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.



What world do we want for ourselves and future generations?

Open Clasp conference supporting older LGBT people in care settings
Open Clasp conference supporting older LGBT people in care settings

We have just held our very first National Conference and performed an extract from Swags & Tails, a play that we created back in 2011/2012 from collaborations with 166 older women, carers and care staff. We have had a year of firsts, and this was the icing on the cake, because this conference inspired delegates to go back to their organisations and agitate for change, a change that would ensure the voices of older LGBT people are heard, listened and responded to. I felt extremely proud of the conference, proud of the staff team who worked tirelessly to make the event seem effortless. And proud that the voices of the women we worked with back in 2011 are still being heard. Swags & Tails has seen the company produce its first legacy project which was included in the delegate packs; a DVD and training tool using Swags& Tails as stimulus to explore the issue of Person Centred Care and older LGBT people. This legacy means we have been able to leave something behind so that others can continue to develop thoughts, it supports conversation and inspires change where change is needed.

As a lesbian I have a vested interest in making sure that this voice is heard, and I make no apologies about this, it’s important. It was clear from the conversations that we all know that things have changed for the good, but we still live in a world that is heterosexist and homophobic. Back in 2011/2012 when working on this particular storyline, which centres around an older butch lesbian who finds herself sitting in a skirt in a dementia unit, my focus was on getting this voice heard – but it felt like it was only yesterday that I really thought about how life might be for me and my loved ones should we need care. After the performance, and workshop, I was able to be a delegate, to hear the issues and relate it to my own life. It made me consider the harsh reality of the care system as it stands and what would happen if I was vulnerable and in need of care when I’m older and I come up against someone who wasn’t comfortable with my sexuality. Someone told a story of a lesbian who had a carer who showered her at arm’s length after she had come out to her carers.

Audience response to Swags & Tails performance
Audience response to Swags & Tails performance

Last year I had minor surgery for basal cell carcinoma skin cancer (so not life threatening but, as everyone knows, you hear the word cancer and you feel frightened and a bit vulnerable). It was a couple of months before my civil partnership to my partner of 21yrs so as the surgery was taking place I chatted about the day we were planning. And I felt something change, it felt tangible though you couldn’t pin point it to what, there was a shift, something you feel when someone isn’t totally comfortable with your sexuality. This can trigger your internalised homophobia, you feel slightly less and judged – you can also doubt yourself, think you’re imagining it, but when I met the surgeon again I still felt something had changed. I am a strong out lesbian, but homophobia can knock you especially when you are vulnerable. In the conference one of the speakers talked about how we have to risk assess every day about when it’s safe to come out, and that really struck a chord with me. In hindsight maybe it would’ve been easier not to have come out during surgery as then I wouldn’t have spent time worrying about what the surgeon was thinking other than making sure all the cancer was gone.

Right now I have a great network of friends, a loving family and I’m blessed with a partner, son and children that I love and who love me. I’m only 51, but what will my world look like when I’m 91? What will the NHS look like? Or will it have vanished like so many of our public services in relation to the care of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

There was lots of talk about the need for training, but I wonder given the current funding climate how this is going to happen. How will care staff be able to attend training to raise awareness of the diversity of those in their care, how will they have time to develop and grow when they are busy trying to look after so many people, when they are paid the minimum wage and not paid for travel time between the homes they visit, when they are understaffed, when they have a million and one practical things to do. How will they find the time to sit with people, to hear their stories, to find out who the people they are caring for really are, how will any of this happen in this current climate? And I suppose the answer is that we have to try and make the world we want for ourselves and our children, and children’s children. This is our world, and I have to believe we can change it, otherwise it’s too scary. A friend of mine told me last night that if we continue to follow this Coalition programme, by 2020 our Welfare State will be smaller than in America*.

We need a care system that supports and develops the skills of care workers. We need those that have a vested interest in making the provision of care profitable to know that profit shouldn’t negate care. We all need to think about what world we want for ourselves and for future generations. I want one that is generous, caring and one that ensures that the basic human rights of all are recognised and valued. I want those that are vulnerable cared for, I want care staff to be valued, I want provision of care when it’s needed, and I want a society and world that doesn’t discriminate.

This conference gave me a lot of food for thought, and the evaluation gathered so far suggests that this was the same for all that attended the day. Changing the world, one play/one project/one conference at a time.

*As Taylor-Gooby and Stoker (2011) note, however, the Coalition programme “takes the country in a new direction, rolling back the state to a level of intervention below that in the United States – something which is unprecedented”’

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.

Reflection on South Africa and the workshops for A Song To Sing

So much has happened since the previous blog it’s hard to know where to start.  I’ve just got back from South Africa, so I want to talk about that, can’t help but talk about it, and then talk about our current project, A Song To Sing and the outcome of the workshops so far and what’s next.

I went to South Africa via the Swallows Foundation, with a team of Cultural Leaders and/or art practitioners as an introduction to the country and its challenges and to reflect on the role of leadership with Culture and the Arts.  The challenges the country and its people face are many and on every level, from the government to the Municipals (councils to you and me), to the schools, communities (and I mean the black communities living in townships with limited or no access to fresh food, health care or good schools etc).  We were told of corruption, racism, violence, discrimination (including that of refugees within the country via black South Africans).  We witnessed poverty and learned that because of ‘white flight’ there is a huge skill shortage, so lack of engineers, accountants etc.

There was a lot of talk about how it’s still early days for this new country, and that with time things will get better for black South African’s.  However you could hear the frustration and feel the anger that things aren’t changing fast enough.  It’s been 18yrs since the end of Apartheid, and with every year it takes to fix the country, its a year of someone’s life, a missed opportunity to learn, access to good healthcare, to live without fear of rape and violence or to live without discrimination and racism.   The enormity of the challenges people are facing is overwhelming and one thing that really struck me was the courage and strength of the people who live there.  We were introduced to the people both past and present (black and white) who fought to make change happen, men and women, and the young people of Soweto.  People who took to the streets, faced guns, death and violence, people who stood together and said ‘no’ to inequality. People who in the face of death, sang songs that demanded the right to be free and to be treated with humanity.  We met people who, in spite of the current challenges they face from corruption and inequality are fighting still to make South Africa a country where all people have access to the quality of life that every human being has the right to have.


Our tour of South Africa was, in the main part, narrated by men, some white and some black, so, as lovely as they were, it was through their eyes that we saw the country, and I wondered what the trip would’ve been like if it was narrated by black South African women.  This isn’t to say that we didn’t hear the stories of women, the museums were a testament to the courage of many women who stood shoulder to shoulder with men to make change happen.  We also met some amazing women who are pushing forward to have their voices heard both professionally and personally.  However it’s important to remember that when someone is telling their truth it’s through their eyes, their experience, as men, women or young people, or lesbians, gay people, it’s a view point and a truth narrated from that point of view.  For example, I asked a couple of the men about ’lobola’, which is when a man wants to marry a woman he has to pay the family a price for her (I was told this was to compensate the family for the loss of their daughter as she has a key role is supporting her family to survive etc).  It was insightful that this was a common occurrence, and was communicated as something that was a cultural norm and not necessarily oppressive for women.  At the same time I was reading a book ‘African Women: Three Generations’ by Mark Mathabane.  Though, again this is a man writing, it’s the words and viewpoints of his gran, mam and sister, its narrated through their eyes and it tells a different story of lobola, one were women lack power and control because she has been paid for.  If the man decides he would like to take another wife he can, if he wants to have an affair or a mistress he can, if he wants to take the children he can, if he wants to gamble or drink rather than feed his kids he can….so there is a different view point, and one that exposes the inequalities and the oppression experienced by a cultural norm – a cultural norm where the man is the one in charge and has the power.  This is my experience of working with women over the last 14 years and a cultural norm with women across all cultures, countries and communities.


This experience of having a country narrated through men’s eyes made me think about the work of Open Clasp. We create theatre from a female gaze, so the story telling is through the eyes of the women we work with.  I believe that this is not only needed (there are still too few women in positions of power to create a balance in public decision making) but this insight is a valuable asset when we are trying to make sense of the world around us, when we are looking at inequalities e.g. gender, sexuality and/or culture.  This is what we do, and it’s essential that women’s stories, experiences and their voices, are given value and recognition. 

So this is where I’m at now, it’s that part of the project, it the writing the play part of the project.  This is when I reflect on the workshops and create a script that gives a platform to the voices of the women we have worked with, the stories that need to be told, and what we might learn if we look at the world we live in through the lens of women.  

The discussions within the workshops have highlighted two things for me; one is that gender violence and the cultural norms that support inequality and oppression of women are a running theme.  However the second area that stands out for me is, like the people of South Africa, is the courage and strength of women as a cultural norm.  I’m struck by how brave women are, the journey’s they have travelled, the strength and resilience shown, not only from their previous experiences before coming to England e.g. so rape, Female Genital Mutilation, gender violence, trafficking, slavery, but it’s also their ever present danger of that knock on the door that will lead them to prison, a plane and then quite possibly death.  Women who, in their desire and hunger for freedom, have taught themselves to read and write, to drive a car, to learn English, to move away, to get away.   Not unlike the women in South Africa, they know what freedom is, that they have a right to it and make brave a courageous steps to get it.  I think we can learn from the courage it takes to make change, and this is something I want to explore with this script and this project.

Catrina McHugh

Artistic Director and Writer