Welcome back to a very special series of Narratives of Purpose. We will be doing things a little differently this pre-season in order to showcase even more unique stories of changemakers of people who are contributing to make a difference in society.
Our goal is simple: To amplify social impact by sharing individual journeys of ordinary people who are making extraordinary impact within their communities and around the world.
This episode features the Creativity Found podcast which is hosted by Claire Waite Brown. Her podcast and community are centred around connecting adults who want to find a creative outlet with the artists and crafters who can help them tap into their creativity. In this interview, she speaks with Harriet and Ella who are ex-prison officers whose journey within the criminal justice system has led them back into their true passion of theatre whilst raising awareness within the community and supporting families and individuals who are affected by the system.
To connect with Claire Waite Brown and listen to the Creativity Found Podcast, you can find her on LinkedIn or check out her website. To find out more about Glasshouse Theatre and connect with its founders, Ella and Harriet, head over to their website.
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Hello and welcome to a new episode of Narratives of Purpose, Or should I say a new episode of "Creativity Found"? That's right, we are doing something special throughout this month, namely episode swaps. You won't be listening to me and my guests, but instead to fellow podcasters who are creating amazing content I absolutely want you to listen to. Today you will hear from Claire Waite Brown. Yes, I met another podcaster named Claire just like me, what are the odds right? And we now get to exchange episodes on our respective shows. So Claire hosts the award winning podcast Creativity Found, where she chats with people who have found or refound their creativity as adults. She also builds a community with the Creativity Found Collective for people to promote their creative activity business and connect with others who can help them thrive and grow. If that is something that speaks to you, you might want to check her website at creativityfound.co.uk. As always, you'll find the link in the show notes. In the episode I am sharing with you today, Claire speaks with Ella and Harriet, two prison officers turned playwrights who talk about their experience navigating the UK criminal justice system, and healing through creativity. They also discuss providing a safe space for those in similar situations now through their outreach programmes. I hope you enjoy this conversation.
We kind of went along with it, bright eyed and blinking going, "Okay, sure, we can be prison officers," potentially not thinking about the realities of the job.
That's the language, it's violence. From prison staff, from people incarcerated, that's kind of how things run smoothly, weirdly. And it's how you kind of keep control and keep people safe, which feels so counterintuitive. So I think that was a really key part of recovering for me. It was actually getting back to our creative practice properly, you know.
So going back and writing a play about our trauma, and seeing how much it helped on par with therapy and on par with medication, on par with regular exercise. It genuinely was a huge part of our healing and our trauma recovery.
Claire Waite Brown 03:11
Hi, I'm Claire, founder of Creativity Found, a community for creative learners and educators. Connecting adults who want to find a creative outlet with the artists and crafters who can help them do so. With workshops, courses, online events and kits. For this podcast, I chat with people who have found or refound their creativity as adults. We'll explore their childhood experiences of the arts, discuss how they came to the artistic practices they now love, and consider the barriers they may have experienced between the two. We'll also explore what it is that people value and gain from their newfound artistic pursuits and how their creative lives enrich their practical, necessary everyday lives. For this episode, I'm speaking with Ella and Harriet, the writers and performers of the play Sellouts, spelt "Cellouts", which gives a very big clue as to the roles they both worked in before taking this brilliant show on tour. Please note that this episode features clips of my guests' work colleagues, speaking about aspects of their jobs that you might not want younger listeners to hear. Hi, Ella and Harriet, thanks so much for joining me today.
Thanks for having us!
We're very excited.
Claire Waite Brown 04:36
So you are theatremakers whose work onstage and as workshop facilitators is inspired and informed by your frontline experiences of the UK criminal justice service. What I would like to know first is why and how you became prison officers?
Well, we met at university, Ella and I and I were studying English, and Ella studied English and Theatre. So not necessarily the most conventional route into the prison service, possibly not what people would expect from an officer but we were both really interested in using theatre and arts for social reform, and bringing it to people who maybe feel marginalised or don't normally have access. So we heard about a scheme where graduates have been encouraged to join the prison service, and I actually (Guilty!) I was the one who emailed Ella, the link saying "We should do this", So it's all on me, I'll put my hands up. And yeah, that was why we wanted to get involved, it was pitched as being a chance to see prisons frontline work with those people who were incarcerated, and have a real focus on rehabilitation and positive impact in that system, which, you know, for better or worse, that was the intentions we went in with a healthy dose of 'white saviour complex' and a kind of 'social justice warrior' energy, I think was pretty key.
Claire Waite Brown 06:06
And when you got there, what did the training actually involve?
I mean, we were woefully underprepared. The training was six weeks long and it had a big focus on the practicalities of the job and considering that, as a prison officer, you pretty much have to be a mental health expert, because you're dealing with some of the most complex individuals in our society, and there was very little training around that. And there was very little training around how you also keep yourself safe from vicarious trauma, from corruption, for assault, all of those things. It was a lot of 'buzzwordy' , it was very 'buzzwordy training' and we kind of went along with it, bright eyed and blinking going, "Okay, sure, we can be prison officers" potentially not thinking about the realities of the job. So yeah, six weeks, which flew by, and then we were on our landings, and the moment we got onto our landings, it was very much "Forget what you were told in training, you learn on the job." And it's very difficult, because I'm not sure if any kind of training unless it's the sort of two year Nordic model, where you get a degree at the end could prepare you for that job. Because it's unlike any other job that you'll ever come across in society.
Claire Waite Brown 07:32
And it seems to me that you may have been mis-sold, correct me if I'm wrong, but during the training, did you ever get to think that 'this perhaps isn't going to be what I think it's going to be that maybe I won't be able to do my good arty stuff there?' And at any point in the training, did you think "Perhaps I'll just leave this, perhaps I won't do this at all"?
We definitely should have thought about those things. I think maybe we were at an age and a point where we weren't being overly critical, thinking critically and really analysing the reality of what we were doing. I think in part, the energy around slightly naive, 'systemic saving' was being preached to us as well, I think the training attitude was that that was all going to be feasible and possible. Even whilst we were in those six weeks, it was kind of like we were going to be the people who could change these individuals' lives. And that was the kind of rhetoric around it. And I think we very much bought into that, which, you know, for better or worse, possibly should have had our eyes slightly more open. I think Ella and I also have a tendency to, once we've decided to do something, it doesn't tend to get put down very easily. So I think there was a kind of gung ho "let's go for this", So many people were telling us this was so unexpected from somebody from our kind of profile and background, and people assuming that the officers wouldn't, for example, have degrees, I think that's a preconception and a judgement a lot of people have around prison staff is that they're an "uneducated workforce". We were kind of wanting to subvert that as well and prove to people that we could be working in those kinds of extreme environments which comes from a place of ego. So I think a big dose of naivety kept us there. A lot of ego, a lot of proving ourselves, a lot of our own mental health stuff going on as well, in our experiences and traumas in the past. So I think, possibly with slightly more coherent guidance and clarity over that role and the reality of it, maybe we would have seen it for what it was going to become at the time. We were blinded by that, I think.
Claire Waite Brown 10:01
Yeah, I can understand the perseverance from you. So where were you both placed? How did you fit in then as the young enthusiastic newbies among experienced officers and actually in the workplace?
Yeah, so we were placed in not the same prison, much to our dismay, I was placed in a women's jail and Harriet was placed in a men's jail and they were just opposite each other. And I remember when I got told that I was gonna go to a women's prison, I fought against it. I was like, "No, this is not what I had in mind," What I had in mind was being able to tell men to sort of get to their education. I felt a lot more comfortable telling men off and asserting authority over men, which is maybe subversive to what people might think. But I was a lot more scared going into a woman's prison, not because of the levels of violence, I mean, I didn't even think about the self harm and suicide, but it was more the closeness and the intimacy that I knew would come with working in a women's prison. And yeah, dealing with my own trauma, whilst in that. I mean, I shouldn't listen to myself, I remember calling up the scheme and saying, "I don't want to do this." And then of course, got persuaded into it with facts and figures and "You can change this and you can change that." And then Harriet got placed opposite me in a big scary men's jail. We could drive in together and sort of wish each other luck and then see you in 12 hours, with a whole load of more trauma, which we will then sort of laugh about in the car, because that's already the way to deal with it. And it was very interesting, the difference in both the jobs, working as a prison officer and a women's prison and working as a prison officer in a men's prison, because they are incredibly different. And I think what happened to me and Harriet, and our own journeys and our own mental health issues that happened as a result of that, I think is very revealing. Yeah, very, very interesting and why we then went on to write a play about it, because how do you function within these hyper gendered, hyper violent, just hyper-everything environments? And yeah, I would say that I probably took on too much of the vicarious trauma from the women, which is almost impossible to not do, because you are being effectively like a social worker, and a healthcare worker and a mental health worker, and literally, a firefighter and a nurse and also like a parent. And then you're being asked to discipline these women and strip search them. I mean, how you deal with that, I don't know. And then yeah, and then I had Harriet opposite me in the men's prison.
Interview Extract 13:14
A prison officer is a police officer, firefighter, nurse, psychologist, binmen, Tescos, social worker, you are everything to these people. It is very, very hard, it is demoralising. Because you just feel like you are fighting a losing battle, sometimes.
She's delivering a baby before this is how this is how the job is so crazy. What was the difference, then do you think carry it between your experience and others?
I think when I was when I talked about this, now we kind of have to bed into the very gendered worlds of those two environments. And, and I don't agree with them at all. But the lines of male and female are so heightened in prison settings. And so the expectations of behaviour I think are similar. I think with women, societally, we feel a lot more comfortable saying that a lot of the women in prison are survivors, a lot of them are victims of crimes themselves, they're very vulnerable. We don't have that same narrative with male prisoners, although it is a truth that most of those men for them to have fallen into a life of the kind of crime they're involved in, have been abused by the system. They have faced severe systemic injustice. It's not a comparison point, but they're incredibly vulnerable as well. But we don't treat them like that. And it's a very "male" in inverted commas, approach to mental health, it's "Don't talk about it," it's so much repression. There's no space of vulnerability. There's no space for kind of talking about how you feel, even on a very basic level, expressing that, articulating it, there's just none of that approach to it. And that bleeds into staff, I think. So in male prisons, regardless of the gender of officers, I think the approach is a lot more "Crack on", tends to be more disciplinarian, there's not space for people to be talking about their traumas, often also, because of the volatility of the environment, violence is used as the key currency and means of communication. That's the 'language' is violence, from prison staff from people incarcerated. That's kind of how things run smoothly, weirdly. And it's how you kind of keep control and keep people safe, which feels so counterintuitive. It's very "knotty" to kind of unpick, but I worked specifically with people with addiction issues and substance misuse. So the people I was working with had another additional level of complexity, that for me to keep them safe, and consistently ensure they were medicated, I shut off pretty much all of my kind of 'humanity', "I'd love to sit here and talk to you about what the root of your addiction is, but if I do that, I'm not going to medicate this person, they're probably going to overdose and they'll go into cardiac arrest. So to keep people safe, I can't see you as 'human'," and that's kind of the headspace that I moved into. I think maybe Ella moved into seeing people in prison as the only humans and dehumanising herself and I dehumanised the people there. So it was definitely a big contrast. And I think, the ramifications on the self are similar. I think we both erased all of our own needs, and ourselves as people in order to wear that uniform. But you handle people in quite different ways. It was very respect driven, it was very kind of etiquette based in the men's prison. It was a lot around hierarchies structures, how you engage with those men. Yeah, it was really different. And I'm almost now glad that we can look at those two angles and compare and contrast them. Was it worth it for the trauma? Probably not. But I am glad that we have those different perspectives. I think it's really important because there's not a single experience that people have within the prison system. So it's important that we get both sides.
Claire Waite Brown 17:22
I'm going to be very flippant here. But yes, it was rather good that you both went through your very different experiences. And therefore you were able to give a much better show at the end of it. Literally, your art guide to a whole new level. Anyway, sorry, all laughing aside, it sounds like obviously, more than a nine-to-five job in so much as it's your whole being, you take on a role, you take on a character when you are in the prison, did that infiltrate into life outside of the prison walls?
For me, it definitely did. The extreme trauma which you witness, and the extreme violence and self harm and mental health crisis and the stories you hear. Of course, it's going to permeate your mind and your identity and what you become. And I definitely noticed it blurring into my personal life and into my subconscious and into my dreams, I'd have nightmares, waking up thinking I was in the prison and stories I'd heard and it very much gets in your mind. And the stories that I heard, and the things that I witnessed, genuinely still haunt me today. I don't think you can quite understand unless you've been in that environment, just quite how extreme it is. And so it still bleeds into my personal life two years later, or however long. But at the time, I didn't realise that blurring, which was where it kind of gets scary. And there's very much this, "Right, once you hang your keys up, you leave work in the prison walls". And I would say that in theory going "Yep. Okay, cool, we shut the gate, we go home." But that's not how the mind works. And it's not how the body works, your body holds all of that adrenaline, all of that trauma, all of that tension, you're in fight-or-flight 24/7 in the environment. So it's not like you can then just shut it again and go "Cool, yeah, forget about all those people that I've just had to lock up." It's not how it works, and as a result I think I became very anxious, but also angry, resenting of a world that seemed very flippant when I returned to it, and everyone was talking about like, "Oh, what are you doing at the weekend?" and blah, blah, blah, and I just couldn't engage in those conversations sometimes and other issues I'd hailed in comparison, when that's not how life should be. It's not always "trauma Top Trumps" and it's not comparative. But it became that I was like, "how can people be complaining about this when I’ve literally just seen someone try and take their own life 20 minutes ago at work?" Or someone set themselves alight in their cell and had to deal with that. How can you then just go back to being like, "Oh my god, what are we gonna do on the weekend? And who's dating who?" Because nothing seems real. And I think that's when it became scary because you can't then come back down to inverted commas "normal life", which is like a base level of non-adrenaline. That didn't work, so I think me and Harriet Yeah, we definitely became hardened versions of ourselves. Well, we thought we became hardened, but in reality inside, we were much more weepy and insecure. And who knows what.
Interview Extract 21:03
I just remember seeing this guy, and it's just brutal, like, absolutely, just completely slash himself to absolute bits. If you went to a shop, yeah, and you didn't have any money? And you said, "Can I have a packet of cigarettes?" And they say, "No, you haven't got any money," you wouldn't start slashing your wrists up, would you? You wouldn't start saying, "Oh, I'm gonna kill myself, if you don't give me some fags". But in prison, that's so normal that you wouldn't even blink. I think the walls around it do more than just keep the prisoners in. I think it makes people feel that they're protected from the norms of society. And so they feel like they can say what they want to say, and they can do what they want to do, and they feel like they're untouchable.
And yeah, I became angry, I became a lot more volatile in my personal relationships, and really a lot less empathetic to probably the people in my personal life, because I didn't have anything left to give to myself or to others. Because I've given everything to that job. So therefore, when you sacrifice your identity and your integrity for something, when you then try and form healthy relationships, in friendships, with loved ones, with family, it's not going to work. Because you're not looking after yourself. And you're literally showing yourself no love. And so of course, you're not going to form a healthy identity outside of those walls. And I really respect people who can do that, who can do that job and still maintain a sense of identity and a sense of joy and love in their personal lives. Because I think it takes the most incredible boundaries, which I did not have, because I did not have an understanding of my mental health. But yeah, I think it definitely bled. I don't know about you Harriet. But I think for both of us it did.
Yeah, it definitely did. A big reason why so many offices are so insular in their communities, like officers, best mates are offices, their partners are officers, it's a very kind of close knit bond. And that camaraderie people talk about isn't in the kind of like, "Oh, we're all on the same team" energy. It's "nobody else understands this". I think friendships that you have with fellow colleagues, you don't ask for anything from each other because it's the only other person who understands that we're all completely empty - our cup is empty. And I think those friendships are the ones that are based on an understanding that you can't give really that much to anyone outside of those prison walls. Like there's, there's just nothing left. And I think that must be really difficult for the people that were in our lives at that time. I can't believe they're still around. But it must have been really difficult for the people who were, you know, with us and around us and in our kind of families and friendship circles, because, yeah, it was a big erasure of ourselves and our identity. And I think as people who normally would have identified ourselves as caregivers, loved being there for our friends very openly, that's what drew us to that role, to then lose all of that, when you're outside of those walls is really difficult. And I think it took a long time for Ella and I to process and kind of forgive ourselves for that time. And that person we had to become, because you hold a lot of shame around that. And the idea that you could have been that person and how did, how did I manage that transformation? I didn't realise humans were so malleable. Yeah, it's taken a long time to sort of heal from that shift in ourselves.
Claire Waite Brown 24:44
Let's come to that then, let's start to come to the healing and the coming out of it because that's very, very emotional, what you've been talking about and I'm a bit jittery just listening to it, let alone actually experiencing it for myself. I want to know then, how you did decide to leave? Was it a slow burn? Were you seeing things in each other because you've spoken about other people not understanding and obviously you do If you did have each other, I don't know how much of it you saw in each other. How did you then come to both of you deciding to leave? And also, how did you physically leave? And how did you emotionally and psychologically leave as well?
I think it was very interesting to reflect back on how those interpersonal relationships between me and Harriet and me and loved ones affected my decision. And I had people from six months in going, "This is destroying you, please, I'm begging you to leave". And Harriet would never have told me to leave because she knew that that's an impossible ask. Because her asking me to leave, is asking me to leave behind those women who I've tried desperately to care for, and to leave behind a whole workforce that I'm now trauma bonded to. And so we never directly told each other to leave. But I think there was a time where Harriet went, "Oh, I might, I might stay on for a bit." And I remember the world fell out from under my feet because I went, "Well, if she stays, I'm staying." And I don't think people understand that until they've been trauma bonded in that kind of environment with somebody else, and because we live together, it was this thing of, "Yeah, I have to stay. I have to say for those women, and leaving is selfish." That's what it felt like, it felt like leaving is incredibly shameful and selfish and I'd failed. I failed these women, I failed this system. And do you know, what if Harriet is going to continue, I have to continue. And I think I remember us having the conversation Harriet being like, "Well, I might stay" and me being like, "Okay, yeah, yeah, maybe I'll stay" and I think her then being like, "Christ, you can't stay. We better both go!" Because I was in such severe mental health crisis, which I couldn't see but I think it was weird, Harriet was like, "Right, okay, well, I better leave them because Ella definitely needs to leave as well." And ultimately, Harriet was also in absolute crisis, we were just dealing with it in different ways. And it got to the point where I wasn't really sleeping very much, I wasn't taking care of myself at all, and was having quite extreme anxiety. Not when I was at work, when I was at work, I was still functioning, which is the sort of like, scary part of it. But when I'd leave that environment, I was beginning to not be able to function as a human. And that was where it all crumbled. And a few very traumatic things happened in a sequence of events leading up to me then leaving, which basically meant I couldn't continue. I became completely disillusioned with the job. I'll argue by the end of it, I wasn't. I cared about the women, but I didn't care about the job. I didn't care about reforming the prison system. I just literally cared about, on a base level, keeping people safe, making sure everybody's got toilet roll and getting people fed, and that was it. And I became very angry and disillusioned, and burned out, I suppose. Severe burnout. Yeah. So then I started doing a little countdown in my calendar of being like, "Right, what day can I leave?" and it started at like, 100 days, and every day I'd tick it off. And I could have left at any point, but it was this weird, this weird doomsday date I'd set and I was like, "If I make it until then I will have survived, I will have done something. I will have achieved something." Even though ultimately I wasn't achieving anything, I was just doing more damage to myself and probably ultimately, those who we were caring for because I wasn't equipped. I wasn't equipped to be dealing with the situations I was dealing with, especially in the burnout condition. It was probably ultimately quite dangerous, because I didn't have the capacity to take those on. And then when we left, I remember coming up to my last day and it was sad. It was so sad. And the women bundled me on my last day. Literally I was like "Right lock up ladies for the last time" and then they all came and gave me a massive hug. And then a lot of them were very sad. Because also I was sad because everyone in their lives has left. And there I was leaving. And I explained to them, it was very nice to be able to be honest with them. I went "I'm done. I've given everything I can give them” they were like, "Get out, Miss Church, leave. Don't be here anymore. Go enjoy your life." And for them to be saying that speaks volumes. They were like "Yeah, get out. Go do something. Go be a teacher." That's what they always say. Which is really Lovely. And then yeah, it was very emotional for me that last day, and I still miss them, still miss the women, still miss the staff. Yeah, it was a very weird day wasn't it?
Definitely, it was very weird. I had a very different last day because in the men's prison, they're so insane about security and corruption that you're not allowed to tell them if you're leaving. So I just had the last day where I just left, without being able to say any kind of goodbye, zero closure, I think maybe some of them had picked up on it. I'm sure I let slip to a few but in general, it was a very, like, the idea that you'd form any kind of relationship with those men was so, so forbidden, especially as a kind of female presenting member of staff. If I had a laugh and a joke with the prisoner, there was a strong chance someone would put in a corruption report. So the idea that we never had any way of saying goodbye was... I found that really heartbreaking. Because you care so much about those men. And it really matters, that you formed relationships, especially in that environment, the kind of miracle of having achieved doing that, when everything is set up to not allow it. And like Ella said, I thought about staying on because I think I really did feel at some stage that there was this idea that you needed to work your way up in the system and get higher up and that was where you could make change. And it was this idea of change being dangled as a carrot. So "You can make change, if you're an officer, okay, you've been an officer for two years, we didn't really mean it. Now, what we mean is you can make change if you're an SO" You get to SO, "You've got to be a governor. So just keep going." And it's not real. Now, I think I sort of firmly believe that, when you're within that system, the system is so against you, and against the individual, and rigid and built on ancient, racist, homophobic, sexist, all of the kind of foundations of that system are so rotten, that you're just putting a band aid over a bullet wound, but I was really, really close to applying for governor. It would have been a disaster. So thank goodness, I managed to pretend to myself that it was for Ella, but I wasn't doing it. We both needed permission. What you can hear there is both of us needed permission, Ella needed the permission of me and I needed the permission of her to just not be there. And I think that's really key. And I do wonder about how many staff are in that system that feel trapped and don't feel that they have that permission. And I feel very privileged that we could leave. And I think a lot of colleagues that I knew didn't feel like that was even an option for them. And it's hard to imagine, but I totally understand how that can feel like it's not an option. I remember it not feeling like an option for us. So yeah, leaving was really, I think probably, one of the hardest things we'll ever do weirdly. Harder than a lot of the stuff I did in there.
I was just gonna add that I think...Because ultimately, the men and the women, they can't leave. So who am I to be able to then just walk away and desert them? And, you know, you could argue, "Oh, yeah, but they've done something wrong, so that's the reason they can't leave." But the trauma that they have witnessed in their lives is so extreme. And so you begin being like, "Oh, well, the trauma I've seen isn't half as bad. So surely, I should be able to stay." It seems pathetic, because at the end of the day, I go home to a lovely warm bed, and they have to stay within this prison. How can you leave that without shame? So a huge amount of shame in leaving.
Interview Extract 34:10
I lasted 12 months before I hated my job. I hated it. I hated getting up in the morning. And for some reason I stuck at it for another five years after that. Absolutely love them like family. Like as cringy as it sounds. They felt like my family. I had this really weird, empty feeling like, I miss it. It's almost like leaving an abusive relationship. Like, you hated it, and you hated the toxicity of being there. But you still love them. But you still love it. But there's nothing you can do about it. It's just the weirdest feeling.
Claire Waite Brown 34:50
Okay, then yeah, I completely understand all of that, but tell me about you and your experiences of the time after you left when you did give yourself permission to leave. And of course after that everything was wonderful. Everything was lovely again. Presumably that's not the case kind of what was your recovery process?
It was long. It was long. I think it's ongoing. So Ella and I left, literally just before COVID. So we came out into a world that was altogether different. And I think maybe because the world was undergoing such an unprecedented (the catchphrase) moment, it almost gave us again, that permission to kind of treat ourselves differently. Initially I ran straight out, and now I can look back and say, with confidence that I have quite a huge adrenaline addiction, having spent two and a bit years in full fight-or-flight every day, my body needed and was seeking that adrenaline. So I joined a really lovely, fantastic Theatre Company and was regularly seeking out kind of the most stressful options, I think I was looking to create that similar sense of adrenaline and stress. And that process of unpicking that and stopping the repression that had become completely normal and commonplace, I think it did take a full stop on work, having to move back in with my parents, having to spend essentially a year at home, Ella and I weren't together, which I think undid a lot of the kind of trauma bond stuff that was really set in. And we were kind of focused purely on that recovery. So it was a lot of therapy, it was taking it really slowly, which felt totally counterintuitive, and very alien, and very unfamiliar. I think probably the biggest part of my recovery was writing the show. So the play that we wrote about, that two and a bit years, about living together about our experiences in the prison, that was a huge recovery process. It took us, I would say about a year and a bit to write. So we did it really slowly. We were long distance throughout and we kept it as a really safe trauma informed space. Our director was Ella's sister, who's a fantastic director in her own right, but also an incredibly safe pair of hands. In that sense, because she's family. So yeah, we were very conscious throughout the process of making Cellouts, that it was a form of therapy for us. And if it never went anywhere, that was fine, it was serving its purpose simply by giving us a chance to process and explain and articulate our experiences. So I think that was a really key part of recovering for me was actually getting back to our creative practice properly. You know?
Claire Waite Brown 38:02
How about you, Ella?
Yeah, I'd agree, I think the initial stages of leaving, for me was just learning how to live again, and sleep and eat and exercise and work some kind of job and just be a regular human again and that took a lot of slowness and therapy and healing, and to not feel shame about that. And then falling back in love with the arts and creativity because we had become disillusioned with them when we're in the prison, I think because we'd seen that they don't even have sufficient meals or health care, or safety. We were like, "Why do they need theatre? Why did we ever think they needed theatre? Why do we ever think they needed arts?" They should be using all the funding that they're doing on that and be able to get proper detox and proper therapy, all of that. And we became incredibly disillusioned with it. So going back and writing a play about our trauma, and seeing how much it helped, on par with therapy, on par with medication, on par with regular exercise, it genuinely was a huge part of our healing and our trauma recovery. For me, it was like living proof of the power of what creativity can do. And I think that's why we set the company back up - not back up. It never existed in the first place. We just set it up. To then be able to share some of that with the people who we had come into contact with. Because it was so joyous and it reminded us how to laugh and love and connect with humans and feel joy, which we hadn't in a long time and which the prison environment is, well, set up in a way that it tries to remove every element of joy and every element of humanity and ultimately, creativity in the arts bring that back and allow space to do that. Which is very rare in those environments. So that's why we then set the company up.
Claire Waite Brown 40:18
And you get to enjoy performing the show, you also run workshops about your experiences and you take that to schools and to prisons, but when you revisit those times in those environments, how do you not go back into a bad place? You know, how do you protect yourself, when you're helping others understand the experiences?
I mean, I think a large part of it now, comparing ourselves to back when we first joined is, I think we have an understanding of what trauma does in a body and how it works and operates and so much of our practice now is about managing that. And really understanding our own triggers. There are things that don't make it into the show, there are things that we have always held back in the process and said, "You know, such an important part of autobiographical work, I think is knowing your kind of 'safe box' that is never going to make it into your work and being really boundried about that". And I think we both have that sort of material that we know, doesn't need to leak into that practice. And I also think we both understand our own mental health so much better, we have therapy, still, that's an ongoing MOT Health Check that is necessary. As an organisation, we make sure we have clinical supervisions. We're working to make our practice, kind of 'practice what we preach' in the like understanding of burnout, we don't put pressure on, if performances don't feel right, and we've got it wrong, in the past, we've made mistakes, we've definitely done performances that haven't been as safe and held and I think we've learned a lot from them. But knowing that now we are equipped to maybe hold that space for people. But we're not coming in and saying, "Tell us all your trauma", you know, we're not therapists and we can say that from the get go. And we can say, "This is as much or as little as you feel comfortable sharing, and let's keep it safe. And let's make sure everyone's grounded. And we're kind of checking in at the beginning of every session and checking out. And that's something I do in our day to day working practices as well." It's putting in place those mechanisms that I think are often quite theoretical, and actually applying them to workshop spaces, performances, audiences can leave at any point during a show that's really important to us. It has to feel safe that people can do that and understand their own triggers. You know, we have aftercare projects and places that people can turn to and resources if needed. And I think there's a lot of really interesting work being done like that in the creative scene at the moment, Clean Breaks Later Show had a lot of amazing trauma informed practices around keeping it safe. And I think so many companies should be looking at that and it's something that we're really passionate about. And I think it's essential when you're working with vulnerable people and it's something we didn't have time for in our jobs before. So, now we actually have the space to let people share, or to not force them to share, to let people leave a room and come back when they're ready, do those grounding techniques, use breathwork use things that we've learned in our own recovery process, and kind of share those techniques with people.
Claire Waite Brown 43:51
That's super valuable. Let's move on. Tell me about your aspirations for the future.
Yeah, had you asked this at the beginning of all interactions with the criminal justice system, we would have had huge, big ego driven aspirations. And I think now, I mean, as a company, we're abolitionists, we don't believe the system should exist. We believe there are alternatives, if you want to have a longer chat with us email us. But we are aware of our own limits, and we're aware that we are one tiny little drop in an ocean of a much wider network, and a network that needs to have a lot of different voices within it. And we are just two of those voices and there are areas that we're not experts on and there's areas that we do know quite a bit about, and we love to start conversations. We have aspirations, it's funny, as a company, we kind of do it every six months. We take a slower process as opposed to this huge macro level because that can also seem like you're coming up against a huge monster and nothing will ever change. Whereas it's like "If you can hold a workshop space for children whose dads are in prison and you You allow them to bond with each other. And you allow them to discuss and open up and give them a safe space." That is our aspiration for that, for that moment, being able to just have these moments of humanity and joy in a space that's so devoid of them, and to be able to use our experience of that environment and what it did to us, which we never thought would happen, and be able to communicate that to a wider audience and just shed a bit of light on what is happening within our prison systems, because they are shrouded in secrecy for a reason. And the government is very clever in the way that it's shrouded. And they don't want people to be able to see what's going on because it would never be allowed. And the violations against humanity that happen every single day, are so extreme that we want to now be able to provide people who have come into contact with that, and with some of those injustices, just a small space, a small space to be able to begin that processing and talk to people who have also had experience of that and start a conversation where it's not...Me and Harriet always talk about, it's very binary when people talk about prisons, it's very black and white, you either have to be abolitionist or you have to be for, people have done wrong so they must be in prison. And there's never this area where you can discover that like grey space in safety, and be like, "Oh, no, but what about this? And what about this?" and it's incredibly complex and it's incredibly not black and white. And I think that's where we want to reside, we want to be able to hold space for people to have those conversations and explore alternatives and not lead in this sort of binary way that is not helpful for anyone's recovery within that environment. So yeah, I think that's our aspirations.
Claire Waite Brown 47:19
I like that you are avoiding your own overwhelm as well with regards to keeping those aspirations in small sections that are achievable and you're not then putting too much pressure on yourselves beating ourselves up for not being able to do more, which is exactly what you've been doing all the time you were in the service so well done for you and it is very valuable. I know you've been talking about feeling guilt or feeling like why should I feel like this when there are people worse off than me but it is important for you as individuals to keep yourself healthy and you can be helping other people by doing that. So you don't need me to say you're doing the right thing ladies, but just give that little background of - good for you, keep doing it, do keep thinking about yourselves and you know you're not going to go back to the kind of overwhelm that you had and the adrenaline and everything you were talking about before. How can people connect with you at Glasshouse Theatre?
Yes, so if you do want to get into contact with us and find out more about the work we run, we have a website glasshousetheatre.co.uk and you can just drop us an email because we are, well, we're constantly expanding and changing and exploring what we do as a company. So we always want to hear new ideas and new collaborations. Or if you just want to chit chat, please do drop us an email and you can find that on our website. We have lots of projects and exciting things coming up in the community, in prisons and in the theatre industry. So, yeah, we love hearing from people.
Claire Waite Brown 50:41
Thank you so much for speaking with me today. I just wanted to say how much... "enjoyed" seems like the wrong word, but I did enjoy Cellouts, it was eye opening, as I'm sure you would hope that it would be and I did think it was exceedingly good, because otherwise I wouldn't have asked you to come on the podcast, so I can highly recommend Cellouts. If it's travelling around near you, do please check it out. Thank you so much for talking to me, Ella and Harriet. Harriet, do feel free to say goodbye. I'm sure it will be recorded and I'll be able to pop it in. So thank you so much!
Thank you so much. It's been a joy.
Thank you so much. It was absolutely lovely.
Claire Waite Brown 51:32
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