September 14, 2021

Women-Only Organisations – Working Differently?

What is involved in a Clean Break collaboration? Doctoral researcher Mary Ann le Lean reflects on Róisín McBrinn (Joint Artistic Director of Clean Break), Phil McCormack (Head of Participation, Donmar Warehouse) and Shona Babayemi (actor and Clean Break Member) discussing the co-commissioned play [BLANK] by Alice Birch, and the impact that Clean Break practices have on the wider theatre sector.

Mary Ann le Lean (PhD student researching gender equality at executive level in the UK arts sector, Warwick Business School, OHRM group)  twitter: @maryannlelean

Blog post 2: Clean Break: Working Differently?

22 April 2021

This event was the second of a double-bill on 22 April 2021 arranged by the Women/Theatre/Justice (AHRC) research group, looking at two aspects of Clean Break’s practice.  The first seminar of the day explored how Clean Break works as an organisation, run by women for women, and what academic research can tell us about women-only organising. 

Clean Break: Working Differently? addressed the second aspect: what is involved in a Clean Break collaboration?  Hosted by Dr Deborah Dean, we heard about the practicalities and legacies of Clean Break and the Donmar Warehouse co-producing Alice Birch’s [BLANK] (2019).

We heard in turn from Róisín McBrinn (one of Clean Break’s two Joint Artistic Directors), Phil McCormack (the Donmar’s Head of Participation), and Shona Babayemi ([BLANK] actor and Clean Break Member), with all three joining in conversation to conclude the seminar.

This seminar was interesting not only to management and organisation scholars, but also for theatre and arts sector scholars.  We heard about what goes into a successful theatrical collaboration and co-production.  We caught glimpses of how an established theatre venue can successfully host a ground-breaking show and allow what’s happening on stage and in the rehearsal room to permeate throughout the rest of its operations.  We were treated to a personal description of how it felt to be a Clean Break Member performing in the play. 

For anyone who did not have the opportunity to watch [BLANK], it is useful to know that it is a play made up of (up to) 100 scenes selected and staged in any sequence.  Each scene ‘explore[s] the impact of the criminal justice system on women and their families’ ( The scenes do not set out a clear narrative path to follow, and the parts can be played by any member of its ensemble cast of 16 women.  As Shona explained, she saw the play as a way of demonstrating how closely different worlds exist to each other – from the recognisable domesticity of talking over breakfast at home, to the extremes of giving birth in a prison.  These experiences all co-exist and, as Shona described, “anybody can be anybody at any one time”.  The play was variously described as a Rubik’s cube, a kaleidoscope and a collage during the seminar.   A sample review of the play at the time, from the Independent, can be found here.)

As Róisín explained, partnership working and collaboration is built into the bones of Clean Break as an organisation.  It was an essential complexity in its emergence as a theatre company from the ideas of Jenny Hicks and Jacqueline Holborough, with support from Susan McCormick, and has remained as a core value throughout the company’s development.  In practical terms, collaboration with external partners allows Clean Break to expand the reach of its work and its message, but it also highlights what Róisín described as a “conflicting barrier” of being the outside agitator, telling stories from outside the mainstream, but needing to be positioned and heard within the mainstream.

We heard that [BLANK] was a prime example of this kind of collaboration.  The script was originally co-commissioned by Clean Break and the National Theatre as part of its Connections programme of new plays for young people to perform, with 60 scenes, focusing particularly on the impact of the criminal justice system on children and young adults. It came to life as a co-production when Clean Break approached the Donmar Warehouse to help bring the piece to the stage.  Clean Break’s previous experience of advising on previous Donmar shows (Shakespeare Trilogy (2013-2017), dir. Phyllida LLoyd) meant that they were confident that the Donmar would be a safe space with high production values for the piece to emerge, as well as a platform from which to reach new audiences.

The success of the collaboration between Clean Break and Donmar Warehouse was described between Róisín and Phil as coming down to genuinely shared values but also partly down to the “fluke of the good folk”.  Phil pointed to the fit between [BLANK]’s message and the vision of Donmar’s recently-appointed Artistic Director, Michael Longhurst, to provide a platform for “important stories thrillingly told, widely shared”.  Both Róisín and Phil pointed to examples of knowledge being exchanged between the organisations in both directions.  Clean Break’s training session in trauma-informed practice for the whole Donmar team early in the process helped create the necessary conditions for all Members to feel safe in the Donmar spaces; while the Donmar’s extensive experience in working with young people, and managing its supporter community, were food for thought for Clean Break.  Phil was confident that a clear sign of the co-production’s success was that the message of empathy, of listening to multiple voices, not only landed strongly with the 600 young people engaged with the Donmar’s outreach work around [BLANK] and the 100 young women in the devised theatre project that used the play’s script as a starting point, but that it will have been taken to heart by the audiences who came to see the show.

Building on its core value of collaboration, and its mission to tell stories and do work that allows women to reach their full potential free of criminalisation, Clean Break works differently from the rest of the theatre world by making a women-only team a clear condition of any co-production. It has now made a commitment that at least 25% of the on- or off-stage teams involved in future productions must be made up of its Members, all of whom are women with “lived experience of the criminal justice system or are at risk of entering it due to drug alcohol or mental health issues” (Clean Break website).  This condition helps Clean Break honour its commitment to its Members to provide them with “opportunities to engage in professional, public facing performance projects”. The positive experience of co-producing with the Donmar and having two Clean Break Members out of the twelve cast in [BLANK], boosted the company’s confidence in making that level of commitment for future productions.  It also gave the Donmar the opportunity to widen its network of women theatre practitioners, artists, and workshop facilitators beyond the life of [BLANK].  There were also examples of Clean Break Members volunteering in front of house roles (box office, foyers, bars and auditorium areas of a theatre) going on to paid employment with the enthusiastic support of one of the ‘good folk’, the Donmar’s Theatre Manager, Michael Bond.

Shona’s conversation with Dr Sarah Bartley gave us a real sense of how deeply the play’s material was felt by the women who performed the piece, and how Shona’s own history with Clean Break gave her the sense of belonging and routine that was the platform on which she built a professional acting career.  Her thoughtfully chosen words conjured up a sense of a women working together, sharing stories and lived experiences, together creating Clean Break’s organisational culture.  While she knows that some people describe the atmosphere and work at Clean Break as magical, she knows that the working culture and output does not come about by magic – “it’s dedication, it’s training, it’s hard work, and it’s consistency”. 

That consistency of values and core purpose was clearly threaded through Shona’s experiences within Clean Break, from joining a training scheme where participants formed bonds of friendship and common experience, to regularly sharing lunches with everyone working at Clean Break, to auditioning for and performing in [BLANK].  To Shona, the term “Members” means “The Women”, and “The Women” means “everybody”.   Laughter combatted the tears that came about during [BLANK] rehearsals and discussions, and the process of listening to each other was as important as putting on the play.  That atmosphere was then carried from the Clean Break space where, crucially, the rehearsal process started, into the Donmar Warehouse spaces where the women’s stories were able to reach new audiences.     

This sense of a solid foundation, from which good things come, also fed through to Shona’s own career.  As Clean Break’s Joint Artistic Director, Anna Hermann, pointed out (from the seminar’s virtual floor), Shona was speaking to us from a rehearsal room at the Globe Theatre, where she was preparing to play Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  Shona credited her Clean Break experience for “solidifying” herself as an artist, and one who is now able to make a living from her artistry.

While neither Shona, Phil nor Róisín could think of any difficulties that came about from the different ways that Clean Break worked in co-production with the Donmar, they all noted that the hard work demanded of putting on the show itself meant that it was not straightforward.  For example, Shona told us that the cuts needed to the [BLANK] script during the preview performances had a “mammoth” impact on the actors who were losing the chance to tell that part of the story. That said, once the show was up and running everyone involved saw the good work that had been done.  This work took place on stage, backstage, front of house, and in the outreach, development and marketing areas around the production, which allowed voices to be heard and professional opportunities seized, well beyond the life of the production itself.    

If you ever have the time to listen to the rich detail of the conversations that took place in this seminar, I would encourage you to watch the recording on the Women Theatre Justice YouTube channel.  Róisín’s solo talk starts after about 7 minutes, Phil starts around 22 minutes, Shona’s conversation with Sarah starts around 55 minutes, and everyone comes together around 1 hour 17 minutes.  If you get a chance to watch any or all of it, you’ll be in for a treat.  And I can’t imagine many other places where you can hear about a process that is “by its nature”, as Róisín put it, collaborative, value-driven, positive and fun even when it addresses humanity’s darkest corners; “then you make it women-only… and you’re cooking with gas”.