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).


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…


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.

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.