The Log Fire

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So I’m thinking I’ve not done too badly with my blogs, and I’ve quite enjoyed writing them. The blogs have become like the push you feel in child birth, you just need to write it.  So here’s is my final blog for 2016…

Rattle Snake is our final project in 2016. We spent last week doing Research & Development with the script in preparation for an Autumn tour next year.  It’s the company’s first co-production and we’re doing it with Live Theatre.  We’ve had a long association with Live and they were the first theatre to host our plays back in 1998.  It became a tradition for us to open and close our shows there.  The communities we worked with, many of whom would never go into the theatre (or any theatre) had their own tables, especially the women from West End Women & Girls Centre.  Times have moved on and West End Women have their own theatre space now, so we go to them, but the shows still go to Live.

It’s the first time we have co-produced and it feels right that its with Live Theatre.  But they aren’t the only partnership, York Theatre Royal are the associate company with Rattle Snake.  They have a long standing relationship with our Rattle Snake director, Charlotte Bennett, and they hosted Key Change in 2015, which led to us being in the Houses of Parliament in October of this year.  This, like Cinderella’s shoe, feels like the right fit.

The week started with actors Kathryn Beaumont and Eilidh Talman showcasing the piece at Live on the Monday and we concluded the week at York Theatre Royal with an invited audience on the Friday.

There were moments on both the Monday and Friday when it felt so strange and odd.  We have always had critical friends who feedback on script, set, design and politics …..but this felt different.  I found myself sitting with people I know and don’t know as they talked about the women in the story, the issues, style, form and areas to develop or consider.

So I’m trying to figure out why it felt strange to me (having men in the room is too obvious an answer).  For the past 18 years the methodology and process to create theatre has been like the shoe that fits, and the atmosphere we create could be likened to having a cosy, log fire gathering… maybe the new process felt like the door opened and random visitors arrived – to begin with you feel unsettled or even startled – you have to move seats, make room and open up the space.  However random guests can be a positive and a great addition to your fire – you gain knowledge through conversations, observations, laughter and tears. So I think this is what happened, we opened the door to the company’s process to create work and allowed others in (but really they were invited and not random) and it worked – both Live and York gave great and interesting feedback that will develop the show.

Rattle Snake is like a train that motors forward at great speed, it has such an impact and the challenge for all of us was to ensure we didn’t derail, and I think its fair to say we achieved our goal.

So now as I write this final blog the office is winding down to a close for Christmas.  Jill Heslop (our Creative Producer) and Mary Wilson (our administrator) left yesterday for a well-earned rest (though I can see Jill Heslop is still checking her emails) .  I can hear Carly McConnell (our Company Development Manager) making the final taps on her keyboard as we power forward to complete our NPO application.

The staff team are tired, they (like our creative teams) work so hard and its time to stop, baton down the hatches, see friends and feed the soul.  Happy Christmas one and all – keep safe and well till we meet again in the New Year – and what a new year its going to be!

Christmas without tinsel? NO!

Before we hang up our stockings for Christmas our heads are hurting as we try to raise funds to reduce our shortfall and answer the Big Questions that will help with our case for reinvestment from the Arts Council as one of their National Portfolio Organisations for 2018-2022 – to help us develop and grow, reach and stretch, engaging audiences far and wide, nationally and internationally – in our quest to change the world one play at a time

  1. Why are we here?
  2. Why are we unique?
  3. Who are we here for?
  4. If we weren’t here what would the Open Clasp shaped hole in society look like? 
  5. Why are we exceptional?
  6. Why (assuming they do) do the Arts Council value us?

Thinking about ‘if we weren’t here what would an Open Clasp hole in society look like’,  we said it would be like opening a tin of Quality Street and finding it empty, like Christmas without tinsel and The First Noel without a note to sing.  It’s coming up to Christmas, so it was in my head, but if you ignore the reference to Nestle, and think back to the excitement and anticipation of opening a tin of Quality Streets, seeing the wrappers, diversity of colours, fillings and experiences, that’s us.  Christmas without tinsel, come on!  And The First Noel without a note to sing – the song wouldn’t be able to start…

Open Clasp is important, we’re told that….maybe more so than I Daniel Blake, but who would have known about Open Clasp outside the region if Northern Stage hadn’t supported us at the Edinburgh Festival – we wouldn’t have had the reviews (a small women’s theatre company in the North East just doesn’t pull them in).  We wouldn’t have been long listed for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. We wouldn’t have got four stars in the Scotsman, which made us eligible for the Carol Tambor Bes of Edinburgh Award, and we wouldn’t have won the award and ended up in New York.

In New York we received recognition and validation for the beauty of the theatre presented via the New York Times Critics Pick, but also by experts such as Professor Evan Stark and Professor in Criminology Rosemary Barberet from the John Jay College New York who joined us on stage for post-show discussions.  Practitioners, academics and theatre goers circulated information about Open Clasp and Key Change far and wide. There was even a rumour that Michelle Obama was going to come, as well as the Good Wife but a snow storm put a stop to their train (artistic licence).

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We were so small and the city was so big, and yet we made such a big impact. We used the same approach we use to making work happen here, we networked, got introduced and made connections. Funders supported us to get over there, a criminologist broke us into a prison, we had sell out audiences and received rave reviews. Stepping out of the region was a huge decision for us to make; supported by our board we held our breath and made the right choice.

Our aim going to Edinburgh was to try and gain national recognition, and never in a million years did we expect to win such a prestigious award.  Our win, and our time in New York has opened doors, we’ve just completed our first national tour and it started in the Houses of Parliament at the heart of democracy.  We shared a panel with Baroness Corston, and Baroness Doreen Lawrence was in the audience as were many other parliamentarians and policy makers – contributing to the debate about alternatives to prison for women.

During the national tour we had sell out audiences across the breath of the country and standing ovations, for not only the show but the post show discussion.

Over the last 18 years we have been successful in this region, we have had recognition from communities and practitioners alike – and again without these partnerships and collaborations Open Clasp wouldn’t exist.  But it was stepping out of the region that made the difference, by reaching up and wide we were able to shine a light on the North East, and the beauty and power of women’s theatre.

Our collaborations with women ensure theatre is made through their lens, the diversity of the women ensures the theatre created reflects society, and through this reflection we can learn and change.

Looking around the corner into the new year and beyond, if we get funds and support we will develop and grow, reach and stretch, engaging audiences far and wide, nationally and internationally  – in our quest to change the world one play at a time.

 

Rewind and touch the stone

On Friday night Key Change was performed for the last time (for this tour) at West End Women & Girls Centre.  It was an emotional night as it was dedicated to the late Mrs Robinson and we had taken Key Change into Low Newton prison that morning.

Going back into the prison is always good for the company, cast and crew as it’s an opportunity to touch the stone at the heart of this show.

In the prison chapel the women gathered, and it felt to us that we had many Angie’s sitting in the audience. There were a few who had seen the show before on previous visits, but for the majority it was their first time.  They laughed, cried and recognised – themselves and the context of their lives, that of the prison system and the wider society.

During the post show the women shared their need to have others know that they weren’t born ‘criminals’, that there is always a story behind and it so very often has domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse threaded throughout.  Like the characters in Key Change say ‘it’s not an excuse but it’s a reality’ and it is linked to why the women are there.

I think the play was brilliant – you got it spot on. I think it should be shown to younger children to prevent them coming to jail… And I like the part where you mentioned mental health – its spot on… we need more help with mental health in here. Big respect to you all and I hold my hat off to you. (Woman in HMP Low Newton)

We got to see some of the women from our new production SUGAR.  We had expected one of the women who has inspired a throughline in the play to already have been released, but she was still there, which was a relief as we had been expecting contact on the outside and when we hadn’t heard we worried; her aim is to not stumble, to keep walking and to live her life – and we’d worried she’d got out and stumbled.  She’s waiting for things to be put in place still; accommodation, support and stepping stones that will support her to transition from prison to life outside, and to survive.

Another woman from SUGAR told us how now she is a Listener in the prison, that she can now read and write.  Women who are trying to turn their life around, get it back on track, make a change and we’re hoping that SUGAR supports that voice, and what needs to be in place, so women don’t rewind and go back through that revolving door.

Making another rewind and on Wednesday, Key Change was performed in a referral unit.  90% of the school attended, again they laughed and some cried.  One of the teachers said that to have 90% of the school share an experience together wasn’t the norm, it was a huge achievement.  This is the second production we have taken into this unit, and we have made a commitment to continue this relationship for the next four to five years; like going back into the prison this audience feeds the creative team, this is a special audience and it was an honour to perform there.

I loved the play. It made me laugh and realise how hard it is in prison (young man in referral unit)

If we rewind to the beginning of last week, to Monday 28th November, we had just opened at West End Women & Girls, Jill Heslop and Rosie Morris had carried a ton of staging up the stairs to ensure our audiences could see the action onstage and the room became a theatre; a theatre that is at the heart of the local community in Elswick – and the community came in, but not just local; men and women came from afar brought by the shining star that is Key Change (my Catholicism is ingrained so apologies).

Fast forward to today and Key Change starts its final week of Open Clasp’s first National Tour.  It will be in Stockton, Middlesbrough and then back at Live Theatre. Due to demand, Key Change will go back out in the New Year – it just keeps rolling – unlocking doors, hearts and minds.

Rewind back to 2014, to that prison chapel were we sat with the women. We had not a clue what was going to happen next. I have no idea if any of those women will read this blog but if they do, this final week is dedicated to you…