Walking at dusk – SUGAR rehearsals Week 2

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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.

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The Haircut, Coffee and Sugar

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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

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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…

 

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

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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