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Act of freedom

Life can seem horribly daunting to a girl or woman newly released from custody. Which is why one theatre group is harnessing the power of the performing arts to help them. Heather Neill reports

Queenie Rushton had a week to go before her release from East Sutton Park young offenders' institute when the Clean Break team came to visit. There hadn't been much during her nine-month sentence to interest a bright teenager who had loved school before her life took a wrong turn.

The team screened a piece of video art developed in five women's prisons, and Queenie was intrigued. As soon as she was free, she signed up for the beginners' course, Clean Break Acting 1, and has since taken every available course.

The courses are run in a gleaming white space in London's Kentish Town where a Victorian tie factory has been converted to offer rehearsal studios, a multimedia suite, cafe, offices and a full education programme in a shiny new lottery-funded arts centre, officially opened in March by celebrity barrister Baroness Helena Kennedy.

All the Clean Break students and some of the tutors are women who have, to use Clean Break's own definition, "experience of the criminal justice system". They may be ex-prisoners, on probation or bail, or they may have been in institutions for young offenders.

Here they follow accredited courses in acting, music, new technology and community theatre, sometimes in the hope of a professional career, and sometimes merely to restore confidence forfeited in prison or during a period of hardship or abuse.

It is important that they feel protected, free to learn and express themselves unhindered. So far, says Pauline Gladstone, the education and training manager, she and her small staff have not had to turn anyone away.

The 60 current students have found their way here either because they have been recommended to enrol by a probation officer or because they have heard about Clean Break in centres for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, or while serving sentences. They may sign on for one short course, do several or go on to university or other training, such as stage-management.

Students are of all ages and educational backgrounds. They attend courses free and are provided with lunch, travel and childcare, but not a cr che. This is quite deliberate; their time here - a day is 11am-4pm - is for them, an opportunity to concentrate on improving skills, gaining confidence and enjoying themselves.

Funding comes from Camden, the London Arts Board, the probation service and the Arts Council.

Queenie is bright, smiling, keen to dive into life and happy to chat about anything and everything. She nearly lets slip what she was "inside" for, until reminded by Pauline that she need say nothing about her past life. "Clean Break means just that," she says.

Queenie wants to do "something in music or television" and has, according to Pauline "a very special" rhythm and blues voice. She's 22 now and is thinking of trying for university in a year or two, having just discovered another talent. She finds she can teach.

Clean Break staff often answer requests from schools to give them an insight into an offender's life, perhaps to check accuracy if they are setting a play in a prison. Queenie explains: "Pauline asked me to take a workshop with a group of girls from Maria Fidelis School in Camden. They wanted feedback about whether a play they were doing was realistic. There were six of them, GCSE students, and they were here for two-and-a-half hours. Obviously I was nervous, but it was the best experience I've ever had. Their tutor was delighted and I enjoyed sharing what I've learned."

Queenie is only one of hundreds whose lives have been changed by an imaginative idea which had its beginnings at Askham Grange open prison in 1979. Jacki Holborough, a trained actress (who always claimed she was wrongfully convicted of extortion), founded Clean Break with another inmate. They staged their first production, Agatha Christie's Black Coffee, in 1979 and, back in the outside world, kept the company going.

At that time the objective was performance pure and simple, and the education programme was not added until 1991. Now it is as important as the professional productions.

Penny Krinski knows about all aspects of Clean Break's work. In 1991, at the age of 32, she enrolled for a four-month drama course, four days a week, which she saw advertised in The Stage. Now, after a course at the Bristol Old Vic, she is a successful actress and has appeared on TV in The Brittas Empire and Keeping Mum.

Her education continues; she is working towards an MA at the Central school of Speech and Drama. But she is also a part-time tutor at Clean Break, teaching an acting course. "I feel strongly for the women who come, and that's reciprocated."

Penny has experiences in common with her class and understands their vulnerability: "They are very intelligent and dynamic, but people who come here need a safe place."

For those who need specific advice or more structured pastoral support there are two full-time social workers on hand.

As far as the drama work is concerned, Clean Break is only incidentally therapeutic; students are not encouraged to act out their experiences explicitly, although these are frequently transformed into fiction. Each year there is a professional Clean Break production in which the commissioned writer often includes indirect input from students.

This season American Kara Miller is the chosen writer. She is running creative writing courses at Clean Break, and ideas for her own play, Hyacinth Blue, about black women's experience of prison, are being acquired while she encourages her students to write.

This, the twelfth professional production, and the first to be rehearsed in the new space, will be performed at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in October before touring theatres and women's prisons all over the country.

This autumn will see another new beginning, the result of a pound;250,000 Arts for Everyone lottery award. "Breaking In" is the name of a three-year project under which women ex-offenders will be offered traineeships to become drama workshop leaders, working with young people at risk of offending.

Clean Break, 2 Patshull Road, London NW5 2LB. 0171 482 8600.

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