'A world to escape into': how theatre gives prisoners a way out

‘Deeply disturbing.” That was how the prisons minister Rory Stewart summed up the state of some British prisons last year. After an Observer investigation revealed that standards in two thirds of institutions were deemed sub-par and two in five unsafe, Stewart acknowledged “increasing levels of violence committed by prisoners, and horrifying rates of self-harm”. Prison riots, drug use, overcrowding and staff cuts are all widely reported.

Our understanding of prison life is mostly shaped by such reportage or drama. “Prisons aren’t seen by many people,” says Anna Herrmann, co-artistic director of the Clean Break theatre company. “It’s really important that we break down misconceptions.”

The company’s new show, Inside Bitch was conceived by writers Deborah Pearson and Stacey Gregg, and devised by four Clean Break members who are all women with experience of the penal system. It is an attempt to dismantle the pop-culture stereotypes passed down in TV dramas like Bad Girls and Orange is the New Black.

“Those representations can hinder the experiences of our members,” says co-artistic director Róisín McBrinn, citing such programmes’ fixation on relationships and rivalries, corrupt officers and brutality. She does, however, recognise the necessity of a “disconnect” between drama and reality. “The truth is staying in your cell for however many hours a day is not great TV.” The point about Inside Bitch is that it wrings entertainment out of lived experience. As McBrinn says, “It’s entirely theirs.”

In a sense, Clean Break has returned to its roots. The company is best known for its recent collaboration with Phyllida Lloyd on the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy, but its beginnings were forged in self-expression. “It was very much about women telling their own stories,” Herrmann stresses.

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Members of the cast for Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar production at the Donmar in London.

Members of the cast for Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar production at the Donmar in London. Photograph: Photo by Helen Maybanks

Forty years ago, Jenny Hicks and Jackie Holborough started staging shows when they were serving sentences in Askham Grange open prison in York, expanding its annual Christmas revue into a two-hour show about prison life, Efemera. It was good enough to gain a two-night run at York Arts Centre, making its 21-strong cast the first British prisoners to perform outside prison. On release, Hicks and Holborough launched Clean Break to tour plays written and performed by former female prisoners and within a year, the company was at the Royal Court. In time, they brought in professional playwrights to write scripts from members’ stories and deliver educational workshops in penal institutions.

Clean Break’s workshops are a kind of creative intervention. Working with women who feel shut out by education or society, Herrmann says the aim is to “create a space where they’re right, where they’re valued and where their experiences are useful”. She talks of “an intensive blossoming, a feeling of being respectful and having something to say”. That’s where empowering its members to create art coincides with issues of representation – something Inside Bitch hopes to make manifest.

For the playwright Luke Barnes, art is “about starting a conversation in a community and no one’s doing that in prisons”. Last year, the Young Vic took their production of The Brothers Size into Wandsworth prison, following it with a series of participatory workshops led by Barnes and director Justin Audibert. Barnes wanted to make something “tangibly useful” within Wandsworth’s walls – “not just to put a play on for the sake of it”. One young inmate suggested the group find a way to admit feeling scared. “He was like, ‘We’re all putting on this bravado, but actually it’s a terrifying experience. Life is passing us by outside.’ That was the starting point. The piece became about finding a way for these men to talk about the emotional experience of being inside.”

Sope Dirisu, Jonathan Ajayi and Anthony Welsh in the Young Vic’s 2018 production of The Brothers Size, which was performed at Wandsworth prison.

Sope Dirisu, Jonathan Ajayi and Anthony Welsh in the Young Vic’s 2018 production of The Brothers Size, which was performed at Wandsworth prison. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Peter Wayne is part of the group that workshopped Barnes’s resulting play, The Jumper Factory. Now 64, Wayne has spent a total of 32 years in prison on multiple convictions. He has always taken part in prison activities, working on projects with the National Theatre and English National Opera. “Anything’s better than being in your cell,” he says. “The theatre creates this world you can escape into within the penal microcosm. They bring humanity into prisons. They allow you to be something other than a prisoner – not just a character, but a human being, an artist.”

Given the constraints of the process – “you can’t be sure people will turn up tomorrow” – Barnes compiled a choral text based on conversations with participants about the ways masculinity manifests in prison settings. The Jumper Factory was initially performed within Wandsworth prison itself, before the text was passed to teenagers at risk of offending for public performance at the Festival of European Youth Theatre in Birmingham, and now at the Young Vic ahead of a tour.

Clean Break’s co-directors welcome the interest from mainstream organisations, but they’re wary of dilettantism too. McBrinn “hopes it’s not a flash in the pan”. Herrmann is more cautious: “What’s challenging is when there’s a sudden sexiness to working in prisons and that work happens without talking to specialist organisations that exist, doing that work on a day to day basis for years.”

To be a productive part of the rehabilitation process, she says, theatre has to be part of a sustained process of support. Clean Break’s headquarters, tucked off Kentish Town Road, is a hidden oasis. Behind a secure door, a lush urban garden leads up to a light, airy building with several rehearsal studios and two small offices occupied by support workers. The two exist hand-in-hand. “For art to be forefronted, there has to be that safety net,” says Herrmann. “By supporting people with court appearances or benefits claims, they’re able to be here and create, taking the risks that artists can take. One enables the other.”

However, austerity has had a significant impact on Clean Break’s work – “dangerously so”, according to McBrinn. Herrmann fleshes out the thought: “Lockdowns happen more often, safety levels have gone right down. All of which affects our practices and our access in prisons.” The crisis that Clean Break and others are attempting to counter risks endangering the very work that they do.



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