Can the arts really make a difference?

WIP Advisor Jennifer Joseph argues from personal experience that the Arts play a powerful role in achieving change by enabling women to turn their lives, build confidence and self-respect.

As a former prisoner, and now, an actor, I often work with the charity Clean Break, a women’s theatre company that is changing lives and changing minds on stage, in prison and in the community. I also take part in outreach programmes about penal issues at the London theatre, the Donmar Warehouse.

Recently, I was part of a three-person panel, attending an audience discussion at the Donmar and considering the question, in the justice system, ‘Can the Arts really make a Difference?’

My response? A definite, ‘Yes!’ I was a broken woman when I came out of prison. I was arrested in 2007 and sentenced to 27 months for acting as a drug mule. I was released after ten months, in August 2008, having been a model prisoner. But, on release, I was depressed. My three children didn’t know who I was.

Then, a friend told me about Clean Break. All I heard was, “They allow you to act.”

I hadn’t been on a train for seventeen years because of my claustrophobia but I had to travel by train for my Clean Break audition. It was the best thing I ever did. It was the saving of my soul.

I trained with Clean Break and then, at 40, I became an actor. I’ve since appeared on stage many times including in the all female production of The Shakespeare Trilogy – Julius Caesar, Henry 1V and The Tempest – and on television and in several films including Honey Trap.

The Arts, in whatever form, be it drawing, drama, painting, dance skills, poetry or in any other manifestation, help to build self-esteem. At the same time, participation and collaboration with others can be calming; creative, informative, comforting and a valuable way in which women can tell their own stories.

For me, acting has also been therapeutic, cleansing and healing. Need I go on? It has also provided me with gainful and highly satisfying employment for the past eight years, for which I am also grateful.

‘Can the arts really make a difference’? Hell, yes! But the best enjoyment of all comes in discovering your own answer to the question – and seeing the pride in what you are achieving in the eyes of those you care most about.