The Passing of Mrs Robinson

Mrs Robinson died on Saturday the 12th November 2016.  A matriarch, at the centre of her family.  A family that has been the heartbeat of West End Women & Girls Centre.  Margie died with her family wrapped around her.  Huffty, my wife, was considered by Margie as ‘part of the family’ and my wife’s heart is full of sadness at her passing.

My relationship with Margie crosses over to Open Clasp.  Margie was a member of the company, collaborator on projects and featured in many of the early shows.  A sharp critic, Margie would critique each new show but none could compare to her favourite After Her Death, our first production, one that features four daughters who are haunted by their dead mothers.  It was a comedy and had her favourite comedian Kirsty Hudson aka Francis.  The mention of Mrs Robinson in the shows became a tradition in the early shows, and even her beloved dog Pedro got a role.

Margie was a great believer in the afterlife and I would like to believe that my mam and Elvis came and took her hand, led her past and through to that other life – one full of Angels.

Mrs Robinson passing has broken the hearts of her family, chosen family and her loss will be felt deeply by all those who work and come into West End Women & Girls Centre.

It will be also felt by Open Clasp, me and my wife, whose heart is so full of sadness.

I echo Ally Hunter ‘Here’s to Mrs Robinson’


Two Rattle’s, both Rolling

Rattle & Roll Flyer 2_v4.2:Layout 1

Whilst Key Change is flying around the country, Open Clasp are back in rehearsals with two shows, Rattle Snake and Rattle & Roll.

Both shows will be performing at two different conferences this week, one in Manchester (the N8 PRP Policing Innovation Forum) and the other here in Newcastle (North East Sex Workers Forum – Regional Learning Day).  I’ll take one at a time… first:

Rattle Snake

In 2015 Open Clasp were commissioned (Durham University and Durham Constabulary – funded by the Durham PCC and Arts and Humanities Research Council) to create a piece of theatre and an interactive drama workshop with the intention of training frontline officers in coercive and controlling behaviours in domestic abuse relationships.

This project took place after Edinburgh and before New York (October to early December 2015 – and before the Archers storyline peaked). I met and interviewed women and a script was created Rattle Snake and was accessed to just under 400 officers, with two additional performances to invited audiences in Durham and at Live Theatre, Newcastle.

‘’This was, by a country mile, the most engaging, impactive and thought provoking training session I have had in my fourteen year career in the police’ PC Tony Miley, Durham Constabulary)

We’ve now been asked to perform the piece at the N8 PRP Policing Innovation Forum in Manchester tomorrow (8th November 2016).  There will be 200 delegates made up of Police and Crime Comissioners, academics and the police (both commissioners and frontline).   Rehearsals took place last week we were fortunate enough to be able to show the piece to women attending a Safe4Life course at West End Women & Girls Centre

‘The performance was emotional but something I can relate to. A lot of what went on was true. If I had seen this before, I would have left my ex way before but I assumed it was normal’

 ‘……I think this play should be shown to young boys and girls in schools to help prevent and recognise domestic violence’

‘Useful…different classes are affected. I feel it is harder to be believed because I live in a ‘good’ area and my husband is a ‘good’ local community person.  Showed the isolation, that its not always physical. Coercion can be worse and slower to accept you are a victim’

On Friday we invited one of the women who had inspired the story to come along, and she bought two friends – women who knew the story, had witnessed the isolation,  manipulation and its impact on the real life woman .  After the performance they talked together about how the perpetrator had manipulated the whole community, divided friendships and ensured isolation.  One friend told how (after hearing many rumours) she said to the real life woman  ‘tell me everything, and I will stand by you’ and the real life woman did just that. The friend stood by and with her as she faced real life threats of loss of life, and that of her children.  She fought with her to get her voice heard with solicitors and judges, as well as with others in the community who had took him in, felt sorry for him, believed him.

As we watched the women talk to each other and us,  it was like listening to a film script, it was epic and gob smacking; his tactics to gain power and control; how it includes many people and on multiple layers.  This real life woman can’t be identified as the threat to her life and that of her children is still ever present. But in sharing her story with Open Clasp (along with the other women involved in the project) this woman is visible, and her voice is strong and its making change happen (which was said by the police involved in the training and then with the women on the Safe4Life course).

Tonight we travelled down to Manchester and tomorrow we showcase the performance and talk about the training delivered to the police back in 2015.  The police had told the researchers they wanted training that had impact – Rattle Snake is powerful; Kathryn Beaumont and Eilidh Talman’s performances are breath taking and Charlotte Bennett’s direction skillful and truthful to the  women we worked with.  The theatre created needed to be the best it could be to have an impact on an audience of police and the evidence gathered at the end of each session indicated that this project did just that.

Our hopes for tomorrow would be that the police/commissioners support this training to be rolled out across the country, I hope that is the case.

Rattle & Roll

Our second Rattle – We’ve been asked to perform an extract from Rattle & Roll at a conference hosted by the North East Sex Workers Forum – the Regional Learning Day (an annual event) later this week.  The conference is an opportunity for practitioners in the region to learn from one another about best practice in supporting those who are or have been involved in sex work.

Rattle & Roll was created back in 2009/10 after we collaborated with women involved in sex work for survival, young women who were homeless and living in a hostel and women who had lost their children to adoption.  The play was created and toured throughout the region in early 2010.

 This play tells the story of the first 24hours after release from prison

Marie needs to stay clean so she can see her son the following day.  After buying her son a teddy bear, she meets frustration at the job centre and her past in the shape drug dealers, punters, her addiction and of Diane (current sex worker and heroin and crack cocaine addict)

After meeting Marie in the street earlier that day, Diane continues her quest to find a punter and score drugs.   In addition she has a court appearance later that afternoon.  However her addiction, the head games played by her drug dealer, along with the distress caused by sex work,  result in time slipping through her fingers, and her need to attend the court becomes distant memory. 

We are facilitating two workshops, one will focus on the characters from Rattle & Roll (women involved in survival and opportunistic sex work), and the second workshop will attempt to ensure the diversity of those involved in sex work are present in the room  –  so voices of migrants, students and escorts.  It’s a huge task, and will involve all those attending to work creatively up on their feet, pulling on their expertise and knowledge and stepping into the shoes of the characters created.

The afternoon will concluded with the delegates agreeing on a strategy for change in provision and support.

Ruth Johnson is our director with this piece, and Vik Kay and Natalie Jamison will be playing Marie and Diane.  They are upstairs as I type, unpicking and then gluing the characters back together – breathing life back into the characters and putting up the scaffolding that will support the story to be told.

We have two Rattle’s that are Rolling this week and one Key Change unlocking doors across country. The voices of the women we collaborate with are being heard by Parliamentarians, decision makers, services providers, survivors, young people and the general public. 

Theatre at its best – making change happen


The 2nd of November (I Remember)

This time last year, on the 2nd of November I had taken the day off work because it’s the anniversary of my mum’s death.  Our Operations Manager, Roma Yagnik had also taken the day off work because it was her 39th birthday.  I checked my emails, ‘Some bad news….. ’ New York had stumbled, a slot had been missed – Key Change was now up against a major festival, the accommodation had fell through and accountants couldn’t make the maths work.  I went to the office.  All of us shaken and very stirred.

One month prior to this day Roma had given in her notice to leave Open Clasp, this due to the many demands for her skills as a composer (and after 10 years with the company).  I hadn’t told the staff team, and didn’t want them to have to deal with another blow on another day, so I thought lets get all the bad news out now and see how we bounce.  Mary started to cry and said ‘my cats died last night’ and then I said ‘its mum’s anniversary’.

We turned our eyes back to the email from New York

Courage was needed in high volumes and we had it in abundance.  We changed the  subject line to our reply saying ‘Key Change still coming to New York’.  We had a conference call (AND ALL) held our breaths and the rest is history.   Many lessons learnt, ours was our ability to respond, our determination and our ability to make it happen.   New York was no Cinderella moment, we worked hard and overcome many hurdles to ensure the voices of the women who had won Edinburgh sang in New York. We promised the women in Stirling Prison and Low Newton if we were to win we would go into a women’s prison over there and that was what we were going to do.  We were strong and resilient.

24 years ago, on the 2nd of November, I was 29 years old, my baby son had just turned one, and I was sat watching my mum die.  She was my rock, my strength and my best friend.

Edna’s voice is in many of the plays I have written for Open Clasp; with Key Change she tells the story of the Magpie snatching the babies from a nest.  Upstairs this week we’re rehearsing Rattle Snake, and I see her there too, standing with her daughter fighting to right a wrong.  Both plays reaching out and making change happen.

At our Civil Partnership in 2014 Edna May McHugh was celebrated by our big queer family as the mother who marched with us against Clause 28, she was the mother that others didn’t have, one that stood in solidarity with her lesbian daughter.

Today is Roma Yagnik 40th birthday, Mary’s getting a new cat, we smashed New York, and I’m remembering my mum Edna May McHugh.