Women / Theatre / Justice - Meet the research team
I started researching Clean Break when I was exploring performances about women’s experiences of austerity as part of my PhD project. Caoimhe McAvinchey was one of my supervisors and we talked and thought together about the company’s graduate touring performance and its relationship to ideas of care, participation, remuneration, and work. When Caoimhe asked me to join the research team, I met Deborah and Anne-marie and collaborating with them has allowed me to see Clean Break through the lens of industrial relations scholarship, illuminating exciting new understandings of the company’s practice to me. Much of this research has occurred during the global Coronavirus pandemic. The project concurrently attends to tracing Clean Break’s histories over forty years and contemporary practices at the company, including their response to the multiple crises provoked and amplified by COVID 19. We observed online staff meetings between March and September and, more recently, we have immersed ourselves in the company’s archive at the Bishopsgate Institute. Straddling the contemporary experience of crisis and the Clean Break’s long histories of resistance has provided paths forward and echoes back. It has been an education on endurance, collective action, advocacy, and creative practice. As we move forward with the project, I am excited to hear from our broader collaborators and seminar contributors about the breadth of practices that intersect with experiences of women, theatre, and justice which they bring to our shared conversations.
This project started in 2019, but I feel like I’ve been involved with it for years. My PhD looked at the effects of gender on access to work for professional actors (to save you a really long read: better for men than women) and various connected projects have continued since. I live in Warwickshire, most of the empirical research was in London. Very considerately, my old friend Caoimhe McAvinchey and her wonderful family moved to London in time to facilitate this research, and I’ve been haunting their spare room ever since. Caoimhe would talk about this remarkable company called Clean Break and the extraordinary work they did. We chatted over many dinners about how they worked as an organisation, and gradually an idea was born. To actually do what became this ambitious, interdisciplinary project needed a core team of different but also like-minded people. Anne-marie and I had been colleagues at Warwick University and friends ever since. Our research has been in different areas but always centring on equality and diversity issues in employment. Sarah (a new friend – thanks AHRC) had worked with Caoimhe in the Drama Department at Queen Mary, and what has struck me is how four people from different bits of universities (Business Schools! Drama Departments!) are connected by a common theme of accounting for advantage and disadvantage.
It’s rare that you get a project that so wonderfully combines your work and outside-work interests, as well as providing an opportunity to collaborate with longstanding friends and friends-of-friends. My academic work has been long been embedded in gender relations in employment, particularly in areas of work that intersect with family, community and activism. I am also artistic director of a community theatre. The Women/Theatre/Justice research project has allowed me to stitch these life interests together. So far, it has been such an immense privilege to observe from within, the way that Clean Break works as an organisation. I remain in a constant state of awe at the magnitude, variety and courage of the theatre being made and the impact of that theatre-making, and humbled by the stories of members being told. It has been fascinating to see how the organisation has responded so effectively and creatively to the crisis moment of the Covid pandemic. In the next phase of the project, I am looking forward to analysing our ‘data’ so far and am totally excited by the prospect of what our different disciplinary perspectives will be able to uncover.
My first encounter with Clean Break was in 1995 when I was a student at Manchester University. My housemate, Ella, was taking a Prison Theatre module, where students and staff worked with people who lived and worked in prisons and probation. I vividly remember the day she ran home, waving a copy of Helena Kennedy’s book, Eve Was Framed, and saying 'you’ve got to read this! It’s about the world we live in, where women who commit crime are treated with prejudice, where a woman’s sentence endures long beyond the time that she is in prison. And there is a theatre company, Clean Break, and they are doing something about it’. And, more than a quarter of a century later, Clean Break are still doing something about it: continually adapting theatre practices to engage with women who have had contact with the criminal justice system and reaching new audiences to highlight and address the issues that are particular to them. But this cultural, social and political work doesn’t just happen. It is the result of the commitment and collaboration and care of hundreds of women across forty years to making it happen. I wanted to understand more about Clean Break - the processes behind the producing of the more visible work on theatres across the UK, the extensive but less-public education and training programmes in it's women-only centre and its activist interventions into arts, education and criminal justice settings. The idea for Women/Theatre/Justice percolated for years through many conversations with Clean Break, Deborah, Sarah and Anne-marie before finding a shape and structure that would allow for an examination of the breadth and depth of Clean Break's extraordinary work. One of the things I have most enjoyed is that we are an interdisciplinary team, and, in the next phase of the project, I am particularly looking forward to the seminar programme developed with colleagues in law, sociology, work and employment relations across eleven universities in England, and seeing where these conversations will take us.