Theatre

Clean Break: A theatre company for women in the criminal justice system

Deborah Bruce works with marginalised women at Clean Break, to help them find their voice through writing. Her own play, Dixon and Daughters, is the company's first co-production with the National Theatre

Deborah Bruce and director Róisín McBrinn in rehearsal for Dixon and Daughters

Writer Deborah Bruce and director Róisín McBrinn in rehearsal for Dixon and Daughters at the National Theatre. Image: Helen Murray

I’d been aware of Clean Break for years before I became writer in residence there. I’d done lots of work in prisons running workshops, I was a drama teacher at Blundeston Prison in Suffolk. But I’d never worked in a women’s prison until I began working with Clean Break.

Being the writer in residence involves immersing yourself in the company, the work they do, and the people they work with. After 18 months you are ready to write something in response to that immersion –the only thing they ask is that it has some relation to women and the criminal justice system.

I wrote Dixon And Daughters, which will be Clean Break’s first co-production with the National Theatre, off the back of my residency.

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I ran writers’ workshops at Clean Break’s studio space in Kentish Town and in women’s prisons. These workshops in prisons were with the same group of women for four days. By the end, they’ve written a monologue or duologue. On the last day, actors are brought in to the prison to perform them. It’s an intense, exciting, inspiring, life-changing experience for everyone involved.

My residency completely changed me as a person.

Afterwards, I wanted to write something that represents the resilience, humour and courage of the hundreds of women I met. And I wanted it to be funny. Because there’s a huge amount of laughter.

A Clean Break day is funny and life affirming. So although the play deals with difficult issues, I wanted to represent that tone. I also wanted to talk about a constant, incredulous feeling I have about the lack of joined-up thinking around trauma.

So few people understand that if you experience trauma when you’re young, then that is going to be in your body and become part of who you are. But how do you develop coping mechanisms if you don’t have support? If we, as a society understood and committed to looking after people empathetically when they’re young, when they’re struggling, when they’re parenting, then we’d all benefit. Supporting people when they need it, instead of punishing them when it’s too late and they’ve developed coping mechanisms that have become problematic.

Sure Start Children’s Centres, breakfast clubs, youth clubs, they all get cut in a short-sighted money-saving endeavour. But it makes no long-term sense. It’s all about empathy. Understanding somebody might behave in certain ways because they’re managing trauma and are unable to express something and that coping mechanisms involving drugs and alcohol are ways of self-medicating.

During Clean Break sessions, it came out a lot that people were excluded from school or environments that could offer them support because they were seen as difficult to manage, making them feel paranoid or isolated rather than understood.

Similarly, when a woman is sent to prison and maybe separated from her children, it can have a huge impact. And a lack of support when they come out might mean she doesn’t have a home to go to and can’t have her children back. If you do not support her then, you generate more problems. People are going to be damaged by that. And there has to be somewhere to put that damage. It doesn’t disappear, it can escalate.

That is what I was trying to write about with Dixon and Daughters, which is about three generations of a family. It’s an absolute delight to just write for women. It’s six female parts. And I feel like all of them could have crossed paths with Clean Break at some point. We also had interesting conversations about how statistics are delivered in terms of female experience.

So we might hear that one in three women have experienced domestic violence but never about or address the men that inflict the abuse. This framing of statistics makes it feel as if it’s the women’s problem, the woman’s responsibility to stay safe rather than the perpetrator’s responsibility to change.

Dixon and Daughters is the story of a of a family where the patriarch was abusive. He’s now dead and his wife, Mary (Brid Brennan), has been sent to prison for historic child abuse relating to his dominance of the family. It’s about all that remains unsaid, hidden. And the drip down effect of his abuse on generations below.

Working with Clean Break makes me realise how useful theatre and drama are for building confidence and empathy, for being able to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. Using your experience in a positive way to create something is powerful.

As children, we naturally go towards roleplay. A child will play at being a doctor, teacher, or parent as a way of exploring and practicing relationships. Theatre is just a grownup version of that – a way of being able to imagine what it’s like to be another person who has had different experiences. It’s a useful tool to explore how we manage trauma.

Writers at Clean Break don’t necessarily talk about their own experience, but might reveal aspects of it through their writing. It is empowering. And it’s inspiring to see people creating work and community. Writing can be a form of escape. They might not feel they were writers before. Also, in prison you can end up playing a version of yourself for your own survival. That’s another reason theatre is a good tool – because that’s a language they’re already speaking.

It feels exciting to bring Dixon and Daughters to the National Theatre. It’s so important that the voices of these women are heard on a large scale. Subjects like domestic violence and sexual assault are often deemed too difficult so they become taboo. That can exacerbate feelings of shame and isolation. They are difficult subjects. But that doesn’t mean they should only be talked about in covert groups to people who already know about the issues or with people that have experienced them.

And if more people begin to think about what a person might be trying to articulate when they behave in an antisocial or intimidating way, that would be a really positive outcome.

Clean Break is a theatre company that transforms the lives of women who have experienced the criminal justice system or are at risk of entering it and produces ground-breaking plays with women’s voices at their heart.

Dixon and Daughters opens at the Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre, London, April 15. Tickets are available here

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