Not Farming – Jane Garvey

I was taken aback by Jane Garvey’s use of the word ‘farming’ on Woman’s Hour when asking how we had worked with women in Low Newton prison. Farming suggests a detachment, and an intention to pick and sell. Open Clasp’s methodology is collaborative and democratic, working with women to create the best theatre we can to change the world. The communities we have worked with over the last 18 years know this, so only a little shaken, not stirred but it needs a response (as even if Jane’s choice of words was a little ‘joke’ Jane did underpin the question with ‘but isn’t that what you are doing’).

This could reflect on the company, our intention, ethics and politics, plus it’s not accurate! So not farming Jane, we stand in solidarity with the women we work with ‘Give me a lever and a place to stand and I (we) will move the world’.  That’s what Key Change and Open Clasp did yesterday, the place being the Houses of Parliament, taking the voices of women into the heart of democracy. Standing together with women sharing experiences of violence and injustice. Cheryl spoke of how, after telling the judge that her mother had dementia and if she was sentenced her mother wouldn’t remember her, aged 46 and only her first offence (non violent), she got three years. Separated from her daughter and a family fractured.

We told of Jodie Wilkinson, a young woman we worked with on a previous show, released from prison a few months ago, homeless and murdered not ten minutes from where Open Clasp rehearsed Key Change.

We stand together with all those who want to see change for women, families and communities impacted by the criminal justice system and demand that an alternative to prison becomes a reality and we tackle the route cause that leads many women to prison, that being domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse.

Open Clasp never farms we stand united with all those who experience discrimination and oppression, and aim to Change the World one play at a time

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.

Butterflies…

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.

cheryl-abigail-hexham2016

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…

Promise

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.

Summary

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.

Roses

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…