‘Nothing About Us Without Us’: Representation in Playwriting
2021 marks both the 40th anniversary of theatre company Clean Break, and the 30th year of TiPP’s undergraduate prison theatre course at the University of Manchester. To celebrate this, playwriting and prison theatre students from the university took part in a writing workshop and public seminar on the 3rd of March. With reflections from playwrights Chloë Moss and Stacey Gregg on their previous work with Clean Break, Anna Herrmann (Joint Artistic Director) and Jade Small (an actor who has been in Clean Break plays by Chloë and Stacey), our conversations were focused on representation, collaborative theatre-making and the challenges women often face surrounding incarceration. The day gave recognition to Clean Break’s uniquely compassionate approach in making a new play, with a commitment to honouring the truth of women’s stories. The seminar also explored TiPP’s history of prison and probation theatre practice since forming in 1991; Director Simon Ruding explained their aim to incite conversations about rehabilitation, in addition to developing the next generation of practitioners in partnership with the university. Giving focus to the playwriting workshop with Clean Break, I will reflect on their core values in developing new plays that are anchored by honest representation.
Questions about representation feel incredibly urgent right now; during a period of upheaval and shifting perspectives on social justice after the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the world of theatre is also reassessing itself and how it will come back when Covid-19 is over. Playwrights are thinking more about who should tell what stories, with a push and pull between wanting to write outside of one individual’s experience, whilst recognising that those with particular privileges should not be telling the stories of marginalised communities. The work of Clean Break is inherently authentic, the company being established in 1979 by Jenny Hicks and Jackie Holborough, two women with lived experience of the criminal justice system. Through practical writing exercises and a Q&A, students at Manchester took inspiration from Clean Break’s mission to always put truthful representation at the heart of their work.
In the first decade of Clean Break’s arts practice in prisons, their shows were exclusively made by women with lived experience of the criminal justice system. After the founders left the company, a new phase of work began and playwright Bryony Lavery was commissioned to write an original play, ‘Wicked’ in 1989. This was the first time a writer was given the role of producing a script by working alongside incarcerated women, leading onto future commissions with playwrights including Winsome Pinnock, Lucy Kirkwood and Tanika Gupta. Each writer was given a bespoke commission to create new plays after carrying out personal research and explorations into the world of women, crime, and justice.
Chloë Moss had her first commission with Clean Break in 2006, having written This Wide Night which was performed at both Soho Theatre then toured around women’s prisons in the UK. Her play Sweatbox debuted in 2015 and was also developed into a short film, with three performers bringing audiences into the back of a prison van where women are locked in cubicles like battery hens before entering prison for the first time. This heavily impactful short piece really conveys the trauma so many women face in this claustrophobic and highly tense situation, carrying the feeling of a very personal insight into this specific part of prison life. During the workshop, Chloë explained that creating “alchemy” between real anecdotes and a well-crafted storyline is at the core of her process. She ensures that her work maintains an emotional distance from women’s personal experiences, despite feeling a responsibility to address every story that is conveyed to her by the women she collaborated with in prison. Her writing is focused on honouring those stories by writing a well-crafted drama with one clear message, thus achieving a bigger political impact. Chloë explained that the process of writing these plays was all about balance, conveying the truth of women’s stories with genuine empathy and therefore a dedication to sincere representation.
Joint-Artistic Director of Clean Break Anna Herrmann then discussed the importance of arts access to change a political landscape, leading our conversation onto the fact that there is an overrepresentation of Black women in the criminal justice system, and it is imperative for work about life in prison to be representative of that. For the student playwrights taking note from Clean Break’s creative team, drawing attention to the different layers of representation that are necessary in the process of making a new play was vitally important.
Playwright Stacey Gregg then introduced Inside Bitch; a devised play presented in conjunction with the Royal Court in 2019. Performed by actors who had been to prison, the show was created to interrogate stereotypes of incarcerated women portrayed in TV and film. Stacey used the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black as a provocation to explore those stereotypes, creating a space for the actors to respond and take ownership of the work. Her writing process is very much centred around interrogation: being a queer working class woman, she was drawn to Clean Break because of their commitment to honest representation. She is interested in questioning the machinery of theatre, “pulling back the curtain” on what kinds of stories can be told and playing with the line between activism and art. With Inside Bitch marking a new era of co-devised plays alongside the company established process of commissioning individual playwrights, Stacey conveyed that interrogating the theatre-making process brought new challenges to Clean Break. This time, women with lived experience of prison were also performing, which meant that defamiliarising the autobiographical was suddenly much harder. During the writers’ workshop, performer Jade Small explained that there were always clear boundaries, and anyone could walk away if they felt they needed to.
To learn more about Chloë and Stacey’s processes, we were asked to generate material bringing autobiography and drama together in a group writing exercise. I was put into a group of all women, and we came up with the stimulus ‘A World Without Men’. Together, we collected individual lines reflecting on our experiences of misogyny, with profound observations such as ‘laugh with my mouth open wide’, ‘feel listened to’ and ‘I’d breathe. I’d just breathe’. We then shared our process with the rest of the workshop, recognising the strengths of our chosen provocation: any personal information was anonymised, and we had each contributed equally to the poem so there was no hierarchy in the creative process. The workshop revealed techniques in generating personal material creatively and safely, proving incredibly useful in understanding Clean Break’s approach to representation.
The day was so enlightening for a new generation of playwrights and theatre-makers, with informative discussions on how to make powerful drama instead of journalism, as well as recognising a writer’s ethical responsibilities in facilitating a safe space to create community theatre. There is no monolithic experience of what it’s like to be a woman in prison, and playwrights new to community practice need to undertake thorough research to truly empathise with the subject they are writing about. Questions about representation are continuing to arise and remould the theatre landscape, and it’s crucial that future playwrights continue to interrogate both their work and their own personal biases. As performer Jade Small acknowledged, all of us are guilty of doing or considering doing something illegal, even if that’s as small as stealing a lipstick – we are not worlds apart.
Emma is a playwright and theatre-maker currently studying MA Playwriting at the University of Manchester. She is a BBC New Creative, having recently produced an audio drama called Pearl which is soon to debut on Radio 4 Extra. Her work centres women’s voices, with plays performed at Theatre503, The Old Red Lion, Omnibus Theatre and Columbus State University. She can be contacted by Twitter @EmVictoriaWhite and Instagram @emma_victoria_white.