely past of trauma and abuse to inform how we plan and deliver our work.

And the theatre that is created from this safe space constantly surprises and delights. Our six week introduction to writing for theatre course which was led by one of our commissioned writers Kath Chandler and our Head of Artistic Programme, Róisín McBrinn, culminated last week. The result was the sharing of twelve extraordinary pieces of writing around themes exploring mother daughter relationships, cultural responsibilities, online dating, resettlement after prison to name but a few. A true smorgasbord of creativity and potential.

For a fuller exploration of Clean Break’s work and to explore strategies for managing the challenges inherent in the work, come along to our training day on December 2, Unlocking Potential