Rationale for the research

The World Female Imprisonment List (2017) states that women make up 6.9% of the global prison population of over eleven million people. A small minority. However, this figure alone obscures the intersectional societal disadvantages that shape the lives of many women within the criminal justice system. It conceals the distinctive political, cultural and social implications of their incarceration. 

Sweatbox by Chloë Moss.

Research into the experience of women in the criminal justice system from law, feminist criminology and prison studies confirms that, historically, the criminological subject has been the majority - men - and, as a direct consequence, women are marginalized as too few in number to be given specific consideration. This is evidenced in ideologies that inform the language of the law; the architectural design and material conditions of women’s prisons; and the political inertia that impedes penal reform attending to the needs of women, communities and society. 

Since 1979, Clean Break has addressed and exposed the specific gendered inequalities that shape cultural discourse and penal practice, through its extensive education and training programmes with women with experience of the criminal justice system and the touring of original plays to theatres, prisons, community venues and government buildings.

Missing Out by Mary Cooper

Whilst there is some industry acknowledgement of the significant impact of the company's distinctive leadership and contribution within theatre and arts and criminal justice, there has been limited academic engagement with Clean Break. Many of the plays Clean Break commissioned and produced since 1990 have been published and there has been some consideration of individual texts, often in the context of the work of one specific writer rather than as a body of literature produced by a particular company (Aston 2003; Farlan and Ferris 2013; Goddard 2007). Evaluations of Clean Break’s work survey the economic (NCP, 2012) and cultural impact of its educational programme (Busby & Abraham, 2016). The Education Programme has been the subject of performative criminology (Merril and Frigon, 2015). Within theatre and performance studies there is a growing body of work which addresses representations of criminalised women in Clean Break's artistic programme (Walsh, 2014, 2016; McAvinchey, 2020a, 2020b, 2020c; Herrmann and McAvinchey, 2020); the criminalisation and feminisation of poverty (Bartley, 2019a, 2019b); and how Clean Break’s dramaturgies disrupt carceral imaginaries (Molly McPhee,2019a, 2019b, 2020). 

Clean Break is one of the few women-only organisations in the UK and further, its efforts to operate by listening to the voices involved in its work (internally and externally) make it both unusual and significant in terms of employment relations. Its leadership structure and voice processes are highly unusual and significant in terms of the debates on these issues contributed to by project researchers (Dean and Greene 2017; Bushell et al. 2020; Kirton and Greene 2016); Ward and Greene 2018). The project aims to contribute to empirical and theoretical knowledge around gender and management; feminist organisations; workplace voice. 

Inside Bitch, Conceived by Stacey Gregg and Deborah Pearson and devised and performed by Lucy Edkins, Jennifer Joseph, TerriAnn Oudjar and Jade Small. Photo by Niall McDiarmuid.

By attending to over four decades of Clean Break’s work, within the socio, political and economic landscape of arts policy and criminal justice policy in the UK since 1979, the Women, Theatre, Justiceproject will develop understandings about:

Organisational practices and employment relations including:

  • Leadership
  • Voice at work 
  • Employment disadvantage and discrimination 
  • Gendered organisations 
  • Feminist organisational practice 

The reach and influence of Clean Break Theatre Company's practice on contemporary British theatre, particularly:

  • New writing
  • Legacies of the alternative theatre movement
  • Socially engaged and applied performance; prison theatres; and arts and criminal justice.
  • Feminist theatre practices
  • Theatre and popular criminology

How we’ve carried out the research

The research team has been engaged in a range of research activities including:

  • Interviews with current and past Clean Break staff; current Members; Graduates from its Education programme; Board members; professionals who have worked with the company from theatre and criminal justice.
  • Non-participant observation of Clean Break’s working practices including observation of rehearsals, performance, meetings with the Clean Break Board, staff meetings and events with Members.
  • Archival research at the Clean Break archive at Bishopsgate Institute, London. In 2019, Clean Break was awarded Heritage Lottery Funding to create an archive about the company. This included development of a series of oral history interviews with staff, Members and Board members across four decades. The concurrent timing of both the archive and research project has allowed for rich collaboration, particularly in relation to these interviews.

We are collaborating with colleagues from law, sociology, criminology, theatre and performance, English literature and work and employment relations across 11 universities, in a seminar series that addresses wider issues about women, crime, justice and punishment that shape and inform Clean Break’s practices. For a full list see Project Team and Collaborators.

Originally, we had planned this seminar programme to include a tour of Sweatbox, Chloë Moss’ short play set in a prison van, in which the audience accompany three women on the journey from court to prison. COVID-19 has meant that we have had to reimagine this strand of the programme. Chloë Moss has adapted Sweatbox for film and the seminars will all be on-line events between November 2020 and March 2021. For information about this programme, please see Events.

Research Blogs gives access to reflections on materials, encounters and events within the research process and Research Materials gathers select publications that have been useful in the development of the project.


Aston, E. (2003). Feminist views on the English Stage: Women Playwrights 1990-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Abraham, N. and S. Busby (2015) ‘Celebrating Success: How has Participation in Clean Break’s Theatre Education Programme Contributed to Individual’s Involvement in Professional or Community Arts Practices?’ London: Central School of Speech and Drama.

Bartley, S. (2019a), ‘Gendering Welfare Onstage: Acts of Reproductive Labour in Applied Theatre, Contemporary Theatre Review, 29.3: 305-319

Bartley, S. (2019b), ‘Austerity, Gender and Performance: Conversations with Anna Herrmann and Katherine Chandler’, Interventions: Contemporary Theatre Review, November 2019.

Bushell, M., Hoque, K. and Dean, D. 2020: The Network Trap:Why Women Struggle to Get into the Boardroom. Springer. 

Dean, D. and Greene, A.M (2017), How do we understand worker silence despite poor conditions - as the actress said to the woman bishop.Human Relations, 70(10) 1237–1257.

Kirton, G and Greene, A-M 2016: The Dynamics of Managing Diversity: A Critical Approach. 4th edn. Routledge.

Farfan, P. and Ferris, L. (2013). Contemporary Women Playwrights: Into the Twenty-First Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Herrmann, A. and McAvinchey, C. with contributions from Lucy Edkins, Jennifer Joseph, TerriAnn Oudjar, Jade Small, Deborah Pearson and Stacey Gregg (2020) ‘Inside Bitch: Clean Break and the ethics of representation of women in the criminal justice system.’ London and New York: Routledge, 100-107. 

Merrill, E. and S. Frignon (2015), ‘Performative Criminology and the “State of Play” for Theatre with Criminalized Women’ in Societies, Vol 5, No. 2, 295-313.

Goddard, L. (2017). Staging Black Feminisms: Identity, Politics, Performance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

NCP. (2011). Unlocking Value: The Economic Benefit of the Arts in Criminal Justice. London: New Philanthropy Capital. 

McAvinchey, C. (2020a) ‘‘Something About Us’: Clean Break’s Theatre of Necessity’ in Michelle Kelly and Clare Westall (eds), Prison Writing and the Literary World: Imprisonment, Institutionality, and Questions of Literary Practice. London and New York: Routledge, 209-226.

McAvinchey, C. (2020b), ‘Clean Break: A Practical Politics of Care’ in Amanda Stuart Fisher and James Thompson (eds), Performing Care: New Perspectives on Socially Engaged Practice. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 123-138.

McAvinchey, C. (2020c), “Bad Girls, Monsters and Chicks in Chains: Clean Break’s Disruption of Representations of Women, Crime and Incarceration” in Ashley Lucas (ed), Prison Theatre and the Global Crisis of Incarceration. London: Bloomsbury, 201-212.

McPhee, M. (2019a), ‘Miasmatic Performance: Women and Resistance in Carceral Climates’, Performance Research, 23 (3): 100-111.

McPhee, M. (2019b), ‘I don't know why she's crying': Contagion and Criminality in Clean Break's Dream Pill and Little on the inside’ in F. Walsh (ed.), Theatres of Contagion, London: Bloomsbury, 121-135.

McPhee, M. (2020), ‘Theatre as Collective Casework: Clean Break Theatre Company’s Charged (2010)’ in C. McAvinchey, Applied Theatre: Women and the Criminal Justice System. London: Bloomsbury, 143-161.

Walsh, A. (2015), ‘Staging women in prisons: Clean Break Theatre Company’s dramaturgy of the cage’, Crime, Media, Culture: An International Journal, 12: 3: 309-326.

Walsh, A. (2018), ‘Performing Punishment, Transporting Audiences: Clean Break Theatre Company’s Sweatbox’, Prison Service Journal, 239:22-26. 

Ward, J. and Greene, A.M. (2018), ‘Too much of a good thing? The emotional challenges of managing affective commitment in voluntary work’, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 47(6) 1155–1177.