Focus: Frontline - Clean Break

Graham Willgoss,

WHAT IT IS: A London-based theatre, education and creative writing company that works with women released from prison or who have been affected by the criminal justice system

WHAT IT DOES: Develops personal, social, artistic and professional skills in women through performance art-based workshops and courses that lead to a 12-week touring production each autumn

HOW IT'S FUNDED: By the Arts Council, Arts Council London, European Social Fund, London Development Agency and the Big Lottery Fund

"For most of the women that come here, we are a stepping stone they use for personal development," says Anna Hermann, head of education and planning at Clean Break.

"They don't all want to work in the arts - they are here because they want to be somewhere they feel safe, supported and part of a community."

About 70 women a year attend the courses on offer at Clean Break's purpose-built studio complex in London's Kentish Town, with a further 1,000 reached through workshops and introductory courses offered in prisons across the country.

Courses range from six weeks to a year and include English and IT skills, women and anger, writing for theatre, performance poetry and access to theatre and the community - a foundation course from which participants can progress to study at university. Clean Break is a 'women-only' organisation and none of the women would speak to a male reporter. Hermann speaks on their behalf.

"Not many women go on to study in higher education. We're more about women feeling safe here, being able to come here and wanting to come here," she says.

"Some are here to combat isolation, some to put structure into their lives and some because they want a career in the arts. We're here to help all of them regain some independence."

Performance therapy

Each year, Clean Break commissions a playwright to write and produce a play with its students about their experience of the criminal justice system. This year's production, Free, by Shirley Silas, will tour nationwide in theatres and prisons in the autumn.

Last year, a group of Clean Break students performed for an audience of 700 senior probation officers and managers at an international probation conference.

"For them to be able to tell their stories as a piece of theatre, to contribute to an international debate on the criminal justice system and the changes that need to happen within it, and to feel valued was incredibly rewarding," says Hermann.

"But the small changes that happen on a more personal level, like being more confident, having a network of friends and having aspirations - they are what we are really about."

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