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Open Clasp: Celebrating 21 years of changing women’s lives through theatre

Open Clasp co-founder and artistic director Catrina McHugh with Laura Lindow, director of Key Change. Photo: Mark Savage

From the start, Open Clasp has sought to engage disenfranchised women. Co-founder and artistic director Catrina McHugh tells Tracey Sinclair how the company’s pioneering work has brought about positive change

It was drama or hairdressing. A choice made between two options on a Liverpool Youth Opportunities Programme set a young Catrina McHugh on a path that would lead to Open Clasp – the award-winning theatre group that is approaching its 21st birthday.

Named after a workshop technique used in devising the shows – which asks, ‘what would the character carry in her handbag?’ – the company has from the start centred on women and their stories. Open Clasp’s productions are created to reflect the concerns of its audience, in keeping with its aim of “changing the world, one play at a time”.

Described by The Stage associate editor Lyn Gardner as “a remarkable company working with disempowered women”, Open Clasp is based in the community it serves (its decidedly unflashy offices are in a women and girls centre in Newcastle). Since its inception in 1998, it has won a slew of awards, reached an audience of more than 100,000 people and worked with more than 100 community groups: 67% of its audiences in 2017 were those least engaged with the arts.

‘After Her Death set the company’s template, bringing the stories of women in the local community to the stage’

Co-founded by McHugh with Kathryn Mace (who is no longer with the company), Open Clasp grew out of a group project on a drama degree course in Newcastle, where McHugh was a mature student. She explains: “We had a shared talent to facilitate, a shared sense of politics, feminism and justice, and a shared sense of humour.” The play After Her Death set the template for the next 20 years, taking the stories of women in the local community and bringing them to the stage.

With a management committee that included two of the women’s tutors and Jane Tarr (now at Arts Council England) and bolstered by a £2,000 Arts Council grant and recognition from companies it has since outlasted (it was shortlisted for the Northern Gas and Electric Awards and received a grant from the Northern Rock Foundation), Open Clasp was born.

The company’s next production, Falling Knives and Runaround Wives, arose from conversations with the After Her Death audience about domestic violence.

Many of the shows have stemmed from such feedback: Stand’n’Tan came about as a response to community groups’ concerns about racism directed towards asylum seekers. But McHugh, who is the company’s writer as well as artistic director, stresses that they come to such discussions without an agenda.

“We don’t go in with an issue. We literally go in and say: ‘Let’s make a space for conversation and debate, using drama techniques to do it.’ From then onwards, the groups own it,” she says.

The company’s watershed moment came in 2015, with prison-set drama Key Change. Created with women serving at HMP Low Newton in County Durham, it initially toured male prisons, before being taken to Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of the Northern Stage at Summerhall programme. Winning the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award gave the show an Off-Broadway run, where it was a New York Times Critics’ Pick.

Key Change

Returning to England after also performing in prisons in Edinburgh and the US, the piece was staged at the Houses of Parliament to key decision-makers in criminal justice reform. A sell-out UK tour followed in 2016.

This success was a game-changer. “It gave us real confidence. We really knew we were recognised and valued,” says McHugh.

It was in the middle of this that the seeds for the company’s most recent successes were sown. Funded by the Durham Police and Crime Commissioner and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Rattle Snake was designed to train the police to better understand coercive control in relationships in the face of the change in the law that made such behaviour a crime. Initially created to train 400 frontline officers (an initiative that has since expanded), it later toured and has now been filmed to reach a wider audience.

Don’t Forget the Birds marked a departure in style. A co-production with Live Theatre (as was Rattle Snake), it explores the relationship between Cheryl Byron (one of the collaborators on Key Change) and her daughter, performed by the two women themselves.

“It’s not 100 women collectively working with one character – it’s two women’s real-life stories,” McHugh explains. “We were working in a way we’d never worked before.” The production toured in late 2018 to acclaim, winning performance of the year at the Journal and the Gazette Culture Awards.

A charity since 2003, the company remains small, with a core team of about six, a board of trustees and three patrons (Carol Tambor, North East actress Charlie Hardwick and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Erica Whyman). McHugh – who was made an MBE in 2017 for ‘outstanding services to disadvantaged women through theatre’ – has been artistic director since 2005.

Its 20th anniversary last year spurred the company to consider its legacy. In collaboration with a team at Newcastle University, it is now archiving its wealth of material. It’s a project being handled with typical thoughtfulness.

McHugh says: “Women have trusted the company with their stories. What does archiving them mean? Who will benefit from it? We have 20 years of working with marginalised women – we don’t want to just give it to a university so that people who have more opportunities gain from looking at it.”

The company is also looking forward. It hopes to do another tour of Don’t Forget the Birds and, following the success of filming Key Change (a BBC/Space commission that reached an audience of 27,000 people worldwide), it is exploring the potential of digital media.

Rattle Snake is being screened at the inaugural Words Weekend festival at Sage Gateshead this December and will be released online; Sugar, another project stemming from Open Clasp’s work with HMP Low Newton, is being developed for release next year.

But its mission remains the same – and it is doing a pretty good job of achieving it.

Christina Berriman Dawson, who was in Key Change, says: “Women’s lives will be saved as a result of the police training in Coercive Control, delivered by the Open Clasp team. The company is seeing real change happening due to its work.”

See Open Clasp’s website for more information.

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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