Joanne by Deborah Bruce, Theresa Ikoko, Laura Lomas, Chino Odimba and Ursula Rani Sarma (2015_16). Photo: Katherine Leedale

Founded in


Head of Artistic Programme

Róisín McBrinn

Since 2014

Executive Director

Lucy Perman

Clean Break logo


Acclaimed theatre company Clean Break produces ground-breaking plays with women writers and actors at the heart of its work. Founded in 1979 by two women prisoners who needed urgently to tell their stories through theatre, the company today has an independent education programme delivering theatre opportunities to women with experience of the criminal justice system and women at risk, in custodial and community settings.

Clean Break’s innovative education work, combined with visionary expertise in theatre, makes for a powerful mix. Celebrated by critics and audience across the UK, the company’s award winning plays hit a collective nerve, humanising some of the most difficult things we need to talk about as a society.

Recent productions include: Somalia Seaton’s House and Chino Odimba’s Amongst the Reeds (Edinburgh and Yard Theatre); Joanne (Soho Theatre and The Other Place, RSC); Vivienne Franzmann’s Pests (Royal Exchange Theatre /Royal Court Theatre co-production and touring); it felt empty when the heart went at first but it is alright now by Lucy Kirkwood (Arcola Theatre, joint winner of the John Whiting Award 2010); and This Wide Night by Chloë Moss (Soho Theatre 2008 and revived in 2009, winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Award 2009).

Productions from Graduates of our Theatre Education Programme include: Spent by Katherine Chandler (tour); Sweatbox by Chloë Moss (Latitude and tour); Meal Ticket devised in collaboration with Forced Entertainment (Latitude) and Frientimacy by Stacey Gregg (Donmar Studios).


Touring company

Company Type


Clean Break - Total subsidy from Arts Council England in the 2015/16 financial year

Public Funding


Total subsidy from Arts Council England in the 2015/16 financial year

London, England





Staged in the 2015/16 financial year (1 professional work and 2 graduate works)


Staff - Clean Break

Our Question

How can we alter our structures to increase the diversity of the women we employ to create a power shift at Clean Break and lasting change within the theatre industry?

Because Clean Break is a women-only organisation we began Advance knowing that the number of women we work with isn’t where our attention should rest. Rather, we were interested in using the process to examine whether there are certain groups of women we are less likely to engage with and if so, how we could remedy that.

What We Did

When we first embarked on the journey, we had planned to make the focus ethnic diversity within our artistic programme. This would have ultimately meant that we would have placed a microscope over how we recruit and work with freelance theatre artists. It became clear quite quickly though that there wasn’t enough depth to this challenge, especially given that we were particularly keen to use the process to better understand how we could create lasting change in the company.

Starting Point

We were already working with a broad range of artists and had previously conducted research into emerging writers from BAME backgrounds; and we had used this research to set up an emerging writers’ programme. But, more importantly, we didn’t feel that the question, and attempting to answer it, would have enough far reaching impact on the company as a whole, into the future. We were interested in power and who within Clean Break has a seat at the table when it comes to decision making about the company’s work as well as our core values and activity.

At one of the early Away Days, our Head of Artistic Programme, Róisín McBrinn, was asked by a cohort member what she was doing to ensure that there was someone working with her or within the company to replace her when she moves on. When she brought this challenge back to the senior management team, it helped to move forward considerably our discussions about diversity across the company beyond the artistic programme. This, in turn, facilitated more meaningful debate about diversity within Clean Break, including across our permanent staff team and especially at senior management level.

Our company was set up by two women prisons in 1979 and the contribution that students on our education programme (women with experience of the criminal justice system/women at risk) make to the organisation has always been central to our vision. In fact, the women on our education programme play a part in shaping what is on offer to them but we want to improve on, and deepen this engagement. A diversity of lived experience* amongst our trustees and our entire employed team became much more central to what we felt the company needed to look at altering. We wanted to start to focus on the structures for progression within the company for both staff members, volunteers and students to ensure that when answering the question of ‘who will take over’, we had done everything in our power to answer it with some solid options that would reflect our commitment to change in women’s lives and in the wider theatre industry.

* ie we were interested in particular in experience of the criminal justice system or of being at risk of entering it due to poor mental health, drugs or alcohol dependencies – in line with the criteria for joining Clean Break’s theatre education programme as a student.


We dedicated a board meeting to the broader question of diversity via a ‘long table’ discussion early on in the process and are progressing plans to recruit more trustees with ‘lived experience’ of the criminal justice system. It was, and continues to be, important for us that the board continues to engage actively with this ambition, and holds us accountable for decisions we are making now, and in the future.

We wanted to know more about what might prevent us from attracting or identifying a wide range of women to take on roles in our permanent staff, especially at senior/leadership level. As part of this, Tonic conducted research into progression routes in arts management for – and also barriers commonly experienced by – women, particularly focusing on the experience of BAME, and working class women and those with lived experience. They interviewed women working in arts management/with aspirations to work in arts management who are based in various parts of the UK and who represent a spectrum of roles and career levels, ranging from apprentice level to executive leaders in National Portfolio organisations. This was supplemented by drawing together insights from research studies conducted over the last fifteen years into career progression routes for BAME people and women, both within the arts and beyond in other sectors. This enabled Tonic to bring us some key findings on why some women may be less visible or appear (although not necessarily be) less qualified when arts companies such as ours are sourcing talent, especially for more senior roles.

Tonic also did some really interesting and useful research around how we were recruiting. As well as feedback from a focus group of women theatre professionals from BAME and white working class backgrounds, Tonic also gave us a response to our recruitment pack from a leading theatre professional who has spent many years focusing on recruiting theatre professionals from less conventional backgrounds. This tangible information was massively helpful and, as a result, we have altered the language and approach to our recruitment, learning from best practice in the sector. This is something that we will continue to explore and challenge.

We are in the middle of researching options for Clean Break to create an associate artist scheme for early to midcareer theatre artists. Interviews that Tonic conducted with artists we have worked with on what that could entail will feed into our thinking. We want to ensure that we are creating paid opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds to engage with the company but also to have a chance to engage with the wider theatre sector with our help through mentoring, enhancing skills and experience, and introductions. Simultaneously we are having discussions about how we can make the pathways for Clean Break volunteers and graduate students more embedded in the company.

Like most NPOs* we are in the middle of writing our business plan for the next four year cycle of Arts Council funding. We have changed our approach to how we form our plans by more actively involving the wider staff team and students/former students, and encouraging them to input not just in their specific area of expertise. We are dedicating team away days to these themes and are sharing our Tonic findings and ambitions with all staff members to encourage as much involvement and input as possible.

* National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) are those in receipt of core funding from Arts Council England, for the period April 2015 to March 2018

What We Learned

For Clean Break, this work is ongoing. However, in the short term, it has been challenging for us to consider what progressive means when it comes to Clean Break and to really consider what long term steps we are making to maintain a commitment to our radical origins. We’ve learnt that it is necessary to take risks to achieve these goals and that we need to be brave and honest in embracing these to change the status quo and impact positively on our diversity. We are committed to embracing this philosophy to ensure that we remain at the forefront of change and equality.

The process was a brilliant reminder that external perceptions of the company are really important – be that when an audience member meets the company through a theatre production, when a student enters our doors, or how we present ourselves online and when we are recruiting. We are learning to look in more detail and with more care at all of our messaging,

Another big part of the learning was how much of the work in this arena can be done in a ‘from the bottom’ up manner within the structure of the company.

A lot of the resources we need for change already exist in the company and that by altering the questions we are asking staff members, broadening the platforms to hear more from the wider staff team, and by being really bold and open about our intentions with as many people as possible, we can enhance and utilise our existing resources to go some way towards achieving our aims.

It has also been a very interesting process for Clean Break to consider our place within the larger theatre ecology and to focus on how we can influence best practice in terms of gender equality across the sector. The work we are doing on diversity beyond gender, we hope, will impact positively on the wider theatre sector.

Is This Work a Step Towards a Bigger Goal?

Our six months with Tonic is only the tip of the iceberg. Our plans are very long term and are absolutely centered around succession planning, how we present our company and how we can be acknowledged as a force for change in the theatre sector. Underpinning all this is a live process of ongoing questioning of what more we can do to achieve our goals.

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