Clean Break

Company name: Clean Break

Established: 1977

Founders: Jenny Hicks and Jacqueline Holborough

Reason: To open up a dialogue with audiences about women in the criminal justice system

Current status: Still in operation – Clean Break

Area of Work: Women’s Theatre, Prisons

Policy: Developing theatre, and theatre-based education and training for prisoners and ex-prisoners.

Structure: A collective of ex-prisoners, lead by theatre professionals. This structure changed in the 1990s.

Based: Camden, later Kentish Town

Funding: The first seven years the company was self financed, then GLC and Arts Council funding.

Performance Venues: Theatre in Prisons, West End, Theatre Festivals, International tours

Audiences: The company toured in the UK, Europe and the US, playing to a variety of audiences including mainstream theatres,  community centres, art institutions, conferences, educational establishments and local groups.

Company and work process: Clean Break was set up in 1977 by Jenny Hicks, a prisoner in the high security wing of Durham prison, and a fellow inmate, Jackie Holborough. They were in the exercise yard when they met and started rehearsing Jesus Christ Superstar, but the prison governor quickly put a stop to the spectacle. Their initial idea was to stage The Trojan Women but this did not come to fruition. The couple later met at Askhams Grange Open Prison where, with the support of a Susan McCormick, a liberal Governor, the group expanded the annual Christmas show into a theatre workshop, then a troupe. A number of the group wrote sketches and short plays strung together with a newspaper theme. Their first show, an ambitious two-hour play called Efemera, played first at the prison and was then taken outside to the York Arts Centre for two nights and then to Goodricke College at the University of York. The Home Office agreed to the group playing outside the prison provided they did not advertise themselves as serving prisoners. The 21-strong group became the first British prisoners to perform outside prison.

When they were released, they decided to launch Clean Break as a workshop and touring company which would be open to all interested women ex-offenders, both as a support group and as a means of developing skills and discovering a voice for themselves through theatre. The company was given rehearsal and workshop space by Oval House.

Out of this came a double bill of work: A Question of Habit by Jacki Holborough and Under Eros by Jenny Hicks and Ros Davies. These two productions performed at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Cambridge University. It was also performed as a rehearsed reading by professional actors at the Royal Court Theatre, as a winner of the 1979 Koestler Award. The company policy to initiate an after show discussion with the audience began here and remained an integral part of the work.

In 1980, the company produced In or Out  by Jenny Hicks and Eva Mottley and Killers by Jacki Holborough. This was a self-directed double bill on prison themes. Killers was picked up and produced by both Channel 4, directed by Bob Long, and BBC Radio 4 (as Wednesday is Yoga Day), directed by Kay Patrick.

Alongside the theatre work, the company also undertook workshops with young offenders, participated in in-service training schemes for prison staff and probation officers, and performed regularly in educational establishments.

In 1981, the company devised Avenues. The main sections were written by Caroline Needs and Jacki Holborough and it was directed by Bernie Goss.  The show was performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, followed by an extensive UK tour during 1981-83, and performances in Holland. Avenues was the first show with a professional director. He was also the company’s only male contributor. From this point on, Clean Break took a new direction with a long, fully organised touring schedule, and a company of six plus stage manager, relying purely on charities, fees and profit share to keep them on the road. They also worked collaboratively with CAST (Creative and Support Trust) in Camden for office space and trust status.

Following the success of Avenues, Clean Break were invited to take part in Mai Zettling’s film Scrubbers, released in 1983. Eva Mottley had an important part in the film and after performing  in the Avenues tour, went on to a stage and television career, including a lead role in the first series of Widows on ITV.

In 1984, the company produced Decade, written by Jacki Holborough and directed by Penny Cherns. Company devised The Good Life was also produced in the same year with director Jude Alderson.  It was performed at the Camden Irish Centre, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the Melkveg Theatre, Amsterdam.

The Easter Egg was written by Chris Tchaikovsky, a former prisoner and founder of Women in Prison. The show was again directed by Jude Alderson. Clean Break had to hire a couple of  young professional actors for the first time due to not enough teenage performers for the script. With Equity minimum it was becoming financially difficult to keep the show on the road.

For their first seven years, Clean Break had run with box office splits and charity grants. The company eventually got funding from the GLC, which opened doors to other funding bodies and things began to change with the company structure gradually moving to paid administrators and staff. Having been turned down twice by the Arts Council, because they were told that they wouldn’t last, they finally received, in 1986, their first public tour grant for Holborough’s play The Sin Eaters. Directed by Anne Mitchell, it was performed at the Camden Irish Centre and in Boston, New York, Iowa and California.

Over the years, the company was supported with free rehearsal and workshop space by the Women’s Arts Alliance in Regents Park, London, and the Camden Irish Centre gave free rehearsal space on a regular basis.

Jacqueline Holborough left the company in 1986 to become writer-in-residence at the Bush Theatre. The following year she performed in Voices from Prison, a collection of writings from former and current offenders, performed by a combined cast of RSC and Clean Break actresses. Performed at the Barbican it was directed by Anne Mitchell.

In 1987, Anne Mitchell also directed The River That Ran Away (Te Awa I Tahutu) by Rena Owen about a Maori drug mule in Holloway prison. Rena later went on to star in the New Zealand feature film, Once Were Warriors

This was the last of Clean Break’s work of that era to be written and performed predominately by women ex-offenders. In the ten years since they were first established in Askham Grange Prison, Clean Break became one of the most exciting and innovative theatre companies in the UK. Its members were all criminalised women, who used their own experience of imprisonment and the law to create original theatre. The valuable content of the work was always matched with a high standard of professional and artistic ability.

Personal appraisal and thoughts:
Jacki Holborough (2013): Jenny and I first met at Durham H-wing which was a maximum security unit where we experienced prison in a very stark way – this was a small unit that had previously been closed down for men as inhumane.  Askham Grange is an open prison and completely different of course, but along the way all of the women we met had gifts and stories to share and we wanted to share them.  The system says go away and forget these people we’ve forced you to live with to the exclusion of all others.   We said no.  We want to explore this stuff.  We want to own it.  And we did.’

‘Susan McCormick studied philosophy at Oxford before a postgrad in criminology. She had been the youngest prison governor when she began her career.  She loved theatre, absolutely. It was a perfect time to begin this sort of venture with such a governor, willing to go out on a limb to help us achieve our goals. She entered my first play, a 45 minute piece used in Efemera, into the annual Koestler Awards and it won a reading at the Royal Court. All of this fed into our determination to keep the idea of a women prisoners theatre going after we’d been released.  Susan supported us constantly.  After Jenny Hicks and I were released Susan enabled us to keep in touch with members of the group still inside.  She refereed us for our first charity grant from the York chocolate firm, Rowntrees, and every other charity thereafter. Jenny and I remained close friends with Susan and her family until her death from cancer in 2010.’

The material was totally personal, for us that was the whole point.  All of our plays were our own experience. In other media there was Gilli Mebarek’s Channel 4 film about her heroin addiction with director Maggie Ford; Josie O’Dwyer’s experience of being a teenager in solitary confinement told with animator Marjut Rimminen, our company work with the BBC Open Door and Newsnight programmes – these were intensely personal stories, often traumatic, written and spoken by the people who’d lived them.  Was it cathartic, I don’t know?   Around 50 women worked with us during the seven or eight early years, I personally know of only one who went back to prison, Josie O’Dwyer. Perhaps the new regime has a better, more careful idea but at the time our experience was what we wanted to share, what we had to give. We were a co-operative, it was a co-operative decision.’

Chris Tchaikovsky from Women in Prison: ‘Taking the most hurt people out of society and punishing them in order to teach them how to live within society is, at best, futile. Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her.’

Reviews:

Ephemera
‘Genuine ‘primitives’ in the Douanier Rousseau manner, outrageously melodramatic lines delivered with the calm matter-of-factness of ladies discussing preparations for a church tea, yet the basic ideas were not unsophisticated, and showed considerable defiance. And the result was hilarious: the cast seemed to expect that it should be, yet were clearly not sending themselves up… I’d never seen anything like it and I’d love to see it again.’ (John Arden, New Statesman, 1979)
In or Out
‘Compelling and Original’ (The Stage, 1981)
Killers
‘Outstanding insight into what leads women to prison by those who should know. Compulsive.’ The Scotsman, 1980 (Critics Choice)
‘Thought provoking, a gripping production.’ (Edinburgh Evening News, 1981)
Avenues
‘The inmate humour of this unique group in a prized asset… it is more eloquent than a score of white papers.’ (The Guardian, 1983)
Treading on my Tale
‘This powerful piece from Gilli Mebarek is both moving and terrifying.’ (City Limits, 1986)
Open Secrets
‘Fast and furious, sharp and sussed, this is relevant theatre and good entertainment as well. Go and see it.’ (Time Out, 1989)

General review
‘One of the most important things women can’t do when they come out of prison is articulate their experience.’ Prison ‘floats around in the back of your head. If people can articulate crime it puts it behind you, and Clean Break makes a unique contribution. Apart from that, it’s great fun. It’s not everyone sat around thinking, ‘God, I’m a victim.’’
(Chris Tchaikovsky, Daily News, Bowling Green, Kentucky, 13th April, 1988)

Productions: 

PRODUCTION NAMEVENUESDATES
Efemera
Company devised
Askhams Grange Prison, York Arts Centre, Goodricke College at the University of the York. 1978
A Question of Habit
Writer: Jacki Holborough
Jackson's Lane Theatre, the Edinburgh Fringe Fringe and Cambridge University.
Rehearsed reading at the Royal Court.
1979
Under Eros
Writer: Jenny Hicks and Ros Davies
Jackson's Lane Theatre, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Cambridge University 1979
In or Out
Writers: Jenny Hicks and Eva Mottley
Directors: Jenny Hicks and Eva Mottley
Design: Pat Hamilton
Edinburgh Fringe Festival and UK Tour. 1980
Killers
Writer: Jacki Holborough
Director: Jacki Holborough
Music: Cat Coull
Edinburgh Fringe Festival and UK Tour, Channel 4 TV production and BBC Radio 4 play. 1980
Avenues
Devised by the company and supported by
Caroline Needs and Jacki Holborough
Director: Bernie Goss
Edinburgh Fringe Festival, UK Tour and Netherlands Tour. 1981 - 1983
Decade
Writer: Jacki Holborough
Director: Penny Cherns
Cast: Jenny Hicks and Jacki Holborough
The Melkveg, Amsterdam, the Edinburgh Festival and London venues.1984
The Good LIfe
Company devised
Director: Jude Alderson
Camden Irish Centre, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Melveg Festival, Amsterdam1984
The Easter Egg
Writer: Chris Tchiakovsky
Director: Jude Alderson
Edinburgh Festival Fringe and UK Tour. 1985
The Sin Eaters
Writer: Jacki Holborough
Director: Anne Mitchell
Cast: Jacki Holborough, Jennifer Hicks
Design: Julia Fletcher
London venues, Women's prisons in Iowa, New York and California. 1986
Treading on my Tail
Writer: Gilli Mebarek
Voices from Prison
Writer: Women prisoners across the UK
Director: Anne Mitchell
Barbican, 1987
The River That Ran Away
Writer: Rena Owen
Director: Anne Mitchell
London Women's Centre 1987
Open Secrets1989

Links: Clean Break

Current work:  Clean Break continued to develop under alternative leadership. It is now a well established producing theatre company and drama training centre. The company consists of three areas: a professional writing and production company, a theatre-based education and training programme and an outreach team working in prisons. The writing and production company seeks to entertain and enlighten audiences about the complex problems women face in the criminal justice system and create award-winning plays that dramatise women’s experience of the criminal justice system. The education and training programme enables ex-offenders to develop personal, social, professional and creative skills that lead to education and employment. The outreach team works in prisons, with wardens and staff within the criminal justice system.

Clean Break is the only women-only theatre company of its kind in the UK.

Julia Caesar performed in New York, Autumn 2013.

Acknowledgements: This webpage was assembled with the generous help of Jacki Holborough. We are enormously grateful to her for contributing her personal collections of images, scripts and assorted ephemera, as well as her reflections and time. This page has been written and constructed by Ray Malone. November 2013

This creation of this page was supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.