Monday, 29 June 2015

Changing Dramaturgy: Open Clasp @ Edfringe 2015

12.30pm daily (except Wednesdays), 8-30 August, Northern Stage at Summerhall 

What do women in prison say to a captured audience of men? Devised by women in HMP Low Newton and originally toured to male prisons, Key Change is a unique opportunity to hear their voices at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Honest, powerful, and very, very funny, Key Change is a raw and authentic portrayal of the lives of women in prison.

Directed by Laura Lindow, written by Catrina McHugh and developed through a Dilly Arts commission, Key Change was named the North East’s ‘Best Devised Piece’ by the British Theatre Guide in 2014.
The Fringe

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?

Key Change was originally commissioned by Dilly Arts, an arts development company specialising in working with prisoners and their families. 

Alison Redshaw, Director of Dilly Arts, “We devised the project with the specific aim to take the women’s stories to a male prison and a public audience with as little censorship as possible. It's the most risk-taking work we have undertaken to date and exceeded any of our expectations. Right from the start we wanted Open Clasp to come on board so we could be sure of honouring the women's words in a truthful, empathetic way which would also convey the strength, passion and humour of the women.”

Open Clasp’s work is informed by the lived experiences of marginalised women, rooted in the belief that theatre changes lives. After winning a national award for outstanding contribution to creatively raising awareness of violence against women and children, Open Clasp were commissioned by Dilly Arts on an innovative project to work in HMP Low Newton to give women in prison a voice. 

The UK has one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in Western Europe - over 50% of women in prison report having suffered domestic abuse, 1 in 3 has suffered sexual abuse and nearly 40% leave prison homeless.

Writer and Artistic Director Catrina McHugh, “These are shared theme in the lives of many of the women we work with and therefore a common focus in our work. Key Change continues and builds on this work through our unique brand of hard-hitting, thought-provoking but very funny plays which highlight the women as survivors rather than victims and honour their talent, courage and strength.”

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?
Director Laura Lindow is originally from Edinburgh, “I am so excited to be taking Key Change up to Edinburgh this year! It’s always special to take work up and out, but it does feel important to be able to offer a piece of this nature to this particular audience. 

During the making our only objective was that the women that we worked with, our collaborators, should be represented by a piece that spoke clearly, frankly and assertively to an audience of captured men. It was only in seeing the production outside the prison walls that it became apparent that the piece could and should carry their voices beyond the razor wire to bring stories too frequently ignored to the fore.”

Writer and Open Clasp Artistic Director, Catrina McHugh, “This is the first time that we have presented work at the Edinburgh Fringe and it’s absolutely brilliant to have the opportunity to take the unheard voices of some of the country’s most marginalised women to an international audience. Open Clasp is a movement of women working to bring about personal and social change by creating great theatre. 

The cast and creative team are all women theatre-makers based in the North East of England and we’re really excited about the potential for being part of a collective community through the Northern Stage programme.”

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
Director Laura Lindow, “They should expect to laugh. They should expect to be shifted. They should expect to see all shades of humanity caught up in the dynamic story of two women who are on different and yet conjoining paths. I also hope that the play informs and provokes whilst packing a raw and powerful theatrical punch.”

The Dramaturgy Questions – 
Key Change writer and Open Clasp Artistic Director, Catrina McHugh

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
I don't usually see myself as a dramaturg, as when we’re working with groups they're not making a play, they’re mimicking life for discussion. My role within the project is to then look at what they've created and to make a play/narrative. This process usually involves over 100 women, all from different groups but with voices that echo a shared experience of injustice or discrimination. 

When writing the play I generally move away from scenes and characters created during the workshops and give myself space to look for a good story and plot-line that can hold the voices of the women we’ve worked with. 

 However, in the case of Key Change I think dramaturgy played a key role as it was about bringing all the actual scenes created from the creative writing and discussions from the workshops in prison, and then weaving all this together with a narrative to help tell their stories.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
I got involved in theatre at the age of eighteen via a Youth Opportunity Programme in Liverpool, having never been involved in theatre before, other than school plays where I was one of many angels at Christmas shows. 

 It was on this scheme I met people who had a passion for theatre that brings about social change. I would say that back then my politics were naïve but as a working class young closeted lesbian from an army family my life experience was rich with conflict and contradictions, and this was the juxtaposition that ignited my passion to create theatre that shed light on the lives of those who wouldn’t ordinarily be heard.

I was fortunate enough to be awarded a job in Salford on a Youth Training Scheme; this was 1982 so not the gentrified Salford you see today. None of the young people could understand me, as my accent was really broad, and I was constantly warned not to go near the precinct as I would get ‘battered’ (this is where I learnt about the conflict between Manchester and Liverpool, via football rivalry). 

 It was in this job I met feminists and gained my feminist politics; this led me to Greenham Common. Here I met women from all over the world, as well as miners’ wives, so learned about the Miners Strike. The eighties was also the time of Clause 28 and Margaret Thatcher. Through all of this I learnt to protest and fight, and made theatre that mattered. I didn’t go to university until I was 32, where my practice met theory and I loved it, loved learning about Brecht and Feminist Theatre as it cemented what I already knew as well as developed my thinking and practice.

All of this life experience, practice and theory became the foundations for the first Open Clasp production in 1998. Open Clasp have been creating work in collaboration with women, girls and young women for the past 17 years. We work with some of the country’s most talented and skilled creative teams, directors, set designers, and most recently the fabulous Frantic Assembly. Our plays are funny as we don’t want people to get lost in sympathy, we want audiences to stay in their thinking heads and have empathy with those they see on stage, to not look at them as ‘other’ but to be able to step into their shoes; this brings about change. Open Clasp plays bring the full force of powerful voices to the stage. We represent the lives of the people we collaborate with, and that creates theatre that is totally unforgettable.

I think for those who haven’t seen Open Clasp’s work they may well dismiss our work as community/issue based theatre, thinking that women’s theatre is boring, anti-man and humourless. This isn’t Open Clasp; well not the boring, anti-man, humourless bit. We don’t apologise for collaborating with communities and we are issue-led in that all our lives are full of issues - this isn’t necessarily unique to the groups we work with - but we’re not anti-anything other than anti-discrimination and injustice.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
We always use the same methodology to create theatre, which involves meeting groups as equals, using drama techniques to create a safe space for discussion and valuing that process by creating the best theatre we can. 

Groups create characters and through this process lived experiences are shared and debated. We then create a story or plotlines to hold their voices; this is then presented back to groups for the consideration. The creative team consult with the groups throughout the rehearsal period, and a private preview is held were all groups come together to ensure the theatre created is accurate and representative.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
Our aim is for audiences to care about the characters and the stories being told. Our audiences – the people that come to see all the shows, and those who have helped created it - are part of the theatre on stage as generally everything on stage resonates with them, they can relate, they know the world they see. However I want all audience members to care, to think and to feel.

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