Open Clasp are a theatre company collaborating with women typically excluded by society to put bold and urgent messages on stage. Based in an open-access centre for women and girls in Newcastle, they have the ear of their community and are attune to the stories that need telling.
The theatre they create calls for revolution. The company works with women including survivors of domestic violence, homelessness, drug abuse and the prison system. Open Clasp’s plays have influenced policy, educated service providers and contributed to debates on the Prison Safety and Reform White Paper 2016.
Empowering women through theatre
The plays are conceived organically through a tried and tested methodology, honed over 25 years by director Catrina McHugh, the playwright, lead facilitator, and DNA of the company. Co-creation begins in drama workshops with women in various spaces including women’s centres, prisons and emergency accommodation hostels.
These workshops provide the foundations for each play. Using theatre skills and adopting a democratic process, women get up on their feet, have fun, play games, move around the space and take control of their narrative. Change starts here. Through the course of the workshops, a character is developed who embodies experiences the women have faced. A narrative is formed based on the landmark events of the character’s life – her trauma, her story.
Reaching audiences who need to hear
Co-creation is intrinsic to the values of the company and is encompassed in every aspect of their work. Workshop participants inform the production of each play, from set design, costume and feedback of the script.
Open Clasp’s gripping and thought-provoking productions reach a range of audiences, through live performances and digital captures. They transcend conventional theatre spaces by taking plays to those who can learn from them, such as police officers and male prisoners. The plays act as intermediaries between the real lives of women and the people who need to hear their stories to make change happen. As executive director Ellie Turner says, “We go back and ask the women, who needs to see this?”
Change occurs on three levels: by empowering women, reaching diverse audiences and instigating action within communities. “When we talk about change in the world, we talk about using theatre and art to make those transformations,” said Ellie.
Confronting issues and making change
Each play tackles a specific and relevant social issue affecting women. Rattle Snake, for example, was used to train 2,000 frontline police officers and hundreds of public health workers in coercive controlling behaviours. Lasagna, touring the UK in March 2023, will stimulate discourse about the experiences of women who have lost children to the care system.
Open Clasp use creativity to encourage people to talk and make change. Through panel discussions after performances, audiences leave the theatre with pledges to make a difference. Open Clasp co-create the future by asking women – what do you want us to do now? They include the excluded and create tangible, lasting impact.
By Hannah Story, King’s College London Cultural & Creative Industries MA.Other case studies