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.

 

Overcoming challenges and realising The Space Between Us

The Space Between Us Tour 2013

Last year I started to write a blog for the first time, I managed four entries. I stopped in September when I started to write the company’s most recent play The Space Between Us.   I had been working with women from 24 countries, blown from four corners of the earth.  The aim of the project was to create a play directly informed by the lived experiences of women from minority communities living in the North East.  In the blogs I wrote about my thoughts on the women’s experiences of discrimination, of my disgust at the asylum system, and questioned whether theatre can really change the world.   I always say, I like a challenge, but the reason I stopped writing the blogs because this script was the toughest challenge I have faced so far, and its only now that I can write about it.

The women I was working with share space e.g. school gates, community centres and estates but they don’t share lives.  I felt it was important to highlight space between communities, how we co-exist but have divisions that separate us from any real connection.  I started to write monologues.  Using direct address, the characters would talk to the audience.  The first draft was set at a community cohesion event, bringing everyone together, sharing food and stories of family, history and culture.  I thought this would lead to a cracking play.  I wrote about a clumsy white woman asking questions about community cohesion, the Hijab and whether Muslims listen to music (this was me).  The idea sounded good, but the first draft wasn’t.

The creative team entered the research and development.  We created movement, space and a soundscape but it didn’t glue together.  I got frustrated at the space between the characters, the fact that I couldn’t bridge the divide, and wanted to break free of the reality around me.  While pulling my hair out I thought about the floods and evacuations, and suggested to the director that the women seek sanctuary in a local pub, the director said a church.  I agreed the church had more potential but I managed to have one of the characters find the holy wine, and taste the blood of Christ, apparently it ‘tastes like Echo Falls’.

Each of the women are at a turning point in their lives, Cheyanne, a British Traveller living on a local site, is set to leave her violent partner.  Eman, an Arabic woman from Syria, locks horns with her husband over the civil war and her right to recognition and freedom.  15yr-old Eyshan, a Czech/Roma whose relationship with a non-Roma boy has been discovered by her brother and threats are made to tell her parents.  Zeyna, a Muslim lesbian from Nigeria, refused asylum, destitute and fearing deportation, she’s on the run from immigration.

On their arrival at the church nothing is how it should be.  There are no lights, the presence of a man, police or immigration, and they have no phone signal.  As the night passes the women connect through the space that divides them, sharing experiences of discrimination, culture and loss.  However on discovery that the man’s money has been stolen, the women bounce apart.  They battle each other, with Zeyna being top of the hit list.  Prejudice and racism from within minority communities is exposed. When Zeyna’s sexuality is revealed, Eman cannot hide her disgust and threatens her with the police.  Zeyna can’t go back to Nigeria, and feels she has no alternative but to take her own life.  The flood waters enter the church and the women find themselves in a battle to save Zeyna’s life and humanity itself.

As the water rises and the lights fade, 15yr-old Eyshan vents her frustration at the rules that govern their lives, she wants a new way, one where women are free, safe and have their basic human rights respected.

The Space Between Us Tour 2013

It was a challenge for the women to survive this night and for me to write this play. It challenged audiences and changed perspectives when toured in March and April 2013.  I believe it was a huge success, and all evidence gathered backs this up.  No other theatre company in the North East is doing this sort of work. We ask difficult questions, encourage debate, ask for solidarity and agitate for change.

We are currently working with the women to support them to create and perform theatre and film that further supports the telling of their individual stories; this along with the play will be celebrated in November 2013.