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).


Raindrops and Rainbows


Lines learnt, songs sang, guests and big stories to tell, done beautifully. 

This is our final week and its Thursday morning, day four – tomorrow we dress, and Saturday is the final day before SUGAR is previewed in the North East and Manchester. 

Monday we were joined by Tricia Duffy from Direct Access, a women’s hostel in Manchester providing emergency accommodation for 33 women who are homeless.  Tuesday by one of our lovely Patrons Charlie Hardwick, Wednesday by women who have collaborated on the show and Friday will be a handful of guests to see the final show before SUGAR goes on the road on Monday.  The week also included an outing to probation, no longer run at the women’s centre, now held at the old coroner’s court in town.

Things we know, the stories are truthful, powerful and have potential to trigger thought, emotion and empathy.  We know that when the cast sing, our hearts melt and break.  What we also got a glimpse of this week is how SUGAR may impact on audiences.  The guests were diverse but all shared tears, knowledge and hope, hope that this piece of theatre will change lives.

We are looking at hard issues, because during the workshops the women did. They named it/them and we stand in solidarity with these women to name/make visible and ensure that we (society) consider why we have perpetrators of sexual violence and rape, childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence –  standing with others to break the silence and shine a light on the shadows – NAME AND CHANGE IT – SOCIETY!

SUGAR argues for alternatives for women to prison, argues for better provision of care/support for those released  from prison and it also argues for prevention, for a better world, for our eyes to be open and to see.

“I was always going to end up in here (prison), Crashing, But not this time, The shame is His, Theirs, And not mine”. 

When collaborating with the women in the three groups, those in prison, in emergency accommodation and on probation, we witnessed resilience, strength, courage and hope.

What we don’t know is how it will be received by our audiences, but I think we have something with SUGAR, it holds the voices of women who are heroes in their own struggle to survive, its political in its argument for change, and its angry at injustice to all those who experience harm, hurt and hate.


Walking at dusk – SUGAR rehearsals Week 2


Monday and outside the country’s protesting and parliament’s debating Trump and Brexit.  We gather in the rehearsal room upstairs at West End Women & Girls Centre. We talk about the ways in which people gather and protest, echo chambers and the role Open Clasp plays in making change happen – this is something we all witness during the process to create the work, collaborating with the women, in prison, on probation and in hostels (for SUGAR) and then during the tours, through post show discussion and workshops make space for debate and  call to arms, for action and change.

Wednesday we have a guest – one of the women we collaborated with in Low Newton (now released and living in a hostel) travelled four hours by train to join us in rehearsals. Her input key to the truth in the story telling.

We met at the train station, met with the staff team, walked around the park, showed off the women’s centre then joined Laura and the cast.

We shared the scenes, beautiful songs and all our hopes for the piece.   We learnt that for this woman, being honest is key to surviving life on the outside, telling people her story, the truth and moving forward.  One of the things she likes about being outside is walking, at dusk as night falls.  She tells us, this is her last chance, if she falls again, goes back to jail, she won’t get the support she’s getting now; that this moment is hers to seize.

She shares her biggest fear, of time and it slipping through her fingers.  She’s changed, is grateful to Low Newton, the support and the opportunity to change, and she’s grasping it with both hands.  She’s proud of SUGAR, has shared the script with probation, staff and her family, and she should be, its powerful and will impact on audiences, communities both in prison and on the outside.

We were so very honoured to have her in the room with us, a total privilege and we look forward to her joining us up on stage at Live Theatre on the 10th March  where SUGAR, in first stage development will be previewed.

The Haircut, Coffee and Sugar


First blog of 2017 and its about SUGAR our new show to be previewed in March.

It’s a first stage development production, which means just that, its in its first stages of development.

Who is the cast? We have the brilliant Zoe Lambert, Kylie Ann Ford and Christina Dawson. The lovely and extremely talented Laura Lindow is the director, Katie Doherty is working with Laura on the song that lies within the piece and Emily Harrison is the Assistant to the Director. The utterly exceptional Jill Heslop is Creative Producer for the project and next week we will be joined by the lovely Kate McCheyne (Stage Manager), as well as two of the women we collaborated with on the piece, one woman from Low Newton prison (out now) and the other from the women’s hub (supporting women on probation). I think that’s everyone.

So the story so far…

Laura and I spent the weekend prior to rehearsals emailing, back and forth with edits and amendments to the script in preparation for Day One.

Day One – We enter the rehearsal room at West End Women & Girls Centre and the very lovely Mary Wilson (our administrator) has put on a spread of cakes and treats, the aroma of coffee and the sound of laughter fills the room – it was a good start.

Laura introduces the project and together we speak about the workshops and the collaborators who are key to the storytelling of SUGAR. The actors look, listen and ask questions. There is a lot to communicate and take in.

Pencils are given out, Laura says ‘right lets read the script’ and stabs herself in the hand with a very sharp pencil. I’m the first aider – rewind – during the introductions I’ve told the story of how I’m a little Catherine Tate when I see injuries, but I’m alright with this one, I’ve got it – Emily reassures me that pencils are no longer made of lead, its granite now and its fine. Laura washes her hand, I bandage it and a sling is sent for (kidding)!

Ok so what happened on day one

I’m always nervous, doesn’t matter if the feedback for the script is good, I’m nervous and at times paranoid. I know the feeling, have felt it before and I’m confident it will pass, want to fast forward to that moment when everyone is happy with the script and it enables the room to flood with creativity and ideas, not got stuck in pot holes and puddles.

The script is read, and games are played. In the afternoon questions are asked and we return to the script and then its home time. Wine is needed!

Day Two – much better. I wake at 6am and start to edit, I like the hair cut the script is getting, am enjoying combing through, being brave in the cuts and wanting to ensure the finish is of top quality. We have one actor today, but that’s OK as SUGAR is a story of three and at the same time one. We spend the morning with a character called Tracy, and we’re transformed back to the hostel in Manchester to the women we met, tears and laughter, along with plates of hot food. It’s a good morning.

In the afternoon, I go back to my desk and phone. I speak to the woman who’s been released from Low Newton, we’re trying to get her up for the performance at Live Theatre, to join the panel, but we need to cross some T’s and dot some I’s first. Laura is joined by Katie, and the song in the piece is heard for the first time… its exciting, so very exciting.

Later Laura and I go over the timeline of one of the characters Julie, we rewind, fast forward and then see a gap. In the edits a vital piece of the story has gone, is missed. I find the line, words and this morning Day Three I’m more than pleased with the save made.

Day Three – We’re sharing two of the actors with another show, so today I’ve been back on script, the final, final edits (for now), Laura’s at home and sometimes on the phone, email, talking with Jill, finding answers, ideas and opportunities. All heads are buzzing and whirring.

Tomorrow is day four and the song of the piece will be unleashed.

The Log Fire


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).


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…