Life Imitating Art – Jodie Wilkinson

This week has been epic on so many levels, and the blog will jump around, just as my head and heart has done this week.  At the beginning of the week Key Change went into rehearsals for Open Clasp first national tour.   The cast shared their feelings about being back with Key Change and Open Clasp, like coming home and how much they loved and miss (still) New York. How it was a dip coming back, but then they all got on with work and life, including mending broken feet and bodies, plus welcoming into the world new children – and falling in love.

We returned to the script and shared our experiences of teachers (one cast member saying how (when in junior school) she had been told to stand in the waste paper bin, and others were told to ignore the girl in the bin ‘cos that’s where the rubbish goes’).  Philip Larkin made an appearance and the following verse from This Be The Verse was quoted

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

And it was on this day, whilst we were upstairs in the rehearsal rooms at West End Women & Girls Centre that Jodie Wilkinson was walking down a road not ten minutes away from us and she was murdered at 3.50pm.

Jodie Wilkinson was a young woman we had worked with when she was 20.  Jodie, along with other young women who were homeless, directly contributed to the creation of Emily a character in Rattle & Roll which was toured in 2010.  The character of Emily was a combination of all the women’s stories but the essence of her was based on Jodie.  Emily was funny, vulnerable and had a desire to live life to the full (if she had the opportunity to).

In Rattle & Roll you see Emily trying to make a go of life, she’s got her own flat and a friend who is looking out for her (a true friend, someone who has baked her a cake ‘and no-one has ever baked me a cake before’).  However on her 18th birthday Emily is visited by two young women she’d known in the hostel, those that used to bully her.  They rip her tracksuit and burst her balloon.  But Emily has stability, a flat and a friend and a birthday cake and she survives this moment.

I met Jodie again this year when we were back at Low Newton prison.  Jodie said she was inside because she had breached her probation; she looked well, safe and happy.  It was lovely to see her and she talked fondly about the company and Rattle & Roll.

On hearing about her death its been said that on release from prison Jodie was homeless, hungry and once again vulnerable.

Last night and by some really weird coincidence I met another woman who helped to create Rattle & Roll, one of the GAP women.  She asked had I heard about Jodie, adding that when she had, the first thing she thought about was the play (saying ‘that’s how I met Jodie, through the play’).

When I saw Jodie in June I saw a young woman lost to a world that she could so easily get lost in.

You can hear from all those who worked with Jodie, those that knew her and loved her.  She was generous, funny and open to change.  And she was also vulnerable to others.

I am so sorry for all those who feel her loss, for those that witnessed her murder, for Jodie and for our society that fails those that need our help.

Tonight we preview Key Change then it opens in London on Monday, with a performance at the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday next.  We will take Jodie with us, and champion the need for funding to support for young women and women at risk of offending and for those released from prison

Tonight’s performance of Key Change is dedicated to Jodie.


The Office and the Run

There is no purple in my diary, but in my attempt to step up my blogs I said I wanted to blog about key moments and that included the staff team.  This week I could feel the breath of the staff team as if it were collectively a long distance runner, or that of a cross country runner, or at times a sprinter, hurdler and then that of a relay team.  I’ve no idea where the metaphors are coming from, but it was the ‘in and out of the breath’ that felt palpable during a week.  The staff team are managing our first national tour, additional creative projects, applications for funds as well as working on the design of our programme of work for the next five years.  Computers pound ensuring compliance as a charity, our NPO requirements in terms of monitoring, evaluation and Julie’s Bicycle.  Every desks has a list that never ends, as well as cake, biscuits, nuts and coffee.

But to explain what these tasks involve, as sometimes the projects sparkle and we could all overlook the staff teams back at the office that make it all happen.

So what does the national tour involve – yes its booking the tour, organising with venues, negotiating rates, venue size, technical requirements and challenges. There is the thinking through of audiences, school packs and accessibility (which in itself is huge).  Managing a tour also involves the staff team organising all the accommodation, travel, and petty cash.  Ensuring the creative team and venues have everything they could possibly need and that everyone is happy.  The lists get ticked and then they fill up again.  The staff team are ever vigilant to ensure no balls are dropped and the Key Change tour goes as smoothly as possible.

Applications to fund the work – this is like trekking up a landslip at times, and this week, as with every other, the computers have been taking a pounding and brains were imploding. But what does writing an application involve.  We have the ideas/projects in mind, then there is the pulling together of the facts, need and impact to evidence and argue for.  Budget setting, word counts, and balancing risk and ambition.  And the time and space to complete them!

We have 15 freelance artists about to go out the doors to deliver projects, tours and conferences.  Every actor, director and member of the creative team/s need to be happy, have scripts, knowledge of issues and rehearsal schedules, rooms need to be booked and nice coffee on hand.

It was our administrator’s birthday this week, and as with tradition a cake was made, a song sang and gifts given.   But we also decided to go for lunch together.  Now its rare that you get the staff team to stop, take a breath, breathe and chat about other things, other than the long lists that sit on desks, pens that itch to tick off tasks but this week we did. We stopped, ate, laughed and then returned to our desks.  You could hear everyone re-join the run, walking first, then stepping up the pace, then to a jog, some running faster than others, some in a relay (helping taking the strain), some tripping and then picking up hurdles and then you could hear the moment when everyone was running together, as one, in harmony.

The staff team are four (which includes me) but if you take me out of this, they are three, and these three women I have the upmost respect for.


I don’t need to see purple in my diary to remind me that its time to blog about our week with real life mother and daughter.  Supported by Black Theatre Live and Queens Hall Arts, we’ve had the honour to be in the room with two amazing women.

When reflecting back to day one you can  see us all sitting there, a little self-conscious, maybe a little awkward, and at times a bit unclear about what we were all doing in this little black box in Hexham.  Midway through, the script began to breathe life and was up on its feet and we all saw it beginning to unfold.  When words are taken from paper to stage is the most exciting moment for me (everything else before that can feel like a worry as the writer with the responsibility to give the room a starting point).

Midway the room filled with laughter, butterflies, dancing and big conversations about family, relationships, choices, racism, contradictions, assumptions and preconceived ideas.


Open Clasp’s Associate Director Laura Lindow and I talked at the beginning of the week about our fears and the need to ensure we don’t damage this special mother daughter relationship.  At the end of the week they both said how it had strengthened their relationship; the mother saying our time with her in Low Newton prison back in 2014 was like therapy, and that this week was similar; but more so for her daughter, with an opportunity to talk for the first time about what it was like for her to lose her mother, to have her taken from her, and then given back ‘one of the hardest thing that I will ever have to do’. 

Our last day with this real life mother and daughter, creating a play about their lives, when prison takes one away from the other, left us all in bits, tears and laughter and hope that we have another gem of a story that will move audiences and make us all think and change x brilliant team x Laura Lindow, Jessica Johnson (assistant director/actor with Key Change), Jill Heslop (our Creative Producer) and Dolce and Lottie (not real names till they say it’s ok) xx

Thoughts on blogging, Promise and Roses

I find it difficult to find time to blog, and then sometimes I don’t understand what happens to the blog and who reads it.  I’m reassured though that people like to read blogs, that its of interest and can give a behind the scenes insight into the work that is being created. So last week I got my diary out and I wrote in purple all the moments I’m going to blog, after significant projects, moments when not only creating work but also other moments that go on behind those scenes to create projects, so the staff team, board and our patrons.  And there you will see lies the problem with my discipline with writing blogs, I can go off and then it’s an essay and I don’t have time to write an essay… so then the task will fall of the list, because now it’s a task and I don’t have time.

But I want to try and write each week, but bits, not chunks because the work being created, our collaborations, dilemmas and learning is of interest to me, and if that is the same for others then I should be more disciplined.  So this is my attempt to step up my blogs. I failed on Friday to write about our Promise project, and then I’ve moved on and this week I’m working with a real life mother and daughter on our project Roses, but before I write about that, I’m going to give an overview of Promise below…


I can’t write about this in detail as there was so much and I didn’t blog as I went, so below is the forward written for the script called SUGAR.  The forward explains the story of this trilogy, and the trilogy holds the voices of the three groups of amazing women we worked with earlier this year.  It’s a play in three acts, and I will go back to this and talk more later in the year (it’s going to be previewed in March 2017)

Sugar was devised with three groups of women in the UK during Spring and Summer 2016. The groups were in HMP Low Newton, a closed prison for women in the North East of England, women in a hostel providing emergency accommodation in Manchester and women on probation attending a Women’s Hub in Newcastle upon Tyne (West End Women & Girls Centre).

 The Hostel

In May 2016 we set up residency in Women’s Direct Access, Manchester, UK, a hostel that provides emergency accommodation for women who are homeless.  For six evenings we met with the women in the hostel’s canteen, ending each session with us all sitting round a table and eating a cooked meal, provided by dedicated staff that supported the project to happen.  Some of the women attended every session, others, pulled by the smell of cooked food, joined the sessions as they concluded; others joined in the middle of a session.  We collaborated with 21 women in total.

The women pulled on their own experiences to create a character called Tracy.  Often, new women joining would ask ‘who’s Tracy’, and then start to share their own stories that led to them being in the hostel.  All the women saw the hostel as a place of safety and were extremely grateful for the provision, understanding that it’s this or the street, or a punter or a perpetrator.

Act 1 – Best Girl in Sixty Streets is a piece of fiction and Tracy is a bit of each and every woman who attended the sessions

The Prison

We met with a group of women every Friday for a month in the prison chapel in HMP Low Newton, Durham, UK. They created Julie.  During one session the women said they wanted to stop, and look closer at the issue of childhood sexual abuse.  A small group of women then pulled on their own experiences and named it.  These women demonstrated courage, strength and resilience when sharing stories of childhood sexual abuse and rape.  I was determined to honour this with Act 2: Normal is a Moving Target.

 ‘Resilient people don’t walk between raindrops; they have the scars to show their experiences.  They struggle but keep functioning anyway – resilience isn’t the ability to escape unharmed, it’s not about magic….’

Julie was a hard story was hard to write but at the same time a privilege.  It’s dedicated to all survivors.

Women on Probation

We met with a group of women based at the West End Women & Girls Centre, Newcastle, UK every Wednesday for five sessions, with each session lasting one hour. The sessions were the shortest of all three groups but the script has a powerful punch.

They created Annie, then called her ‘Poor Annie’.  There were challenges with this group when trying to create a safe space; the group changed week by week, and sometimes moment by moment. This isn’t unusual, but during one session we had only one member from any previous sessions, therefore this group, on this day, were meeting a character they didn’t know, and were being asked to trust women that some had never met before.

However what the women did have in common was a criminal record and its impact on self, their families, ability to work and housing.  They shared experiences of poverty, inequality, discrimination and domestic violence. However, those who had experience of mental health problems said that losing your independence, kids and sense of self was far worse than anything else.

‘Social determinants of health including mental health, are the circumstances in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.  The conditions are influenced by the distribution of money, power and resources operating at global, national and local levels’. (World Health Organisation 2015)

With Act 3: The Sun is Grey I don’t see ‘Poor’ Annie, I see a fighter, with strength and resilience.  I see her as a survivor.


These three groups have common themes running throughout; childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, along with a lack of provision to support women with complex needs.  These stories are three and at the same time one.  Sugar exposes the routes into prison, life behind bars and the revolving door that catapults women back.

This project for us has been a life changing experience.  This work matters, we learn so much from working together with people who are at the margins of society, those who are at their most vulnerable and in need of support, care and empathy.

We have a responsible to ensure their voices are heard, and that change is agitated for.  We said to the women they deserve a medal, as they survive experiences that no one should every have to and many wouldn’t be able to. They are strong, courageous, and intelligent, and they deserve in the words of one woman ‘to have memories that are positive for a change’. They are the change makers, they invest their time, take risks and stand tall.  We meet these women as equals, standing in solidarity and together we make change happen.

Sugar is a play in three acts.


is our current project.  This week we’re working with a woman who had been an actor/theatre maker with Key Change when we were in HMP Low Newton.  We won a seed commission via Black Theatre Live and Queens Hall Arts to work for one week to create a script/performance that holds the story of what happens to a woman, and then her daughter when she is sent to prison. I’m going to call the mother Dolce and the daughter Lottie. I’d interviewed Dolce earlier this year to ask her about life after prison, what had happened, what was that story.  Then I interviewed Lottie last week to get the story from her point of view, the daughter.

Yesterday was day one.  Neither woman had read their own interview and the other hadn’t heard what the other had said.  They were invited to spend time with their own words before its read out loud, both said they were fine to hear as it went.  I gave them the heads up that one included detailed domestic violence and the other comments on how the mother has changed for example become needed.  They again said it was fine, they are so close that anything that is said is ok.  They also trust the team in front of them.  Director Laura Lindow and actor/facilitator Jessica Johnson and I have been working with Dolce since 2014.  They trusted us, and the scripts/transcribes were read, and the day was spent laughing and sometimes trying hard not to cry, swallowing tears, and this was all of us.

Today is day two…

Some thoughts on Promise

Best girl

Promise is our new project working with women in a homeless hostel in Manchester, continuing our relationship with HMP Low Newton who have welcomed us back into the prison and also with women on probation in the West End of Newcastle. We started workshops in May and plan to preview the play in March 2017. Here are a few thoughts…

13th May 2016

We set up residency in a women’s hostel in Manchester this week, working each day and night with women in the canteen. Last night, Laura Lindow and I were joined by the brilliant Maggie O’Neill. Every night we’ve finished the session all sitting round a big table and sharing a lovely meal cooked by workers Tricia and Jane. Last night they drew their character, and talked about the places she has walked away from my garden, little tree, roses, friends, peace, happiness and order. As well as prison, kids homes, family, violent partners, my life! We finish tomorrow and it’s been an honour to spend time with each and everyone of these women, and we’ll return but know due to the nature of homelessness it’s unlikely we’ll see them again.

Each of the women was given ‘The Best Girl in 60 Streets’ and one of the women placed it in her hair and was wearing it like this when we left the group…

best girl2

10th June 2016

We’re back in Low Newton prison as part of our new project Promise and one woman said the following when evaluating “I liked getting the chance to hear each others voices and experiences and feel that it helps. I love the work you all do with us as women, for women” . It’s an honour to work with such honest and courageous women.

What world do we want for ourselves and future generations?

Open Clasp conference supporting older LGBT people in care settings

Open Clasp conference supporting older LGBT people in care settings

We have just held our very first National Conference and performed an extract from Swags & Tails, a play that we created back in 2011/2012 from collaborations with 166 older women, carers and care staff. We have had a year of firsts, and this was the icing on the cake, because this conference inspired delegates to go back to their organisations and agitate for change, a change that would ensure the voices of older LGBT people are heard, listened and responded to. I felt extremely proud of the conference, proud of the staff team who worked tirelessly to make the event seem effortless. And proud that the voices of the women we worked with back in 2011 are still being heard. Swags & Tails has seen the company produce its first legacy project which was included in the delegate packs; a DVD and training tool using Swags& Tails as stimulus to explore the issue of Person Centred Care and older LGBT people. This legacy means we have been able to leave something behind so that others can continue to develop thoughts, it supports conversation and inspires change where change is needed.

As a lesbian I have a vested interest in making sure that this voice is heard, and I make no apologies about this, it’s important. It was clear from the conversations that we all know that things have changed for the good, but we still live in a world that is heterosexist and homophobic. Back in 2011/2012 when working on this particular storyline, which centres around an older butch lesbian who finds herself sitting in a skirt in a dementia unit, my focus was on getting this voice heard – but it felt like it was only yesterday that I really thought about how life might be for me and my loved ones should we need care. After the performance, and workshop, I was able to be a delegate, to hear the issues and relate it to my own life. It made me consider the harsh reality of the care system as it stands and what would happen if I was vulnerable and in need of care when I’m older and I come up against someone who wasn’t comfortable with my sexuality. Someone told a story of a lesbian who had a carer who showered her at arm’s length after she had come out to her carers.

Audience response to Swags & Tails performance

Audience response to Swags & Tails performance

Last year I had minor surgery for basal cell carcinoma skin cancer (so not life threatening but, as everyone knows, you hear the word cancer and you feel frightened and a bit vulnerable). It was a couple of months before my civil partnership to my partner of 21yrs so as the surgery was taking place I chatted about the day we were planning. And I felt something change, it felt tangible though you couldn’t pin point it to what, there was a shift, something you feel when someone isn’t totally comfortable with your sexuality. This can trigger your internalised homophobia, you feel slightly less and judged – you can also doubt yourself, think you’re imagining it, but when I met the surgeon again I still felt something had changed. I am a strong out lesbian, but homophobia can knock you especially when you are vulnerable. In the conference one of the speakers talked about how we have to risk assess every day about when it’s safe to come out, and that really struck a chord with me. In hindsight maybe it would’ve been easier not to have come out during surgery as then I wouldn’t have spent time worrying about what the surgeon was thinking other than making sure all the cancer was gone.

Right now I have a great network of friends, a loving family and I’m blessed with a partner, son and children that I love and who love me. I’m only 51, but what will my world look like when I’m 91? What will the NHS look like? Or will it have vanished like so many of our public services in relation to the care of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

There was lots of talk about the need for training, but I wonder given the current funding climate how this is going to happen. How will care staff be able to attend training to raise awareness of the diversity of those in their care, how will they have time to develop and grow when they are busy trying to look after so many people, when they are paid the minimum wage and not paid for travel time between the homes they visit, when they are understaffed, when they have a million and one practical things to do. How will they find the time to sit with people, to hear their stories, to find out who the people they are caring for really are, how will any of this happen in this current climate? And I suppose the answer is that we have to try and make the world we want for ourselves and our children, and children’s children. This is our world, and I have to believe we can change it, otherwise it’s too scary. A friend of mine told me last night that if we continue to follow this Coalition programme, by 2020 our Welfare State will be smaller than in America*.

We need a care system that supports and develops the skills of care workers. We need those that have a vested interest in making the provision of care profitable to know that profit shouldn’t negate care. We all need to think about what world we want for ourselves and for future generations. I want one that is generous, caring and one that ensures that the basic human rights of all are recognised and valued. I want those that are vulnerable cared for, I want care staff to be valued, I want provision of care when it’s needed, and I want a society and world that doesn’t discriminate.

This conference gave me a lot of food for thought, and the evaluation gathered so far suggests that this was the same for all that attended the day. Changing the world, one play/one project/one conference at a time.

*As Taylor-Gooby and Stoker (2011) note, however, the Coalition programme “takes the country in a new direction, rolling back the state to a level of intervention below that in the United States – something which is unprecedented”’

Why I want to work with young women and give them a voice

I want to make a brilliant play about young women living in the North East and North West.  I’m from Liverpool and I’ve lived in the North East for 20 years.  When I was 18, I attended a drama scheme in Liverpool and it changed my life.  I got a job, I started to question the world I lived in and I became passionate about the role that drama and theatre can make in people’s lives, especially young people.

This project is especially important to me, as I have a connection with both regions.  I have successfully worked with women and young women in the North East for the past 15 years.  The success, I believe, comes from the fact that there is a commonality between Liverpool (the North West) and the North East.  Both regions have a strong history of heavy industry and resilience. We also have a reputation for intelligence and the ability to use humour to comment on the world we live in.  However both regions have faced challenges, both with unemployment, discrimination and stereotypes.  Now both regions are disproportionally being hit by the austerity measures.  This play will coincide with the general election in 2015.  This is a perfect opportunity to create space for a conversation with young women about the lives they live, challenge their experiences and celebrate their skills and strengths.

I want to listen and hear their views on being young women and living in the North of England.  I want to explore how they perceive themselves and how they feel others perceive them, and what they want from their futures, and what part will they play in making their futures happen.  I want the workshops and the play created to support positive change for those attending the workshops and audiences seeing the play.  I want a huge conversation about being young and to support participation and democracy.  I want to support young women to have equality in their relationships, respect in their schools, work places and communities.  I want to support engagement in the democratic process, and for young women (and men) to have hope and to take control of their futures.

In order for this project to have the desired impact it needs to be the best it can be.  The creative team will work towards making this the best play to come out of the North East, and will form a strong link with the North West, creating solidarity between both regions, facing similar challenges.  I am particularly excited about the prospect of the bursary scheme, supporting new and emerging artists in the North East, young women who might not otherwise have an opportunity to find a job and explore a career that contributes so much to the society they live in.

Fracking Up North is Open Clasp new project.  We will be collaborating with young women’s groups from the North East and North West from Sept 2013 and then throughout the project, which will conclude with a tour in early 2015.  

Workshops will be held during September to December 2013, and then again in February to March 2014.  This play will give a voice to working class young women living up North with the view to bring about personal and social change.  If you have a group who would like to participate please get in touch with Catrina on