The Sound of an Audience

International Women’s Day at West End Women & Girls Centre, photo by Phyllis Christopher

SUGAR has been on the road for one week, previewing in venues with diverse audiences.

‘This preview tour is our chance to put a piece in development in front of an audience, to get their feelings on the work and as such is a really special thing! It carries a valuable opportunity to re-examine the piece and our communication around it’ (Laura Lindow, Associate Director with Open Clasp and SUGAR).

And we have been listening to the sound of an audience.  On Monday as we sat down to watch the show it was clear that, in the words of SUGAR’s director Laura Lindow, the ‘Worry Demon’ had joined us.  We’d decided to light up the room, unknowingly exposing the audience, leaving no shadows or dark corners to hide or step back into (we thought it was warm and inclusive).  The sound of the audience on Monday was still.  The Worry Demon, cuddled up close, joined the actors on stage and followed us to the hall were the post show discussion was being held.  There the Worry Demon left us, and we heard the audience comments; that the show was really powerful, stories that need to be told, but not with the big light on, give me shadows, allow elbow room and debate about the need and/or role of trigger warnings in theatre, and in universities.  Interesting, and food to take away.  We joined the cast, and read the comments; excellent theatre, powerful, beautiful, we travelled home through the dark roads back to Newcastle, but the Worry Demon joined us again, sat in the back, legs up on the seat.

Tuesday we were at the West End Women & Girls Centre, now a theatre venue, open to the public.  We took advantage of the in-house lighting rig, joining our lights and invited shadows and corners.  The audience poured in and we nervously listened again to the sound of the audience, we heard laughter, tears and empathy.  People stayed behind, gave us their thoughts, wrote down the comments, and again, in the main we heard its power, the need for our ears to be open, its beauty and the song it sang.  89% of the feedback said it was excellent, same as Monday, majority shouted about SUGAR’s power and beauty.  One said good but thought it was like Key Change.  SUGAR does have echoes of Key Change, a previous show set in a women’s prison – we wanted to include the sound of the prison, as we had returned there, worked with other women, and it felt right to echo… but SUGAR is so unlike any show the company has done before, not calculated but in response to the scripts written, written in response to the women we worked with.  We have three shows in one, with song, for us it’s a huge step away.

Wednesday, still at the West End Women & Girls Centre, but this show is for the women in the local community, and at 7pm they poured through the doors.  Open Clasp is their company, they come and take their seats, fill the Mrs Robinson Hall… women who don’t ordinarily see theatre, but they come for Open Clasp.  Also in the room is women who collaborated on the show.  At first the Worry Demon is nowhere to be seen, we’re on home turf, they will love it, hard issues but they will.  The lights dimmed, and the names lit up and we listened.  Silence.  In that silence the Worry Demon took its seat.  In Act Two a phone went off, in the moment when it was the worst sound to hear, the woman searching in her bag, desperate to turn it off, shouting to her daughter to come and get her phone, to turn the sound of music off –  she shouts her apologies to the actor on stage, the actor waits, its ok, this isn’t about other, the actors and the audience are together, sharing stories about us, we can wait.  I loved this moment, everyone is taking care of the piece, the actors, director (assistant to the director), producer, stage manager, staff team and this audience member, I just loved this moment.

The show ended and we let a breath out and listened to their thoughts on the show, we again heard its power, opinions on trigger warnings, its order and need.  There were tears, and the Worry Demon interrupts conversations, points to audience members who are drying their eyes.  After the audience left, we dissected the show, response and sound.  The Worry Demon poured our drinks, and we drank.

Thursday – we’re in Durham, at Aspire, a women’s project (formerly Bridge) who like West End Women have hosted Open Clasp shows since 1998.  A lovely venue (rewind to the NHS march to London, this venue hosted those marchers (included my lovely son) in the same room and now we get SUGAR ready for a 70 strong audience.  The workers have prepared for this (we’ve sent them emails explaining the issues), they have Listeners in the audience and a Drop In the next day.

We listen again, we hear a big heart, support and laughter.  The audience loved it (maybe not the swearing) but they heard its song and embraced it.  During the post show we heard the need for change, for these voices to be heard, the talent of the actors, the beauty of the piece.  Jan Vincent, a woman I so respect talked to me at the end, she told me to stop worrying that its not too much, that its right and to be proud of the work, show… she took the Worry Demon and told it to leave, and it did, from this moment, this (our fourth show) the Worry Demon left the building.

Friday – we’re at Live Theatre, again this is home turf, we’ve performed here since the beginning and its sold out (both nights and the matinee).  Laura, Jill, Kate and the cast get the Full Monty… beautiful lights, sound and the black brick walls that surround the stage and hold SUGAR so it can shimmer and sparkle.

Tonight one of our women from Low Newton prison is travelling four hours to join us for the show and post show. She’s travelling with her sister, who hasn’t read the script. The characters on stage represent a collective voice, they are fictional but based on real life stories, and hers is in there – like Julie, her goal is to not drink, or do drugs, to walk past a pub. We sit together in the dark and watch the show, I hear her tears, and that of her sister.  Her real life is hard, and she sees it played out on stage.  She so emotional afterwards and doesn’t know why, but she can see her life’s been hard and tough, she likes what she sees, later her sister says that being part of this has helped save her. All of us tell her that when we met her in prison, we could see her sparkle, energy and drive and so hoped she would make contact when she got out and she did. She liked a post on Facebook, and we saw her connect with us, and now she was in Newcastle, watching the show she helped make, seeing her life story on stage and it has helped, she says.  Its an honour to have her on stage with us during the post show, and she had been nervous that the audience might ask about her crime but the audience want to hear about the process, its impact, what’s next, they are supportive and embracing of the show, company and the collaborators/women we work with.  We want to work with her, stay in contact, even make a show, about her and her mam, mirroring another show we’re doing with a collaborator from Key Change.

We go home happy, confident and awake.  Its special the show, we can feel it, know it now.

Saturday – the matinee and evening performance, the sound of the audience is velvet.  Someone said that at the end, when the audience are clapping they are still knocked by the power of the piece, that they are clapping but trying to recovery still but they want to be on their feet, but they can’t stand, not just yet.  There is a need for time to process, but have a huge appreciation of the work on stage, of the company and its place in the region to tell these stories to make powerful theatre, and to make the region proud, not just locally but nationally.

Today is the first day of the second week, and we’re heading to Manchester, taking the show into the women’s hostel tonight, then sitting together with the women, our post show a meal cooked by dedicated workers from the top ten.  Tomorrow we’re at Contact Theatre, and then back to the North East, ending with our final show at West End Women and Girls Centre again on Friday (St Patricks Day) a performance that’s is open to the public.

I am so very proud of SUGAR,  it took courage to make, from the women in prison to the theatre you see on stage, but we did it, named it and the sound you hear is political.

‘We’re looking forward to moving the work forward – taking the piece apart and putting back together. Perhaps it will feel similar to this present guise, perhaps different. When the dust settles we hope to see it, what it is, has been, and where to take it next’ (Laura Lindow).


One thought on “The Sound of an Audience”

  1. At Live Theatre I saw echoes with Rattle and Roll as well as Key Change, and for a moment I felt hopeless, all those years and all those plays and still the same issues beating women down. Then I saw the woman who’d helped create the play, sitting on stage – equal with the director, the actors, the writer. Just as vital, just as valuable, just as important. And she spoke about the difference being involved made to her, and to other women in the prison. How different working with Open Clasp had been to all the other group work in prison. And I saw how Open Clasp changes lives, and imagined the ripples from all that change. All those years, all those plays, all those women and their families, their communities changed. I left with my hope restored. Thank you. S x

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